Barbie is 50. And considering all the things that girl has been through, it’s amazing she made it. Over half a century, Barbie has reflected changing times and tastes, had more than 100 careers and the most fabulous clothes. And she may be just what we need right now.
Love her or hate her, Barbie is an undisputed icon, sometimes praised for her sense of fashion, sometimes vilified for being anti-feminist and creating an unrealistic ideal of beauty. The stock price of the world’s largest toy company goes up and down on her fate. That’s a lot for those little plastic shoulders to carry; yet she does. Like Shakespeare’s Henry V, Barbie has been saddled with the fears, anxieties, unresolved issues of adults. Blame her, and it’s easy to absolve oneself for responsibility for one’s own disappointments.
But if we’re honest, Barbie is a toy, a few ounces of inert polyvinylchloride, and a toy only has life in the imaginations of the children (or adults) interacting with it.
So, as Barbie passes the half-century mark, let’s abjure blame and celebrate the limitless possibility that is her true essence—and the essential power of play. In observing hundreds girls over the past decades, it’s always the imagination that drives play; the toy is almost irrelevant, but it reflects what adults and the culture model for them.
We have watched as Barbie, her hair crudely lopped, her face smeared with ballpoint ink “make-up,” has still been the princess, the glamorous teen, the best friend. Barbie has been that first canvas on which children paint their hopes and dreams, when they begin the process of trying on identities and creating their realities. For all the millions of Barbies sold, each is unique because no two girls bring them to life the same way.
We see many children who happily “play Barbies” every day. We talk to many grown women who have nothing but fond memories of her. Consistently these adults have a wonderful sense of life, imagination and appreciation for the world around them. These are important skills indeed. Play prepares us to take on the world, and how we deal with adulthood, in part, is the direct outgrowth of how we’ve learned to play. Can we discard what doesn’t work and look for new possibilities?
These are harsh times. Our leaders are trying to imagine new realities to deal with them. Call it what you will, but that is play in its purest form. We can only make choices and see where they take us. We make it up as we go along, hope for the best and adapt as needed. Forget the dresses and tiaras, that’s the essential lesson Barbie teaches all of us, and why I hope for at least 50 more years from her.
Christopher Byrne is a 30-year veteran of the toy industry and content director for the consumer web site TTPM.com.