Barbie has been a pop culture sensation since her debut in 1959. She has remained relevant from the year she was put on the shelves—when she increased Mattel’s sales volumes from $5 million to $14 million—to today, where this year she came to the rescue for the company again, responsible for the majority of its total $1.52 billion. Most recently, she accepted the Board of Directors’ Tribute at this year’s Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, sporting a custom Diane von Furstenberg ensemble.
As Richard Dickson, President and COO of Mattel, put it, “In a world where the lifespan of a toy brand is measured in months, sixty years is a remarkable accomplishment. Even more so because the Barbie franchise of today represents the number one girl’s toy in the world, and an icon perpetually relevant in media and culture.”
For her 60th birthday, Barbie received homage from no less than Susan Shapiro—bestselling author, New School professor, and Barbie fanatic—who authored Assouline’s Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration. The book follows the journey of Barbie as a representation of the modern woman throughout the decades. With hundreds of curated pictures from Mattel brand archives placed alongside Shapiro’s insightful text, the book is as much of a piece of art as it is one of literature.
It also serves as an ode to the tenacious Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator. “I really identified with Ruth Handler,” Shapiro said. “She’s a Jewish woman from a poor immigrant family and I love the fact that she was just a ball buster who had her own vision. When everyone disagreed, she kept fighting. Ruth was constantly reinventing herself, like Barbie; it’s something all successful women need to do.”
In her popular class, “Instant Gratification Takes Too Long,” Shapiro stresses the benefits of writing about what you know. “My students think that you need a PhD in Aerodynamics to have an interesting topic for a book,” she told Honeysuckle. “The truth is that writing about your obsessions can lead to really good things.” She has set a great example of this technique in her journey from idolizing Barbie in her childhood, which attracted her to this iconic project:
Shapiro’s obsession began with her first red-headed Barbie, who was later accompanied by Midge, Scooter, Skipper, Casey, Ken, and even a G.I. Joe stolen from her brother for more variety. “I used to spread it all out over my pink carpet and have this doll kingdom. My mom told me that no man would ever marry such a slob,” she joked.
As Shapiro grew older, Barbie became less of a toy and more of an inspiration for her eventual job as a bustling freelancer. “She has her own career, she has her own car, she has her own house. She has her own boyfriend, who’s not her husband controlling her,” Shapiro said. “She’s the star.”
After years of writing about Barbie in publications like the New York Times, Shapiro was paid to fly out her doll collection from her home state of Michigan to New York City for a network television show in 1998. Now, it resides in her Greenwich Village apartment among an equally large collection of her past students’ published books. It was actually one of her former NYU students, Joanna Douglas of PopSugar, who recommended Shapiro to Mattel for the book. Shapiro mentioned that she thanked Douglas with an elusive Fashion Editor Barbie; the vintage doll has become one of her go-to gifts.
Barbie has received criticism over her superficiality and unrealistic body measurements, and Shapiro has not shied away from addressing these issues in her coverage of the doll throughout the years. But, she believes it’s time to focus on the message that Barbie has portrayed for the advancement of women since her creation, especially during a time in which women’s rights are rapidly degressing.
“To me, what was revolutionary was the thought that a woman could have her own world. It was exciting. When she was invented in 1959, women couldn’t even have their own credit card without their father or husband signing for them.
Maybe by caring about clothes and her looks, Ruth was emulating an early wave of lipstick feminism. But that’s a small part of the picture of this dynamic career woman with her own job, apartment and life. Now, they have caught up with the times. There’s curvy Barbie, and Barbies of all different ethnicities. There’s also a Barbie vlogger who talks about mental health issues like depression; she’s really cool.”
BARBIE: 60 YEARS OF INSPIRATION is now available from Assouline. For more information, visit https://www.assouline.com/products/barbie-60-years-of-inspiration.
Hannah Amini is a New York-based writer. She studies journalism and design at The New School and has been a Fashion Editorial intern at Vogue. For more about her work, visit hannahamini.com or follow her on Instagram at @hannahamini.