Barbie, the iconic doll and children’s toy, turns 60 on March 9, 2019, though from her ageless complexion, you’d never know the decades she’s seen. Before you visit Barbie at the David Levinthal: Barbie & Baseball focus exhibition, on view for free in our Early American Art Gallery, take some time to get to know her and her journey.
In 1945, Ruth and Elliot Handler created the toy company Mattel, Inc. Almost 15 years later, on March 9, 1959, Barbara Millicent Roberts, who we now know only as Barbie, was officially introduced to the world at the American Toy Fair in New York City. The first few Barbies reflected the flashy and alluring styles of 1950s movie stars, like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
Barbie eventually became her own persona. She developed quite the resume over the years beginning in 1965 when she went to the moon (even before Neil Armstrong). Throughout her career, Barbie has also run for president, worked as a doctor, and become a computer engineer, among many other careers. But, Barbie has also had a long and controversial history of the beauty standards she represents for her target audience: young girls. She represented overly thin, white, and blonde beauty standards; in other words, limited and unrealistic beauty standards for children to ascribe to.
Over the last few decades, numerous artists have depicted Barbies in their artworks. Famous for his depiction of popular culture items, Andy Warhol’s Portrait of BillyBoy* shows jewelry designer and friend Billy Boy as a Barbie, because he did not want Warhol to paint his portrait. Warhol went on to design two Barbies, having been known to own hundreds of them, and is largely accepted as a major reason why people began collecting Barbies.
Artist David Levinthal is known for his photographs of dolls and toys staged like real-life photographs. In these photographs, he explores topics of racism, sexism, and politics. In his series Barbie (1997-1998), Levinthal photographs Barbies as if they were models in order to spark discussion about how women have been objectified, especially in the post-war era. He adheres to traditional beauty standards of the time and dresses them in cosmopolitan and trendy clothing mirroring traditional model portraits of women found in magazines and fashion catalogs.
Since the 1980s, Barbie has increasingly become more diverse. In response to the criticism of unrealistic and limited beauty standards, Mattel Inc. began to expand Barbie’s look to better fit America’s demographics. In 1980, the first African American and Latina Barbies were created, and since then, 40 more international Barbies have been released. Barbie’s story is now a more truthful representation of the diversity of the world.
Happy birthday, Barbie Millicent Roberts – 60 looks good on you!
This post was written by Rebecca Gilliland, Interpretations Intern.