Barbie: The Impact of a Doll
The history of Barbie and the influence she has on those who played with her
Written by Lainey Novak
Summer 2023 was a Barbie summer. With the release of the critically acclaimed film, it wasn’t uncommon to see hordes of people clad in their best Barbie pinks and fuchsias scrambling to see the hit movie.
With a PG-13 rating, the film’s target demographic was not children. Rather, theaters filled with nostalgic adults clamoring to see their favorite 11.5-inch fashionista. So, why do adults care so much about this plastic woman?
In 1959, Mattel’s co-founder Ruth Handler debuted the original Barbie doll at the New York Toy Fair. Handler wanted to create a doll for young girls that was based on an adult woman. Previously, young girls only had access to baby dolls. They could only envision themselves as mothers and homemakers — unlike boys, who could imagine themselves as cowboys or doctors or astronauts. With the introduction of Barbie, girls could now imagine they were grown-up women with careers.
The creation of Barbie did not come without controversy. Her body has been under never-ending scrutiny since her release. Male executives at Mattel felt her mature body shape was overtly sexual. In Barbie’s 64 years, the discussion of her unattainable body structure has never ceased. In the film, they tackle this issue by simply stating that at the end of the day Barbie is a doll — she’s not supposed to have human proportions.
Nevertheless, children haven’t stopped playing with Barbie, and her impact often follows into adulthood. Barbie means something different to everyone who played with her.
As a child, I was Barbie-obsessed. I had bins filled with dolls and accessories, not to mention the towering dream houses and luxury plastic vehicles. I had hand-me-down dolls from every Barbie era and I cherished them. I was particular about how I played with my dolls, and I only did it alone.
I spoke to CSU students who felt connected to Barbie from a young age. “I would line all the houses up in a big circle connected to the train table which had fake grass so that it would be their backyard,” said Lauren Schwan, 21. “I remember I had a favorite doll named Tori.”
The ways children interact with their toys are called play patterns, and with Barbie, the possibilities always seemed endless. Schwan said, “I had elaborate stories with many characters and I thought of plots and sets.”
“I would make my dolls talk to one another or learn from each other,” said Olivija Tatarunas, 22.
Julia Bongers, 20, said, “My Barbies were often naked and the heads were sometimes ripped off. Weird Barbie-core.” This is a callback to Kate McKinnon’s character, “Weird Barbie,” who has been played with too hard. The famous comedian is constantly bent into the splits, with choppy hair and marker on her face.
"Barbie showed me how to create stories; she taught me how to be a writer. I wouldn’t be who I am today without her."
The film highlighted some discontinued dolls and toys, like “Happy Family Pregnant Midge,” which was swiped off the shelves quickly because critics felt it promoted teen pregnancy. “Sugar Daddy Ken” , which came with a tiny dog named Sugar, was discontinued for obvious reasons, although Mattel argued that Ken was simply Sugar’s daddy. Much of the film directs the spotlight on Allan, Ken’s discontinued best friend. Allan is one of the unspoken heroes of the movie, and the best part is … All of Ken’s clothes fit him!
“I had completely forgot about Skipper and the dog that pooped, but I remembered playing with them when I was younger,” said Lyndsey Campeau, 21, referring to the also-discontinued “Walk and Potty Pup,” which pooped and then ingested its poop to continue the cycle.
Adults seeing the Barbie movie dove back into their childhoods. Director Greta Gerwig creates a world straight out of our childhood bedrooms. “[The Barbie Movie] made me feel close to my childhood self and think about how she would view me today. I think she’d be proud of me!” said Schwan.
I saw the Barbie movie alone on its release day. I put on my best pink clothes, purchased my souvenir cup and sat in between strangers. I cried and laughed surrounded by a theater seemingly filled with only women. There was a sisterhood in that theater — shared experiences of unknown people. The nostalgia was palpable.
“The Barbie movie brought back a lot of memories of playing with my toys when I was a kid,” said Lyndsey Campeau, 21, “and made me miss the simplicity of being able to tell stories through my Barbie dolls.”
I agree with Lauren Schwan:
I think Barbie would be proud of us. Barbie has become a pillar of pop culture. She is recognizable across the world and means something different to everyone. Barbie promotes creativity in those who play with her and gives them the confidence to dream big.
As I got older, I realized what an impact Barbie had made on my life. I look back on a tiny me, scrunched up on the carpet floor, creating worlds out of plastic. Barbie showed me how to create stories; she taught me how to be a writer. I wouldn’t be who I am today without her.