Non-fiction, Photo books, Women's

Do You Think Barbie Is Timeless? And Do You Know Her History? Barbie Forever: Her Inspiration, History, and Legacy by Robin Gerber

Did you have a Barbie when you were growing up? I suppose most of us did, at least the ones in the West. Although at the time when I was growing up, my country wasn’t “the West” yet at all. It was just coming out of the Soviet days. But that made Barbie all the more of a miracle for me. For most girls in my generation.

So I’m going to tell you a story.

See, I had this Barbie car, which I don’t think was an actual on-brand Barbie car. It might have been a rip off, or a “made for Barbie” car. But see, the thing is… I was poor. I was a poor girl in a single parent household in a (then) third world country, scrambling to even get by. What Barbies? What new toys? Pfft. Actually, my mom did get me a Barbie, eventually, but only the one, and it was one of the less expensive ones. I didn’t care. MY BARBIE. And she had long hair.

An image of Barbie’s face, looking at you

But let’s get to the car.

Like I said… The Barbie car was something of a miracle. I wasn’t supposed to have it, at all – brand or no brand. But I was very lucky, because this new toy outlet opened up in our city. Wasn’t a normal toy shop – oh, those existed, even in our budding economy at the time – proper Mattel stuff and all, but that was not for me. I wasn’t one of the “good kids”. At that time I was painfully aware that I was “not good enough”, cause let’s face it, Barbies ARE a very privileged item to have.

Maybe not today. Although maybe today, still. It’s hard to say.

Of course, you might argue the “not good enough part”, but when you’re 6 and you can’t have new clothes or toys, you definitely think you’re just not good enough, and that’s that. Also, that’s what the other kids tell you. There are no gray areas when you’re 6. Stuff is either good, or bad. YOU’RE either good or bad. And most of the time, it has nothing to do with your own choices.

So the store that opened was an outlet where they sold all sorts of “non-sellable condition” toys from Germany. Which meant, “oh no, this box has been scratched, nobody will buy this anymore. Let’s make it cheap and cart it off to this no name country to sell.” Whatever works! I really don’t know what the Barbie car cost my mom – all I know is that nobody would have bought it for me if it cost a significant amount! And I don’t even remember anything being wrong with it! Maybe a little defect. Maybe the door didn’t open without being nudged (big wow. Our apartment door didn’t open without being nudget in those days xD)

Anyway, all I know is that Barbie car… That Barbie car was MY DREAM. It had EVERYTHING. EEEEEEEVERYTHING. E-VE-RY-THING.

An image of Barbie’s silhouette, standing in bright red lights, seemingly on stage and projecting a happy, triumphant emotion

It even had three pairs of Barbie shoes T_T those were so rare, you couldn’t buy them out of a set in those days. I think I might have cried when I saw those shoes xD it also had lunch sets, bottles… a trunk that actually opened and folded itself out. I think a cake box? Man, I know I’m over 30, but… I WANT MY BARBIE CAR BACK!!! (I was an eco-conscious kid. I gave it away to a younger acquaintance. It’s in a landfill now, for all I know T_T)

On a tangent, another thing I think I learned in those days was what a bargain was. How good it was to not feel guilty over owning something nice. Because it didn’t cost an arm and a leg for your parents, so you can play with it without guilt. But that’s a topic for another day.

But anyway, all of this reminiscing was just to give you an idea how big a part of my childhood Barbie was. I think it might have been so for many of the girls in my generation. Not sure about today – we didn’t have smartphones. In my country, not many kids even had game consoles. So make believe was a big part of childhood. Barbies among girls could even be a status symbol of a sort – it was wild. So when I saw this book on NetGalley… I knew I had to request it. And it was such a great journey, remembering it all. Yeah, sure I didn’t have many Barbies, but I was interested in them, like many girls. I knew what types existed, I knew which ones I wanted. I knew Barbie had a long history, but without the internet… I couldn’t learn about it. And then I grew up. And then I forgot.

Cue Barbie Forever!

