Barbie, the first live-action movie version of the beloved Mattel toy, seems to have painted the entire world with rose-colored glasses. Or at least all the stops on its lavish press tour. Released in theatres on July 21, director Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated satirical fantasy comedy stars Margot Robbie as the titular character and Ryan Gosling as Ken.
In a classic fish-out-of-water story, Barbie suffers an existential crisis. As she questions her purpose in Barbieland—a matriarchal society run by successful and confident females—she embarks on a journey of self-discovery in the real world.
Much like the brand’s fans and dolls, the movie’s cast includes actors of all genders, sexual orientations, and ages. Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Alexandra Shipp, Kingsley Ben-Adir, America Ferrera, Simu Liu, Will Ferrell, Helen Mirren, and Rhea Perlman all appear.
A Star Is Born
Manufactured by Mattel, which Ruth Handler co-founded with her husband, the first Barbie was released on March 9, 1959, one day before International Women’s Day. Sporting a chic black-and-white striped swimsuit and cat-eyed sunglasses, Handler ensured that the original doll reflected the style and glamour of the times.
“Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” said the working mom of two. Barbie was named after her daughter Barbara and Ken after her son Kenneth.
More Than Just A Pretty Face
Barbies are now available in 35 skin tones, nearly 100 different hairstyles, and a range of body types from petite to curvy. She has evolved beyond the blonde-haired blue-eyed bombshell to become “the most diverse doll line” on the market. Still, as Eliana Dockterman wrote in the 2016 TIME article, “Barbie’s Got a New Body,” “She’s been the global symbol of a certain kind of American beauty for generations.”
Throughout its history, even early on, the Barbie brand has made impressive efforts to diversify her appearance and add depth to her character. For example, in 1965 Barbie joined the workforce as an astronaut where she travelled to outer space. She’s since had more than 250 careers including surgeon, video game developer, CEO, firefighter, computer engineer, and presidential candidate.
Barbie’s Most Pink Collections
In 2018, Mattel commissioned an online survey of mothers around the world and found that 81 percent “worried about the type of role models their daughters are exposed to.” These results prompted the launch of the social media campaign #MoreRoleModels. The company also announced The Inspiring Women Series, which pays tribute to real-life heroines in history.
Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, and Katherine Johnson were the original three dolls in the collection. Mattel states that the line “pays tribute to incredible heroines of their time; courageous women who took risks, changed rules and paved the way for generations of girls to dream bigger than ever before.”
Barbie’s umbrella includes many other inclusive and important collections such as the Shero program, which launched in 2015. This ever-growing line of dolls features real-life contemporary role models from around the world. It includes African-American ballet dancer Misty Copeland, Australian conservationist Bindi Irwin, and many more.
”Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” Handler told The New York Times in 1977.
Here are 10 inspiring Barbies that remind us to not just reach for the stars, but for the moon!
Dr. Maya Angelou
President Obama presented Angelou with the Medal of Freedom in 2010 for her civil rights advocacy and “mastery of a range of art forms.” An accessory of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes with the toy. The doll even includes a small gap between her two front teeth. Angelou’s Barbie was released in January 2021 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Coleman was the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn her pilot’s license in the United States. She was nicknamed “Brave Bessie” among other monikers for her daring flying tricks. She died at the age of 34 in a tragic plane crash. Coleman’s Barbie was released in January 2023 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Dubbed the “First Lady of Song” and the “Queen of Jazz,” the talented vocalist’s career thrived during the 1950s and 1960s. Her doll features a curvy body type and a beautiful era-specific updo. She also comes with a vintage-style microphone stand. Fitzgerald’s Barbie was released in February 2020 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Johnson was a child prodigy who started high school at the age of 10. She went on to become a mathematician for NASA and the lead character played by Taraji P. Henson in 2016’s Hidden Figures. According to the product details, “Her flawless calculations helped ensure that the Apollo astronauts landed and returned safely from their voyage to the moon.” Johnson’s Barbie was released in March 2018 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955. Hailed as “The Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” the doll’s product details state that her “quiet strength played a notable role in the civil rights movement.” Parks’ Barbie was released in August 2019 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Madame C.J. Walker
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Both her parents were former slaves. Still, she became the first documented self-made female millionaire in the United States for the creation of “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” A small jar of the product is included with the doll as an accessory. Walker’s Barbie was released in August 2022 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Ida B. Wells
Although Wells was born into slavery in 1862 she became a successful journalist who used her writing to advocate for civil rights and women’s suffrage. She was a co-founder of the NAACP and part-owner of The Memphis Free Speech. Her doll comes with a newspaper as an accessory. Wells’ Barbie was released in January 2022 as part of The Inspiring Women Series.
Cox is a four-time Emmy-nominated actress who became the first transgender person to be nominated in an acting category for her role in Orange Is the New Black. “I can’t wait for fans to find my doll on shelves and have the opportunity to add a Barbie doll modeled after a transgender person to their collection,” said the LGBT advocate in a statement. Cox’s Barbie was released in May 2022 as part of the Tribute Collection.
Muhammad was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2016. She is best known for being the first American Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing at the 2016 Olympic Games where she won a bronze medal in fencing. Muhammad’s Barbie was released in November 2017 as part of the Shero program.
Barbie doll with Down syndrome
Barbie made history with the debut of its first-ever doll with Down syndrome. The company worked closely with the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) to ensure accurate representation. For example, the toy includes several subtle but significant details such as the incorporation of butterflies throughout her ensemble, which are a symbol of the chromosomal condition. Barbie doll with Down syndrome was released in April 2023 as part of the Fashionistas line. The collection champions diversity and includes dolls with vitiligo, wheelchairs, prosthetic legs, freckles, diabetes, and alopecia.
Featured image credit: Photo courtesy of Mattel.