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Barbie dolls

Who is Barbie? 5 facts about the iconic and inspirational doll

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Born on 9th March 1959, Barbara Millicent Roberts started making waves from the day she stepped onto the scene over 60 years ago. No matter your opinion, Barbara’s influence on the modern world is undeniable. From fashion diva to inspirational feminist icon, this small-town Wisconsin girl is recognised worldwide for her undeniable brand of female empowerment. So, who is she? Well, her friends just call her Barbie.

Unveiled to the world at the American International Toy’s Fair in New York, Barbie was a groundbreaking new toy. Unlike other counterparts on the market, Barbie was not a baby doll. A young woman with a great wardrobe and the dream home to boot, she wasn’t just a new kid on the block; she was a trailblazer.

Stepping out of the traditional toy box, the new doll on the block quickly took the world by storm, but Barbie’s rise to the top of the toy charts hasn’t been without its hiccups and hangups along the way.

Here are five weird and wonderful facts about Barbie that you might not have known.

1. She landed on the Moon before Neil Armstrong

It might not come as a surprise to learn that Barbie has pursued multiple different jobs in her 60-year career span. From firefighter to McDonald’s cashier, palaeontologist, and even Canadian Mountie: there’s nothing that this doll cannot do - even going to space.

Of course, a chic, futuristic space suit and some moon boots aren’t enough for the pioneering doll; she’s been to space. In celebration of Valentina Tereshkova’s groundbreaking achievement as the first woman to fly in space in 1963, Barbie was hot on her heels, shooting off on a mission to the Moon just two years later - that’s four years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface!

Barbie made return journeys into space in 1985 and 1994, thus officially cementing her astronaut status.

2. She regularly runs for president

She’s not just made from plastic; this doll is presidential candidate material. Not content with an already out-of-this-world career, every four years, Barbie’s sights are laser-focused on something altogether more terrestrial: the presidential elections. Launched to encourage girls to take an interest in politics, a presidential Barbie has been released for each new campaign cycle since 1992.

While she has remained unsuccessful, in 2020, toymaker Mattel invested in an all-female campaign team to support the doll’s political efforts and boost her chances of a win.

3. Her origins are less than family-friendly

Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, was inspired to create Barbie after watching her daughter shun her childish dolls, opting instead to dress up and accessorise her more mature paper dolls. However, while this sweet family moment might have been the catalyst for Barbie’s creation, the origin of her design is far from family-friendly.

Based on the salacious cartoon character from a German tabloid paper, Bild Lilli was a fashion doll manufactured for nine years. The eponymous Lilli wasn’t a cartoon character designed for children but for post-war adults. Sassy, sexy, and a bit of an exhibitionist, Lilli was regularly in some form of undress, while her captions were always suggestive, and her dolls were just as provocative.

Labelled as ‘always discreet’, Bild Lilli started life as a bit of a gag gift for adult fans of her comics. Marketing campaigns encouraged boyfriends to buy them as gifts for their girlfriends. Still, despite her origin, the doll quickly became popular with children and caught the eye of American designers who borrowed heavily for the first iteration of Barbie.

4. Her designer was a little more militant

As if being styled after a promiscuous German cartoon wasn’t interesting enough, Barbie’s designer and the patent owner, Jack Ryan, didn’t have a long history in toy production. Prior to his time designing for Mattel, Ryan helped design Hawk and Sparrow missiles for Raytheon Technologies.

Ryan didn’t work exclusively on Barbie designs, either. His work could be found in childhood favourites like Hot Wheels and the pull-string doll Chatty Cathy. His career at Mattel ended sourly, however, with Ryan suing Mattel for nonpayment of the royalties due for his designs.

5. It wasn’t always Barbie and Ken

While it’s hard to imagine one without the other, the loved-up couple hasn’t always been together. Mattel announced the couple’s split publicly in 2004, with Barbie’s new beau, Blaine, taking centre stage for a while.

Of course, the star-crossed lovers were always meant to be, and in 2011 Mattel launched a campaign to get Ken and Barbie back together. The pair reunited on Valentine's Day and have been together ever since. However, the origins of the adorable couple’s names might be a cause for concern as the dolls were named after Ruth Handler’s two children.