Happy Birthday, Barbie

On March 9, Barbie officially turned 51. Barbie is not the only toy brand to achieve this milestone—Play-Doh, Mr. Potato Head, Etch-A-Sketch, Erector Sets, Tinkertoy, LEGO and many others have demonstrated their ability to stand the test of time. What makes a toy brand last is that it becomes new for each generation that encounters it. Heck, it becomes new for each child that encounters it.

What makes Barbie so different, however, is the personal relationship everyone who plays with—or knows about—Barbie has. Perhaps it’s because the toy is a doll, and the essence of doll play is the projection of imagination on the doll. Love her (as most people do) or hate her, few people who choose to engage are neutral about Barbie.

Over the years, Barbie’s little plastic shoulders have had to carry a lot—and not just Mattel’s stock price. Barbie has been adored and idolized and loathed and derided. At the end of the day, however, that always says more about the person reacting than the inert lump of (mostly) polyvinylchloride that is Barbie, when completely deconstructed.

There has never been a doll that has so fully had to bear the projections of millions and millions of girls, women and a culture as a whole. Because that’s what it is. When someone looks at Barbie, what they see is what lives in their imaginations, not in the doll. That’s common with any kind of toy or play, but with Barbie the impact is magnified exponentially because she’s lasted five decades and touched millions upon millions of lives.

Fortunately, despite the volume of complaints sometimes and the “blaming” of Barbie for all kinds of things, naysayers have very little power when it comes down to the level of play. Good or bad, it’s a tribute to how powerful the brand is that the slightest change in her triggers headlines across the planet. However, the little girls engrossed in Barbie play are deaf to this, focusing more on their immediate experiences than the noise in the culture. And it’s obvious that the vast majority of Barbie experiences have been positive. If they were not our free market would have shoved her off the stage years ago. It’s a tribute to the folks of Mattel who have kept evolving the doll over the years that she still speaks to girls today. Barbie in 1959 and Barbie in 2010 are hardly same doll. The history of Barbie has followed the history of women, and while she was originally a fashion model as well as a cool teen with dreams of the prom and marriage, today she’s on her 125th and 126th careers and reflects the dreams of kids at all ages (Barbie in a Mermaid’s Tale to the amazing Christian Louboutin collector Barbie.) It’s also a reinforcement of the elemental human need to play with dolls (or action figures for boys) as the part of play that allows children to locate themselves in the culture and express themselves.

The ability to envision a reality in the imagination is the first step to creating it in the world. Despite her place as a cultural icon, every Barbie experience is individual and unique to the person playing with her. Indeed, I get to hear from many, many people about their Barbie experiences, and while they may have similarities (For instance, the reissue of Superstar Barbie in honor of her birthday has triggered a flood of email and memories from women who had the original when they were kids.), they are unique to the individual.

That, perhaps, is Barbie’s greatest gift to us. She is both unifying allowing for shared experiences and commonality across the culture and unique. While girls and women (mostly) can share their Barbie experiences, it is still their own. Name another toy that has created so many opportunities for connection between people while fostering individuality? I don’t think you can.

Whatever you think of Barbie, it is not the doll, but the insight into yourself that is important. That’s the power of play in helping us to define, express and locate ourselves in our world. That, indeed, is a powerful toy—as powerful as each of us are in creating our own lives.

So, here’s hoping that Barbie has another 50 years. It would be fun to see how today’s kids respond to their grandchildren’s Barbies. One thing’s for sure, no matter how much the doll will change to reflect the world around her, one thing will always be constant: It’s the unique experience she inspires and not the appearance of the doll that gives her longevity and lasting value. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad lesson for our kids today, either.

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