Since her creation in 1959 by entrepreneur Ruth Handler, Barbie has been a divisive figure in pop culture. While some praise the existence versatility of Barbie, who was given careers in fields like space exploration earlier than most, the doll has also been seen as a vapid and commercialized representation of all that is wrong with a lot of marketing.
It's undeniable, though, that Barbie is an international phenomena, with as diverse a line of styles, jobs, accessories, playsets, and spin-offs as the most successful action figure lines for boys like GI Joe or Transformers, but Barbie has done it all within her own brand. Barbie has been a lightning rod for conversation many times since her first arrival in the late fifties, with Mattel often swift to reconfigure some dolls or to simply pull them off shelves completely. The doll has also been an inspiration for real-life fashion designers the world over, and Mattel has been eager to invite big names in fashion to design outfits for the character.
Between those missteps though, there are undeniable successes. Dolls that aren't just beautiful or packed with detailed accessories, but dolls that represent aspirational goals for girls the world over. Barbie has broken as many barriers as she has propagated, and her impact on the cultural landscape is undeniable. Here are 20 Weird, and 10 Amazing, Barbies from across sixty years of Mattel's history.
29 WEIRD: Shaving Fun Ken
The commercial for this doll claims "Only one guy's beard grows back to shave again!" But I can confirm, as a guy, that my beard definitely, 100% grows back. Lucky me — I have the pleasure of shaving it again. This dolls' beard works the same way that mug with dinosaurs on it everyone has does: heat makes the beard disappear and, when the plastic cools down, the beard comes back, just like real life! It's a neat trick, but there's no denying this is a strange toy geared towards girls.
28 WEIRD: Insensitive Barbie
Oh dear, did no one Google the term "Oreo" when this was being designed? I don't know what the process is in creating a new Barbie, but there's got to be at least person at Mattel who understood that "Oreo" is not what you want to call your newest Barbie doll. While not necessarily an offensive term, depending on its use, it has an unfortunate connotation that this doll couldn't escape. Again, a little bit of forethought would have gone a long way here.
27 BEST: Ken Makes An Impact
Wanting to cash in on the apparent "earring craze" of the nineties, Barbie was sold with a pair of kid-sized clip-on earrings. Not to be left behind, Ken was released with a similar accessory, and designers had to ask themselves "What else does a guy with an earring wear?"
The same thing as a non-earring wearing man?
The answer was, of course, a lavender vinyl vest over a mesh shirt and black skintight jeans.
26 WEIRD: A Dream House
So here we have a 1997 attempt from Mattel to be more inclusive. Becky is a teenager in a hot pink wheelchair who sold really well and was warmly welcomed by disability activists.
Until they tried to fit her in the Dreamhouse.
Turns out that Becky's chair won't even fit inside the front door of the iconic Barbie Dream House, let alone into the elevator, which is the only reason anyone needs an elevator in their home. It's an oversight a lot of people weren't happy about.
25 WEIRD: Rappin' Rockin' & Weird'
Get ready for a lot of entries about how Barbie, in clumsy attempts to be more inclusive, have ended up succumbing to and perpetuating stereotypes. This extremely tone deaf vision of an early-nineties female rap star is dressed in black vinyl jacket and shirt with, of course, a giant gold medallion around her neck. Mattel at least had the decency to include a few other characters in the "Rappin' Rockin'" series, including Theresa and Christie. It's a doll from another time.
24 BEST: The Best Selling Toy Of The 90s
Another 1992 release, which was either very good or very bad year for Mattel, depending on who you ask, Totally Hair Barbie is notable for two things: her hair, which stretched all the way down to her feet, and the insane numbers in which she was sold.
Over 10 million Totally Hair Barbies were sold from 1992 to 1995, making it not only the most successful ever made, but the winner of the longest selling streak in all of toy history.
23 WEIRD: Carousel Not Included
If you've only had the TV show Mad Men described to you, the idea of creating a Barbie doll modeled after "picture perfect" 1960s housewife Betty Draper seems like a no-brainer. In season 1, Betty is Barbie personified: a compliant, sweet, mother of two who is entirely devoted to her successful New York City professional husband.
Anyone who has actually watched the show, though, knows this is all a thin veneer that cracks over the course of the first few years before completely disintegrating by the end of the series. (A few times.) This doll, unfortunately, doesn't come with all the accoutrements we think of her having
22 WEIRD: Video Call Barbie
This doll, released in 2010, seems to be ahead of its time with "YouTube Personality" being a job that thousands of kids seem to think is a good idea, despite the fact that it turns you into an attention-craving individual. In a design that would make Q proud, Video Girl Barbie contained a small video camera in her necklace with a small screen embedded in her back.
The FBI quickly issued a warning to parents that the video, which could be streamed live to a nearby computer, could be used to trick kids. While there doesn't seem to be any incidents of that actually occurring, the threat was there anyway.