Barbie Forever: Her Inspiration, History, and Legacy by Robin Gerber

Check out on Goodreads
★★★★☆ 4 stars

The book really helped me go back to my childhood. More than that, it was so interesting to see how Barbie was invented, what the first models looked like, what her fashions looked like. The fashions especially! Oh god, this book is full of the most stylish and amazing Barbie designs ever. It reminded me how I used to make clothes for my Barbie along with my mom myself. (I think those are the only Barbie things I might have kept!) The book has a lot of one-page or two-page photos – of Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, of the first designs and clothes, the first ads, and just all sorts of special, incredibly gorgeous Barbies. And not just Barbies – it also has a lot of early Mattel toy sketches as they were being made. I looooooved the photos so much. And I tell you, there are photos in pretty much every page. Like 99% of the pages. The 1% reserved for me forgetting, cause I’m pretty sure it was on every page!

Barbie Forever really concentrates on diversity and how Barbie supports it right now. However, I felt that that wasn’t always the case – this is not apparent in the book. It paints the picture of Black, Latina and Asian Barbies available, well, pretty much always – except I’m pretty sure they’ve surfaced in the numbers only very recently. Yes, there might have been diverse Barbies in the 1980s, but were they very popular? Were they sold broadly? I doubt it.

I loved this book’s focus on the diversity and the way Barbie’s body tries to move towards a better, more inclusive body image right now, and that’s great! Barbie has made progress.

But why do I remember how I hated my curly hair because that wasn’t “normal”? Because I didn’t have blue eyes? Why have I never in my life seen a non-blonde, non-straight-haired, perfect-figured Barbie played with?

Perhaps those were the problems of the 90s. But they are not even mentioned.

However, I am happy, looking at the photos now. Knowing that if I was growing up now, I could find a petite, curly haired Barbie sold. And think I was normal.

A little too late, maybe, but better late than never! I would have liked to see this talked about in the book. But for some reason, maybe they couldn’t. Really, that’s the only bone to pick I had to pick with this book! I loved everything else.

An image of a collection of Barbies, and the one in the front is a Barbie in a wheelchair

The history of Barbie was also really interesting. Apparently, before Barbie, girls were encouraged to play with baby dolls (and grow up to be mothers), but they had no way to see themselves grown up (or in any other role, apart from mothers.) I didn’t even know that! That’s one thing Barbie changed.

(Funnily enough, men almost shut down the idea completely, saying that mothers won’t buy their daughters a doll with breasts. Because OF COURSE they did.)

As smart as the marketing technique was of making Barbie a “teen-age fashion model”, I fear that is exactly what raised quite a few generations of women who thought that modelling is the absolute greatest life for a woman (which, as it appears, is a very hard and unhealthy industry to be in for a lot of young women.) I’m pretty sure Barbie is also responsible for a lot of girls’ self-image problems. But disregarding all that, it also allowed girls to see themselves as future grown-up women with more opportunities and jobs than just being a mother, as in a pre-Barbie world. And that’s something this book really tried to accentuate.

How #Barbie was almost shut down as a toy idea because 'moms won't buy a doll with boobs' and some reminiscing about childhood + a book about Barbie! Click To Tweet

Overall...

All in all, I really loved reading Barbie Forever. It wasn’t just a journey into my own past – it was also an enriching experience, mostly due to the amazing, detailed and super good quality photos in the book. If you’re a fan of Barbie or if you at least remember her fondly from your younger days, this is a great book to delve into. I’d even say it’s a great coffee table accessory! I really enjoyed it.

I thank the publisher for giving me a free copy of the ebook for review. This has not affected my opinion.

Were you a fan of Barbie dolls in your childhood? Perhaps you still are? Do you think Barbie made a big impact? And do you think that it could have done better, in some regards?

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Paul Liadis
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This is really interesting. My mom had (and still has) one of the original Barbies. I guess hers came with two heads (so you could change hairstyles) but the original head was lost when her house flooded.

Just yesterday, I went to a talk here from a woman who works with companies to be more socially responsible and she worked on the most recent change to Barbie as mentioned in this article: https://time.com/barbie-new-body-cover-story/

My daughter is 13 now so her Barbie Dreamhouse is mostly just used by our cats 🙂

susan
Guest

I gotta tell you. This is the second time I’m saying this on a post today- two completely different types of post.

I simultaneously feel seen, validated and attacked by this post.

I feel seen because. Thank you.

I feel validated because social constructs.

I feel attacked because— I played with barbie and I kinda can’t imagine not letting my child, that I don’t and won’t ever have, not playing with Barbie.

And that is completely contradictory of every possible statement of everything.

Victoria Grace Howell
Guest

This is such a neat story! I adored Barbies when I was a kid and have lots of fond memories with them!