90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Barbie Turns 50
Barbie, 1959. (Photo: Courtesy Mattel.)

Barbie, 1959. (Photo: Courtesy Mattel.)

Love them or hate them, everybody knows Barbie dolls. And this year, Barbie turns 50.

When she first showed up in 1959 — with those mile-long legs and trunks of cloths and, for heaven’s sakes, breasts — Barbie was rejected as way too sexual for American girls. Then she conquered the world. Feminists hated her impossibly svelte figure. Barbies flew off the shelves anyway.

And one woman created the whole phenom. She named Barbie for her daughter, Ken for her son. Modeled the doll on a German sex toy. And never apologized.

This hour, On Point: The woman who made Barbie.

You can join the conversation. What’s your Barbie story? Fifty years on, what’s Barbie’s legacy and impact on generations of girls?


Joining us from Santa Barbara, Calif., is Robin Gerber, author of “Barbie and Ruth: The  Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.”

Read an excerpt from “Barbie and Ruth.”

And from Newton, Mass., is Sharlene Hesse-Biber, a sociologist at Boston College and the author of “Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercializaton of Identity.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Wendie Howland

    I don’t expect you’ll actually read this on the air (and if you get adventuresome and do, please don’t give my name, to protect the innocent), but I couldn’t help but remember this.

    It wasn’t just girls who found some level of meaning from the Barbie in their lives. I’ll never forget the day I found my little sister’s Barbie in my pre-teen brother’s room… with a raggedy patch of pubic hair glued on her plastic torso.

  • http://OnPoint P Shrinermacher

    Maybe if Barbie had nipples, poor Ken would have been allowed a penis. It’s amazing how much in denial we are about body parts that are neccessary for our very existence. “Primitive cultures” celebrate these body parts! why can’t we?

  • Leora

    I went to Duke Law School in the late ’80s. It was said that our Constitutional Law Professor, William Van Alystne was married to the real Barbie and was the prototype for Ken. He used to wear leather pants and ride a motorcycle. I wanted to ask the author if there is any truth to this.

  • Eileen Hughes Nooney

    When I was a little girl I was Barbie crazy! My parents did not have a lot of money so every Christmas my mother made a wedding trousseau for my Barbie, right down to a pegnoir set. When I was 45 my mother found those clothes in the attic, cleaned them all up and sent them to me. One problem, I no longer had a Barbie doll. Well…10 years later I have about 20 Barbies (I pared them down a couple of years ago). I’ve spent 30 years in the car business but I’m a girly girl at heart! I never wanted to be Barbie but I always felt like she could be me if she wanted to because, duh, Barbie could do anything!

  • Althea

    I was a little girl in the 1960 when Brabie was introduced. My younger sister and I wanted these dolls so badly – we begged our mother for one.

    She refused – she believed the doll was way too provocative and sexual. We were instead allowed to have the Tammy doll, which was introduced around the same time as an alternative to Barbie. Tammy was about the same size, also with a wardrobe…but no big breasts!! We loved our Tammy dolls – I’m wondering if other listeners remember this doll?

  • Michelle

    I recall from an art history class years ago discussing the similarities of Barbie and Venus of Willendorf an ancient stone figurine as well as fertility goddess. Large bust and pointed toes. Every time I walk down the toy aisle I remember sitting in that class and discussing Barbie, a doll, for two hours in a class I paid to take! Here again I find myself consumed by the program spending more adult time with Barbie as an adult.

  • http://keleavy@yahoo.com Kate Leavy

    I was born 5 years after Barbie and grew up playing with the dolls. My comment is that my sister and I never once considered what Barbie looked like or what the “ideal” body type was. For us, it was entirely about the clothes! I probably couldn’t give you an accurate description of Barbie’s physical appearance, but I absolutely remember many of her outfits!!
    I feel we as a society overthink the physical beauty of a doll and fail to notice the simple joy of having an affordable plaything.

  • Noreen

    Sex sells. Companies have no compunction selling sex to children in clothes, toys, and media. It’s good for the companies bottom line, but is it good for the children?

  • Frances

    when i was in elementary school, in the 60s i had a crush on a boy in class. I remember not being popular and wanting to get his attention. I took one of my mother’s scarfs and tied it around my waist so tightly that it hurt because i knew from my barbies that tiny waists looked better and brought girls more attention. My ploy for attention backfired and classmates teased me harshly over my plain. shapeless body.

  • http://cheyannescampsite.blogspot.com K.a.m.

    I loved my Barbie doll. I had one, not 3 or 4 Barbies,
    which it seems is what the girls have now.

    We did have Skipper and Ken and other dolls from the Barbie collection though. When Midge came out….the only colored Barbie doll…my colored girlfriends were
    just elated that someone had actually invented something for them. Prior to that, not only had little girls been forced to play with a body perfect doll, they had to play with dolls that were not their color.

    So let’s hear it for it Midge.

  • Leon Freilich


    What goes up must surely come down,

    Muzak acknowledges with a frown.

    Fifty years it filled the air

    Of each business elevatair

    With a tamped-down mellow sound

    Seeping in once leaving the ground

    So by the time you reached your floor

    Sleep had slipped down to your core.

    Soon the muzak will be stilled,

    Many folks are bound to be thrilled.

    Sappy rides will be a thing

    Of the past–Give a shout, give a ring!

    Silence filling every lift,

    Haters of noise will hug the gift.

    Time to rejoice, a momentous matter–

    Till replaced by cellphone chatter.

