Part of Barbie’s power is the kind of projection she invites. “I designed Barbie with a blank face so that the child could project her own dreams of the future onto Barbie,” Handler said in her book, “Dream Doll.” “I never wanted to play up the glamorous life of Barbie. I wanted the owner to create a personality for the doll.” Even the talking Barbies that appeared on the market never enjoyed the ascendancy that the mute, yet eloquent dolls did.
Barbie was both a child of her time and completely cutting edge. As the historian and author Stephanie Coontz has written, “the marketability of toys like Barbie…was a logical though ironic extension of 1950s gender roles, marital norms and consumerist values.” Early outfits produced by Mattel had names like Theatre Date, Movie Date, Party Date, Friday Nite Date and Sorority Meeting, all of which suggest that Barbie was not about to challenge anyone’s idea of traditional femininity. But what about Tennis Anyone, Ski Queen, Icebreaker, Career Girl and Graduation, which were outfits sold in 1962? Such names had the spark of an alternative narrative; clearly there was something beyond dating on Barbie agenda.