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Fifty years of Barbie

Barbie dolls
Parties will be held around the world for Barbie's 50th birthday

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

For a woman hitting 50 she's been through a lot.

Many changes of career, including a run for US president, she's also been the subject of a number of lawsuits.

Despite all that, she's not got a wrinkle on her forehead or a single grey hair.

The children's doll Barbie celebrates her half-century on 9 March, 2009.

Parties will be taking place across the world to mark the occasion, and the world's first store dedicated to the doll has been opened in Shanghai.

A fixture in toy cupboards around the globe, Barbie has become more than just a doll for young girls growing up.

An enduring cultural icon, she has also weathered much criticism and controversy over the years.

Child with Barbie in a London store
Children the world over have enjoyed the doll

Barbie Millicent Roberts was first introduced to the world in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair. She was named after her creator Ruth Handler's daughter Barbara.

Ruth Handler had seen her child play with baby and toddler dolls, but at the time saw a gap in the American market for a toy which represented a young woman.

The very first Barbie dolls wore a black and white swimsuit, high-heeled sandals, and had the trademark high eyebrows.

Women's 'choices'

Although the Barbie of today is more commonly known as a blonde, the first ones were also available as brunettes.

In their debut year, more than 300,000 were sold, at a price of $3 each.

Ruth Handler said of her creation: "Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices…I believe the choices Barbie represents helped the doll catch on initially, not just with daughters, who would one day make up the first major wave of women in management and professionals, but also with mothers."

From her early swimsuit days Barbie has sported a range of fashions and styles; some which would rival the Oscars red carpet for their inventiveness and designer labels.

She has also pursued more than 100 different careers, including astronaut, gymnast, flight attendant, Unicef ambassador, and Formula One driver.

Barbie even had several runs for president, including, ahead of her times perhaps, as a female African-American candidate in 2004.

Ken dolls
Ken, seen in beach boy and tougher mode, was once Barbie's boyfriend

As her popularity rose, so did her brand, becoming much more than just a doll.

Barbie soon acquired her own property portfolio, was given her own dream homes, a car, and even a love interest in the form of on-off boyfriend Ken.

Although Barbie has modelled many wedding dresses the "couple" never walked down the aisle together, and in 2004, in an "official" press conference news of their "split" was announced.

Generating billions of dollars for her makers Mattel, Barbie, with her long legs, tiny waist and big bust has also generated much controversy.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled against the doll is that it portrays an unattainable image for young girls.

Dr Arnold Blumberg, the curator of the 50 Years of Barbie exhibition at the Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, said: "There have been a lot of occasions where people have said Barbie represents a very unrealistic and damaging idea of what a modern adult woman looks like…that it affects a girl's idea of her own body type, of her expectations in her life.

"Although, like anything else, they're a toy company, they're selling a fantasy figure, a doll for kids to play with," he said.

There have been other charges made against the doll, including that she is a bad role model.

A talking version of Barbie once said "math class is hard", but the slogan was later changed to "Math is hard, but not impossible!" following criticism from teaching groups.


You wouldn't want a Barbie that didn't look perfect, that's what so great about her
Hunter Kelley, 16

Despite some of the negative headlines Barbie is still a hit with girls across America and the world.

More than one billion dolls have been sold since her inception, and according to the dolls makers, Mattel, 90% of American girls aged between three and 10 own at least one.

Barbie fan Danielle Scott, 16, said: "Playing with the hair, the brushes, switching outfits. It really just made girls be girls.

"All the characteristics of what to look forward to and what girls really could do..." she said.

Danielle disagreed with those who criticised Barbie's shape and size: "It's a doll. It is unrealistic, it's a stereotype, it's just one kind of girl.

"I guess Barbie could be different shapes and sizes but that's Barbie."

Her friend Hunter Kelley, also 16, agrees.

"Some people think it's stereotypical, but I think it's alright. You wouldn't want a Barbie that didn't look perfect, that's what so great about her," she said.

Collector items

The appeal of Barbie has gone beyond just young girls.

Her dolls are now collectors items, a 1959 model was sold for $27,450 at an auction in 2006.

To celebrate her birthday, a Barbie convention with collectors of all ages expected to attend, is being held in Washington DC this summer.

Fifty years on, and the Barbie of today is competing in a crowded toy and video games market. At the end of last year sales fell by more than one-fifth.

Even so, Barbie remains an enduring icon, who, at 50, has kept her youthful physique - even if plastic has had a part to play.

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SEE ALSO
Barbie emporium opens in Shanghai
07 Mar 09 |  Asia-Pacific

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