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Barbie and the American Dream

Two girls, smiling and perched on an ottoman, play with a Barbie doll.
Ruth Handler Papers

Sixty-four years after her creation, Barbie still continues to capture the imagination. In this Q and A, Schlesinger Library Faculty Director Jane Kamensky opines on Barbie in the context of history and the archives.

Author By Sam Zuniga-Levy and Ivelisse Estrada Published 07.21.2023 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

One would think that after 64 years Barbie’s star might have faded. Instead, the famed doll—created by the American businesswoman Ruth Handler, whose papers are housed in Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library—is riding higher than ever, as the movie Barbie, which opened today, has taken the internet by storm. For insight on the doll’s popularity, we spoke with Jane Kamensky, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Here, Kamensky provides archival and historical context—along with some personal “Barbieana.”

Harvard Radcliffe Institute: How did acquiring the Ruth Handler Papers fit in with the broader goals of the Schlesinger Library?

Jane Kamensky: The key criterion for our acquisitions is research significance: what kinds of histories and other stories can the wide variety of researchers who access Schlesinger materials discover in a given collection? Providing the materials to answer important questions about the history of women furthers Radcliffe’s commitment to the study of women and gender in society. Work in the collection has included a case study by an HBS researcher, two documentary films, and a spate of articles focused on intellectual property issues Handler adjudicated.

But certainly important stories remain to be told. Handler’s papers document the biography of a female immigrant entrepreneur and her times—a person who broke some molds and forged new ones. They also document broad historical phenomena in postwar America (see below). Girlhood, in particular, is a topic of great interest to a diverse array of researchers. Harvard colleagues like Robin Bernstein and Radcliffe fellows like Corinne T. Field have done pioneering work on what might be called serious play: the ways childhood ideals and pursuits structure American society. I’d love to see scholars of race, class, and girlhood dig into the Handler Papers.

HRI: How did the release of the first Barbie doll impact American culture? Young girls?

JK: I can say more about where Barbie came from in American culture. She seems to me the quintessential creature of the postwar in ways obvious and less so. Handler’s story belongs to a generation of prewar immigrants from Poland and the pale of settlement moving toward the center of American business culture in the postwar. Barbie’s story is a story of transnational borrowing: the model for Handler’s invention, famously, was the German Lilli doll, domesticated for an era of American prosperity.

Barbie’s story is also the story of plastics, highways, and the petrochemical romance of the postwar, a history that is now literally killing us. Handler coined her in 1959, as plastics moved to the center of American consumer life. (“One word: plastics,” says a helpful mentor to the young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate [1967]). It’s no accident that so much of Barbie’s dreamscape involves cars and campers. Her rise was part of a vision of a boundless postwar prosperity which one historian has called, evocatively, “the great American ride.”

And of course, centrally for Schlesinger, Barbie also participated in the ongoing transformations of intimate life that we shorthand as the sexual revolution. The FDA approved the Pill in 1960, the year after her “birth.” Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl came two years later, and Roe was argued a decade after that. With her body conscious fashions, Barbie incarnated a kind of liberation: the freedom to say yes. As feminists pointed out beginning in the late ’60s, that freedom sometimes threatened to erase the right to say no. Barbie strikes me as a Yes! Girl.

HRI: Any other impacts that Barbies have had on American society?

JK: Another key postwar dynamic that Barbie helped to drive in her Dreamhouse and Camper was a heightened embrace of consumerism as a source of pleasure and social cohesion. Toy manufacturing in general increased hugely in the postwar. (See also: plastics.) And the disposable income of girls who babysat was a key target of manufacturers of everything from lipsticks to the newly described “training bras.” Barbie hit that sweet spot, teaching the importance of fashion, accessories, the call of the new, new, new.

HRI: In your eyes, is the Barbie doll (ignoring the movie for the moment) a feminist icon, a symbol of misogyny, or both?

JK: The answer to any either/or question is always both! But in general, I think the fight over Barbie symbolizes the excess concentration of some varieties of feminism on culture rather than material life. Barbie succeeded; [the Equal Right Amendment] failed. Dismissed as coincidence?

HRI: How did you react when you first heard about the new Barbie movie?

JK: Astonished, honestly. I’m a huge admirer of Greta Gerwig. But the build-out of IP-driven cinematic properties from comic book creatures to toys does not necessarily strike me as a great advance.

HRI: Has your opinion on the movie changed since then?

JK: I suppose I’ll have to see it to answer!

HRI: Did you ever play with Barbies? What were your thoughts on them growing up?

JK: Hell yes! My family of origin was quite poor, and yet my parents spent what must have been quite a slice of our slender disposable income on Barbieana. I had quite a few dolls, their coveted outfits, the Dreamhouse, and the Camper. What I mostly playacted with them, to be honest, was sex, though I didn’t really know that was what I was doing by tying Ken and Barbie together at the hips. (There is a great book to be written about bondage play and Barbie.) I also had the giant Barbie head surrounded by a makeup palette, like some weird girlhood version of John, the Baptist. It was supposed to teach successful femininity, I suppose. Manifestly, with me, it failed.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ivelisse Estrada is the editor of Radcliffe Magazine.

Sam Zuniga-Levy is a writer at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

Read a story about the brains behind Barbie.

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