21 BEST: Start-Up Barbie
Capitalising on the success of Silicon Valley start-ups and the rise of female CEOs in the tech industry, Mattel released this doll in 2014. Created with a number of women computer engineers and tech entrepreneurs, this Barbie is also molded with Caucasian, Black, or Asian features, providing girls with positive role models for STEM careers that look like them, not the stereotypical male nerd. She comes with a smartphone, a small bag, and some kind of expense report? It has two different graphs and is unreadable, just like a real expense report!
20 WEIRD: Not The Best Relationship Goals
Elvis and Priscilla Presley were mid-century pop royalty, on par with JFK and Jackie O, so it's no surprise that Mattel would commemorate this iconic magazine duo with a pair of dolls in their wedding outfits. The dolls came out in 2008, and were the second set of Elvis and Priscilla dolls, which means two different teams of people at Mattel thought it was okay to sell kids this slightly off duo together. It's the type of thing someone obviously should have mentioned before they started printing the dolls ... again.
19 WEIRD: An Avid Reader
This Barbie, introduced in 1963, represents a pretty good snapshot of what I think Mattel executives probably thought teen girls wanted in the sixties: a stylish girl who, just like them, had some light, teen responsibility. Just like them, these girls would find a Barbie that came in a cute but conservative outfit, a watch to keep an eye on the time, a box of pretzels, and a book on a diet (Yikes).
So close, Mattel. The only page inside that helpful manual says "Don't Eat!" Which is obviously a pretty problematic thing to include on a toy.
18 BEST: The Classic Barbie
I was 3/4s of the way through writing this when a friend said: "How can you not have Malibu Barbie on there?" How, indeed? Malibu Barbie, introduced in 1971, is probably what most people think of when Barbie first comes to mind. With her aqua blue one-piece bathing suit and yellow beach towel, Malibu Barbie presents the ideal: breezy, carefree, summertime fun on the beach. While Barbie has been criticised for presenting an unrealistic image ideal, at least we can all agree that it's nice to spend a day on the beach.
17 WEIRD: Give Me Barbie Or Give Me Ken
As fashioned has evolved, a lot of staple elements of men's dress have become more feminine. Ruffles, lace, high heels, velvet, feathers—all these things seem 'girly' now but two hundred years ago were the height of men's fashion. It's also pretty progressive to recast Founding Father George Washington as a woman. Moreover, it's just an awesome looking doll that hangs among the coolest out there (even if it's a touch weird to create Founding Father dolls in the first place).
16 BEST: Original
Created in 1959 by Ruth Handler who was inspired by a German doll called Bild Lilli. While the original Barbie would be criticised over the years for her impossible standards, the first doll is actually much less unrealistic than later models. Her black and white striped bathing suit is also painfully stylish, even by modern standards, and it's no surprise that this simple design would go on to create an empire that has lasted over 60 years.
15 WEIRD: A Barbie That Handles Her Animal...
Great, yeah, Barbie with a dog! Absolutely, what a no-brainer! And she's a lab, which is like a default dog! She comes with a little leash and a dog bowl and biscuits that she… she pops out. And the biscuits look just like it. So you… you uh — you get the idea.
You know what? As weird and bizarre as this is, it's actually pretty cool that Mattel made such an educational product. Dogs do their business and then you gotta clean it up, it's part of the deal.
14 WEIRD: Minimum Wage Barbie
While defenders of Barbie have often claimed that she is aspirational and creates positive role models for girls, not everyone can be an astronaut or Jackie Onassis. I got nothing wrong with a someone working at McDonald's! It teaches responsibility and community, especially when you have to bring your infant sister along with you.
There has been a lot of backlash against this doll, which strikes me as a bit disrespectful. Young women are more than the dolls they play with.
13 BEST: Horse Barbie
When I was growing up, there was one truth continually foisted on kids my age: boys like trucks, girls like horses. While this gendered separation would be challenged, (Conan the Barbarian rides a horse and Barbie owned a Jeep) the message was clear: horses are pretty and are a girl's best friend. Nibbles the Horse has a gorgeous and pretty ridiculous blonde mane that you can comb, braid, and get horribly tangled with the sticky garbage kids have on their hands all the time. She even has a magnet in her mouth, similar to Barbie's dog Tanner, so she can eat apples and carrying things in her mouth.
12 WEIRD: Lounge Kitties
"Haha," you say, "Barbie in a catsuit? What kitsch! The sixties sure we're a weird time!" Would it surprise you to know that this doll was released not in 1963 but in 2003? It certainly surprised me! This doll is part of a collection of three dolls in a variety of feline prints, each complete with a giant fluffy tail which surely made it a hit with the furry market. Each even comes with a different kind of chaise long, because you can't have a Lounge Kitty without something to lounge on and Barbie ain't gonna lounge on no couch like an animal.
