We’re not going to analyse the movie but look at the entertaining history of the two dolls that inspired it: Barbie and Ken—and their complex relationship. For more on the movie, check out our reading list:)
Barbie: The origin story
The creator: Barbie was the brainchild of a woman we would today call a ‘boss girl’. Ruth Handler was the first president of Mattel Toys—which she co-founded with her husband, Elliot Handler, in 1945. She had a moment of epiphany as she watched her daughter play with paper dolls—that “were built like children and would have looked ‘ludicrous’ in a prom dress.” In her memoir, Handler wrote:
I discovered something very important. They were using these dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take that play pattern and three-dimensionalize it?
The ‘adult’ Barbie: was named after Handler’s daughter, Barbara—but inspired by “a saucy high-end call girl named Lilli”—who was popular in Germany:
First created as a comic-strip character in the Hamburg newspaper Bild-Zeitung, the Bild Lilli doll became so popular that she was immortalised in plastic — and sold as an adult novelty, according to Robin Gerber, the author of Barbie and Ruth.
“Lilli dolls could be bought in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores,” Gerber writes. “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.”
Lilli caught the eye of Handler and her daughter on a vacation in Switzerland in 1956. In 1959, Mattel rolled out a sanitised version called Barbie in the United States.
Barbie’s bod: Her proportions were deliberately sexy like Lilli’s—which was scandalous for post-World War America. But it also reflected Handler’s skewed vision of female adulthood:
“Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” she said in a 1977 interview, as quoted in the obituary. “If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts.”
Also this: "Little girls dream of being curvaceous, dreamy, exciting. They want—some day—to have gorgeous clothes, be chic, and look like movie stars." You can see Barbie in her first stylish swimsuit below:
Complicating matters: Handler’s identity as the child of Jewish immigrant parents—who had fled to America from Europe. According to at least one documentary on her life, Barbie represented a triumph in assimilation: “Ruth brought this Aryan ideal of beauty and achieved the American dream.” (Robert Oppenheimer was also the child of Jewish parents—which makes the simultaneous release of the two movies an odd but appropriate coincidence).
Ahead of her times: Critics have rightly focused on Barbie’s impossible ideal of feminine beauty—and its damaging effects on girls’ self-esteem. But Mattel was also a pioneer in a number of ways:
- Barbie bought her own Dreamhouse in 1962—because she was always a ‘career girl’. Within the first decade, she had worked as a fashion designer, air stewardess, nurse, ballerina, tennis player and astronaut.
- The company introduced a Black doll named Christie in 1968—at the peak of the civil rights movement. The first Black Barbie was rolled out in 1980. Her box read: “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!”
- She was wearing a corporate power suit (in pink, ofc) by 1982—and was running for president in 1992 (though she still hated math).
Up next: All about Ken
Weirdly enough, Barbie’s boyfriend—who was introduced in 1961 to reflect her ‘adult’ status—was named after Handler’s son. Poor Ken didn’t have much of a wardrobe unlike his gal: “He was available in two styles—blond or brunette hair, made of hard plastic—and came dressed in very short red swim trunks.” He was also deficient in any hint of genitalia—or high-achieving career:
Ken has held nearly forty jobs in his sixty-two years: astronaut, hamburger chef, country western singer, and lifeguard, to name a few. His most common occupation? Twelve Kens have held the not-so-flattering job title of “beach bum.” Perhaps, Ken’s questionable employment is why he has never had a Dream House of his own. He did finally get his own car in 2012: a red Mini Cooper with a set of vanity “Ken” license plates.
Ken’s evolution was shaped not by the aspirations of little boys—but contemporary stereotypes about ‘Mr Right’:
In the 1960s, Ken was the clean-cut college sweetheart of the American teen scene. The preoccupation with coolness and counterculture of the 1970s shines through with his superstar and surfer looks. In the 1980s he morphed into the teen heartthrob , reflecting the conservativism of the Republican era. And in his retro and Baywatch styling, the preoccupation with nostalgia, television and film in the 1990s could be seen.