  • Ann-Marie

    Growing up, Barbie was my favorite toy because of two things: her hair and clothes!
    I could dress her anyone I wanted and practice various hair styles on her. In fact, I learned how to braid my own hair by practicing on Barbie (thanks Barbs). I never ONCE admired her body. Even as a child, I was smart enough to realize that Barbie was SHAPED specifically FOR her clothes. In fact, without clothes she looked ugly, odd and robotic. I felt bad leaving her naked. Her clothes were what made her fun and glamorous.
    I was surprised later in life to discover that there were women who grew up thinking that Barbie was SUPPOSED to represent the “perfect” female body. Additionally, these women (and feminist writers) claimed to have experienced self-esteem issues due to Barbie!

    Are you kidding me? There are people on this planet who think that a sexless odd-looking plastic product was a detriment to their lives? I always wanted to know if these women also grew-up hating their genitals since the “ideal” Barbie toy had none. Did they also feel that they should have Barbie “feet”?

    If toys have such psychological programming on children, why aren’t men talking about their low self-esteem from wanting to look like G.I. Joe? Shouldn’t they also be crying that they can’t see through walls or fly like their super-man action figure?

    I am now a young professional woman with a graduate degree and excellent self-esteem. Barbie was a wonderful part of my childhood. When I have children you can bet our house will be filled with Barbies!
    Happy Birthday Barbie!

  • Maurice Kane

    One has to wonder about someone still using the term “colored” in 21st century America (or anywhere on the planet Earth)to describe African-Americans.

  • Ben

    First, Midge was not a colored doll. She was Barbie’s friend and in the 1980′s Mattel actually made a Black Barbie. Second, Barbie’s first black friend was “colored” Francie who was a Mod-ern cousin of Barbie. There was also Christie and othe black dolls produced later on. Mattel did it’s best to be politically correct with it’s dolls.Third , as an adult collector of vintage Barbie and Ken, what we find interesting today is how accurate Barbie has been able to portray women’s fashion through the years. Whe had Jackie Kennedy outfits in the 60′s and Mod wild stuff in the late 60′s and early 70′s. Almost anyone can remember having an article of clothing like something in Barbie’s wardrobe. She is a Fashion Icon that has lasted 50 years.

  • James

    If Barbie had the psychological effect of low self esteem or relagating females to stereotypical roles then it would follow that her counterpart, GI Joe would have had a similar role in boys. Military toys of all types were common in the 1960′s. Even before GI Joe I had toy soldiers, guns, fatigues, helmet…. GI Joe had one job, Soldier. The only thing his hands could hold was a gun. The only accessories one could obtain were war related. My generation should have been gung ho to enter the Vietnam war but we were not.

  • http://fibrowitch.blogspot.com/ Jan D

    Long time Barbie collector here. The one who was profiled by the Globe on 1/3/09 as having to sell some of my collection to pay medical bills.

    I have had Barbie dolls since I was a small child (still have that first doll) and I loved how she could be everything I never though I could be. People in my family just got married and had children. Barbie had careers, which gave me the idea that I could have one also. I finished high school, and kept my Barbie. I went to college and brought along a few Barbie’s to keep me company. got a great job, and starting collecting more Barbie’s.

    Now I am retired, and dealing with a deadly disease (two of them – lupus and cancer) Barbie is with me still, helping me heal, helping me forget I am sick.

    I would be lost without Barbie. Without all my Barbies.

  • Candace

    Oh how I loved my Barbie, and Skipper and her best friend the redhaired flip curled freckeled face Midge..(AND my “liddle kiddles – does anyone remember Mattel’s liddle kiddles?) well my parents wouldn’t get me a Ken, until… they discovered I had cut off Midge’s hair and flattened her breasts on the concrete floor and dressed her as my Barbie boyfriend…got Ken, but I still loved my Midge too. Happy to be celebrating my 50th this year too and giving a couple select girlfriends turning 50 the $3 anniversary Barbie as a gift! I have 3 daughter’s and never let them play with MY Barbie collection – they got their own. I did buy them a Barbie car, because I used my fancy sunday school shoes as my Barbie car. Lots of fond memories -thanks Barbie!

  • Anne Kazlauskas

    Yes, I remember Tammy (& Penny Brite!)as well as Barbie. Have 3 Tammies,a Penny,2 Barbies (1 from about 1960,1 “Twist’n Turn” from c1968), a brunette Midge & blond Skipper.Yes,my mother allowed me the Tammies & Skipper but not the Barbies. I didn’t understand why then. All I knew was that she was forbidden so she had more allure. It was great elation to smuggle them into the house when older friends gave me theirs.When I had all of the above I loved them equally.All rather ugly otherwise, I loved how clothes looked on them,used to be fascinated by all their style catalogues,”sets” (oh, what ones could I buy?!)Loved the long hair models to style,loved to design & make knitted clothes for them.No clothes horse myself but they never made me feel ashamed.

  • Pingback: Damn! There are some real Barbie perverts out there... - The Vette Barn Forum - A Community for Corvette Lovers

Sep 18, 2014
Flickr/Steve Rhodes

After a summer of deadly clashes between Gaza and Israel, we talk to Jews on the left and right about the future of liberal Zionism. Some say it’s over.

Sep 18, 2014

Billionaires. We’ll look at the super super rich, and their global shaping of our world.

Sep 17, 2014
Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Sep 17, 2014
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Talking Through The Issue Of Corporal Punishment For Kids
Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014

On Point dove into the debate over corporal punishment on Wednesday — as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson faces charges in Texas after he allegedly hit his four-year-old son with a switch.

More »
Our Week In The Web: September 12, 2014
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

In which you had varied reactions to the prospect of a robotic spouse.

More »
Beverly Gooden on #WhyIStayed
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Beverly Gooden — who originated the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has taken off across Twitter — joined us today for our discussion on domestic violence.

More »
1 Comment