11 WEIRD: Love Until The End Barbie
Ah yes, Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare's most overproduced, least-understood play. Despite being read in every English class on earth and performed by every drama class in the solar system, it seems like those who venerate R&J have never read the ending or dug just a little bit beneath the surface.
It's no surprise that Mattel would release a line of R&J Ken and Barbie dolls, though I am impressed they are in traditional garb.
10 BEST: Work/Life Balance Barbie
Day to Night Barbie was a coup for those who believe Barbie could be a more significant icon. The name comes from the two different looks that this doll came equipped with: a "Day" outfit that featured a smart business suit, smartphone, and attache case. (All pink, naturally). She also came with a more traditional Barbie look, a pink sequin top, and sheer skirt, proving that even in 1985 it was possible for women to slay in the boardroom and on the dance floor in the same day.
9 WEIRD: Bird Attack Barbie
Quick, think of a Hitchcock character who would look good as a Barbie. Pre-shower scene Janet Leigh in Psycho? Yes, that's who I'd pick too. Grace Kelly in Rear Window? Good choice.
8 WEIRD: To Scale Barbie
Another in the mid-sixties heyday or not-ok Barbies, Slumber Party Barbie seems to be the same girl who babysits, even sporting the same food consumption book with the same useless instructions.
Slumber Party Barbie comes with an extra upsetting layer: a cute lil pink scale permanently set at 110 lbs. Modern Sleepytime Barbie ditches the scale and instead comes with a tiny pink teddy. Progress!
7 BEST: Tiny Dancer Barbie
Cara is one of Barbie's friends. The Ballerina Cara doll, released in 1976, was a powerful symbol in 1976. The doll inspired a generation of young women, showcasing a beautiful career as a sophisticated dancer a time when young people needed these kinds of role models in any way shape or form. Clearly, someone with a good head on their shoulders designed this Barbie.
6 WEIRD: The Weirdest Of The Weird Barbies
Surprisingly, the controversy with this doll is not that she is named "Midge" which means somebody thought it would be nice to name a young girl after a tiny fly. Midge was sold in the 60s as Barbie's 'friend', and then was completely abandoned for twenty years until being reintroduced as a mother of two who was initially sold pregnant.
Midge came with a baby locked inside her stomach, which children could extract with their bare hands because childbirth is painless and fun for the whole family.
5 WEIRD: Dark Humor Barbie
So far on this list, we've had Juliet, Tippi Hedren, and Priscilla Marie, so it should come as no surprise that Mattel would market another doll based on a superficial understanding of feminine grace. Marie Antoinette, France's last Queen and the monarch during the French Revolution, is famous for her youth, beauty, elegant dresses, and the famously misquoted "Let them eat cake." Antoinette was also destroyed by her people in Paris, a fact which Mattel omits from her bio on their website, which simply states that she was married to Louis XIV. The website also claims she was "The height of royalty," which either totally misses the point or is pitch black humor at its finest.
4 BEST: Space Girl Barbie
When cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, she beat Barbie to orbit by only two years. While Miss Astronaut Barbie is maybe not the greatest example of space-based egalitarianism, and her outfit is a lot more 2001: A Space Odyssey than 60s era NASA, the image of a Barbie doll with a space helmet and a little flag is nevertheless a powerful reminder of the contributions women all over the world have made to the exploration of space.
3 WEIRD: Strange Choices Barbie
When Mattel introduced this Barbie in the nineties, permanent tattoos were huge for those in their late teens and twenties, and temporary, rub-on tattoos were the next best thing to those kids who couldn't get their parents to sign off on getting a butterfly on their face. There's nothing wrong with tattoos, but kids aren't good at making choices with permanent effects, so many someone should have considered this before making a Barbie devoted to it.
2 WEIRD: Don't Ask Me, I'm Just A Barbie
No, this isn't the talking Malibu Stacy that launches Lisa Simpson into her doll-making crusade, although that episode of the Simpsons was inspired by this 1992 doll, which included a voice box and proudly proclaimed that one truth everyone can agree on: "Math class is tough!"
The backlash from educators was swift and strong. Mattel did what all companies do: Removing the phrase and offering refunds to those who had bought it.
1 BEST: Surprisingly Progressive Barbie
Just one year after her debut in 1959, Barbie was given her first job as a fashion designer. While cynics could see this as another pyrrhic victory, like Plastic Surgeon Barbie, Fashion Designer Barbie is a Peggy Olson for her time. Sporting a stylish but practical outfit, this was the earliest example that Barbie could represent more than just an impossible body image ideal. While the brand would stumble many times trying to live up to this early example, the optimism and aspirationalism of this design would endure for decades.