The most controversial Ken: was released in 1993—because he wore (shock & horror) a earring on his left ear—which was seen as a way to signal your gayness. Even more mortifying for Mattel, a well-known gay columnist pointed to Ken’s necklace, a circular chrome pendant hanging from a silver chain. [Dan] Savage wrote that the necklace ‘is what ten out of ten people in-the-know will tell you at a glance is a c*** ring’.” Mattel hastily canned Earring Magic Ken soon after. You can see him below:
The ‘relationship’: Ken’s relationship with Barbie has always been a bit lopsided. The two of them broke up in 2004—because both needed “to spend some quality time apart.” While Mattel hinted it that Ken wouldn’t ‘put a ring on it’, the breakup was Barbie’s idea—and she soon found comfort in the arms of surfer boy named Blaine:
Ken, heartbroken, travelled the world in search of himself, making stops in Europe and the Middle East, dabbling in Buddhism and Catholicism, teaching himself to cook and slowly weaning himself off a beach bum life.
The reunion: Ken was brought back as a rekindled old flame to rescue Barbie’s plummeting popularity in 2006. She had been sidelined by the far sexier and cooler Bratz dolls. FYI: the new Ken was better-looking and -dressed: “It's Matthew McConaughey meets Orlando Bloom.” And they have remained together ever since—never marrying or having kids.
Point to note: The plastic Ken was nothing like his real–life counterpart—who “played the piano and went to movies with subtitles. I was a nerd—a real nerd… All the girls thought I was a jerk.”
Quote to note: Here’s why Ryan Gosling—the movie avatar of Ken—took the role:
His daughters play with Barbies and Ken, sort of. “I did see him, like, face down in the mud outside one day, next to a squished lemon,” Gosling says, “and it was like, This guy’s story does need to be told, you know?”
Gosling was also mad at fans who claimed he was too old to play the character, raging:
[T]his is a guy whose job is beach. And everyone was fine with that, for him to have a job that is nothing. But suddenly, it’s like, ‘No, we’ve cared about Ken this whole time.’ No, you didn’t. You never did. If you ever really cared about Ken, you would know that nobody cared about Ken. So your hypocrisy is exposed. This is why his story must be told.”
Of course, such outrage on behalf of a plastic doll from a male Hollywood actor is deliciously ironic in an industry that has long punished women stars for ‘being too old’.
Irony alert: Critics are now raving about Gosling’s performance—claiming that his Ken “stole Barbie’s thunder”: “He is a movie star, in irresistible mode, playing a role he has been practising for his entire life. No one else in ‘Barbie’ stood a chance.”
The bottomline: Now that ‘Barbie’ is a bona fide blockbuster, the one sitting the prettiest in pink is Mattel. The movie has pulled off what the company has struggled for decades to achieve: to make Barbie relevant. No wonder, company execs are already gloating: "Many people are agreeing that this will be the cultural event of the summer, if not the year. Barbie has never been more relevant. We are the #1 doll property in the world."
Just look at these South Korean girls going crazy over a very blond, very white Margot Robbie:
Shabash, Greta Gerwig!
- Business Insider, Harper’s Bazaar and Smithsonian have more on Barbie’s history—while Esquire introduces us to her creator Ruth Handler.
- For more on Ken’s history, read TIME, CNN and The Conversation.
- It’s not about the doll but how girls play with her. Vox, The Cut and Daily Beast look at all the strange, often mean and sometimes sexual ways girls treat their Barbies.
- For high praise of the movie and its feminist message, read the New Yorker and The Guardian.
- Jessica Defino offers the best takedown of its ‘beauty’ politics in her newsletter.
- Andi Ziesler in the New York Times strikes a middle ground.
- The Times UK (paywall) and Slate gush over Gosling’s career and performance.
- New York Times’ (splainer gift link) conversation with Greta Gerwig is worth your time.
- Variety looks at why Mattel waited a long time before making this movie.
- For more: check out LongReads’ Barbenheimer reading list.