Barbie is the hot pink line between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’

Barbie is the hot pink line between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’


My daughter was given a Barbie doll recently, and I eyed it warily. Something primal rose in me, and I wanted to chop off her hair and see if she could do the splits. I’d never been allowed one; my parents thought she promoted a negative body image. But there was another part of me, the small child who’d always wanted one, who was captivated by this anatomically impossible, ageless, plastic fantastic woman.

As we prepare for Greta Gerwig’s subversive Barbie film, set to be released in July, and with fashion magazines breathlessly telling us that pink is so hot right now, it’s time to talk about the doll that launched a gazillion-dollar empire.

Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie in the upcoming Barbie film.Credit:AP

Barbie, or Barbara Millicent Roberts made her first appearance on March 9, 1959, at the International Toy Fair in New York (March 9 is also her official birthday). She was originally marketed to adults, but it quickly became apparent that kids loved her.

Barbie is getting inclusive these days, and hooray for that. Now there are Barbies with a hearing aid, a prosthetic limb, a wheelchair, the skin condition vitiligo, a hijab-wearing doll in honour of Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, and new body types including petite, tall and curvy. There’s an inspiring woman range featuring our very own Julie Bishop getting Barbiefied (when are we getting Julia Gillard Barbie!?).

There’s even “career” Barbie, declaring “You can be anything!” (chef, doctor, professional gymnast; noticeably absent is a stay-at-home mum with vomit on her shirt). The insistence that Barbie retains her tiny feminine figure makes police Barbie look like she’s wearing a naughty outfit (don’t worry, it also comes with a ballgown for when Barbie is honoured at the Police Awards Ball).

Every minute, more than 100 Barbies are sold around the world. What hasn’t been measured, is the likelihood that every 10 seconds, a Barbie doll has an unscheduled haircut and is shaped into various compromising positions.

Julie Bishop was honoured with a one-off Barbie doll in her likeness in 2021.Credit:Russell James

When I was young, we visited some cousins I didn’t know very well. They lived in a mansion and had a pool and a Nintendo – my very own ’90s dream home. One cousin, a girl around my age, had a playroom packed with Barbies, like a Mattel showroom. Every manifestation of ’90s Barbie was there: caravan Barbie, horse Barbie and roller-skating Barbie with all her dream houses and fancy cars. My cousin got bored of them quickly and tossed them aside. Perhaps that’s when she would get a new one.

To me, no matter how you dress her up, Barbie still represents the excesses of capitalism. She is the hot pink line between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. I looked at my wealthy cousin’s Barbie playroom in awe and felt deficient. Barbie, like my cousin, had everything she could possibly want. Her modus operandi is consumption; from the outfits to the accessories to the houses. She was and is a status symbol. The doll that Mum once bought me as a consolation for not having Mattel-brand Barbie wasn’t the same. It was like having your lunchbox packed with Coles brand roll-ups.

The social status of certain toys changes over time. When my kids were babies, it was all wooden Montessori toys that cost half a year’s tuition in Montessori fees. They are marketed to calm Instagram mothers who dress their children in beige and are fully aware of the environmental impact of plastic toys.

I have no idea whether my daughter, as she gets older, will fall under the same Barbie spell that I did many years ago. It will probably be the next well-marketed lifestyle toy that appeals to parents as much as it does to kids. Barbie, on the other hand, still looms large in my imagination, prompting all sorts of feelings I really should unpack with a psychologist. I’m hoping Gerwig’s new film will be therapeutic.

Happy birthday, Barbara Millicent Roberts; it’s time for your haircut.

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