I recently found myself on the floor of my parents’ house, rifling through the Barbie collection left over from my 1990s childhood which — I’m very sorry to report — is now considered “vintage.” (The pain of the geriatric millennial.) It was a big pile of stuff, including several dolls, a few stray shoes and tiny accessories, and a whole bunch of brightly colored, completely off-the-wall outfits. Because when I was a kid, I might have longed for an American Girl doll, but it was Barbie who was always there.
My daughter was busy stripping all my old dolls to rearrange their ballgowns, claiming one of the throwback outfits for her own purposes. Because she, too, has a Barbie collection. On this particular trip, she’d brought a mermaid Barbie with multicolor hair and a plastic tail, who now sits in her bedroom at home, wearing a long, formal purple gown with metallic accents from around 1995.
But the two of us sit on opposite sides of a generational shift in Barbie’s fortunes.
At the moment, things are looking up for Barbie. After a redesign by Mattel, sales surged during the pandemic, and there’s a new show on Netflix, Barbie: It Takes Two. She’s popping up in think pieces about the subversive meaning of “Barbiecore,” a sudden turn toward over-the-top fashion driven by the Internet, and every set photo from Greta Gerwig’s new Barbie movie generates a wave of coverage. She’s on wallpaper (also back in style) and partnering up for limited edition fashion collabs. Zoomers are remixing audio from the absolutely awful early CGI movies in which she starred on TikTok. And yes, she’s charging pretty impressive prices for hand-me-down pieces of her wardrobe on Ebay.
But up until fairly recently, times were tough for old Barb. It seemed like her era had passed when I gave my kid her first doll from the extended Barbie universe — a “Stacie,” one of Barbie’s younger sisters, grabbed off the shelves of a Marshall’s in 2019 in a spirit of “why not” while looking for stocking stuffers. Sales had been sliding for years. And frankly, it was a problem of her own making; she was a bane of the second-wave feminist movement for good reasons. It’s pretty self-evident that those over-the-top proportions cannot have been good for our developing body images — although let’s get real, it wasn’t just Barbie sending bad messages about bodies; the whole culture of the 1990s was absolutely rotten through with fatphobia — and the brand name will never entirely live down the infamous 1992 “math class is tough” incident, which seemed to sum up an entire worldview that was bad, bad, bad for girls.
I recently turned a corner in an antique store and stumbled upon a whole rack full of Barbies still in their original packaging. At first, I gasped with delight — that hot pink is still hardwired into the pleasure centers of my brain all these years later — and then I had to laugh at what a mess it was, from the perspective of a mom in 2022. A birthday presents set (now priced at $75) included a teddy bear, Godiva chocolates, a fancy watch, a jeweled necklace, and a full tea set, the back helpfully explaining: “Barbie, Ken and Kelly share gifts for a magical holiday season!” Another accessories pack was, obviously, wedding themed. Don’t even get me started on “Cool Shoppin’ Barbie,” who says “thank you” (good) and “credit approved” (Nope! Bad! Very bad!). Even Working Woman Barbie — from 1999, and complete with CD-rom! — came with a reversible “day to night” skirt and a backup pair of party shoes.
Looking back with the eyes of a feminist adult, the Barbie of the 1990s was indeed a very specific combination of materialism and presumed boy craziness that I really, really do not want to pass on to my child. I comb through the outfits left over from my Barbies, and I click around Ebay, and I wonder: Who exactly did Mattel imagine Barbie to be, circa 1989 to 1997? Was she 17 or 43? Had she already buried three rich husbands? Were her parents paying the mortgage on that Dreamhouse? Was she Cher from Clueless before Cher from Clueless?
But Barbie still has her charms. For instance, unlike American Girl dolls, Barbies are relatively affordable. They can take a preschooler’s rough handling. Whatever her flaws, she’s also not a Disney princess and therefore offers at least something of an alternative to going full monarchist. And — credit where it is due — Mattel has also spent the last decade at least trying to claw Barbie’s name back from her 1990s image as being obsessed with consumerism and appearances. Going off the canon as it currently exists today, in the form of Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures and Barbie: It Takes Two, Barbie today is a vlogger, yeah, but she’s got a diverse group of friends with a wide variety of interests and, overall, a relentlessly wholesome vibe. Her mom’s a robotics engineer and her dad is a documentary filmmaker, and they’re supportive and present (and also, I might add, a pair of Gen X silver foxes). They’re the type of family that actually wants to spend time together. All in all, imagine the exact opposite of Euphoria.
Today’s Barbie clearly has everything she could ever want, materially, but she is more interested in extracurriculars and low-stakes misadventures with her diverse group of friends than shopping. (Which makes sense for a generation that barely knows what a shopping mall is.)
And to be fair to the Barbies of my childhood, sorting through the detritus of my collection with my five-year-old is a reminder why I found her so captivating in the first place. Why were there so many formal occasions? What did an 8-year-old know about “Fashion Avenue”? I had only the vaguest sense of what Malibu even was. But spend a few moments sorting through a box of old ensembles or scrolling through the listings on Ebay and you’re forced to admit: the clothes are beautiful. And they’re fun and engaging, in the way that fashion at its best can be. I love the hot pinks and the lime greens and the absolutely unhinged Dynasty energy of it all. There’s something to be said for that playfulness — the funhouse mirror of adulthood. It makes me want to inject a lot more joy and delight into my own closet, something we could all use in 2022. All these years later, I’m still charmed.
To be honest, though, I wonder how invested my kid really is. She’s interested, but like any kid she cycles through fascinations. And I know that there’s a good chance her time with dolls will end earlier than mine did, thanks to the sheer omnipresence of the Internet, which I’m desperately trying (and will obviously eventually fail) to keep her off of. Barbie is looking pretty good right now, as a mom willing to offer just about any alternative to screen time. If she wanted Cool Shoppin’ Barbie, I’d consider it, if I thought she’d prefer it over the TV.
How long do I have until Roblox is knocking down our door? Not long, I bet. I hope we can get a few years more, though, because as it turns out, I really missed the old gal and her absolutely ridiculous outfits. Plus, I need an excuse to order this vintage swimming pool off Ebay.
Kelly Faircloth is the executive editor at Scary Mommy, where she commissions freelance pieces; if you’ve got a story you’d like to share, pitch her here! She’d love to hear from you.
Previously, Kelly worked at Jezebel.com, where she was a senior editor and also wrote about royal gossip and romance novels, along with body image and history. She grew up in Georgia between a river and a railroad, and she has a lot of questions about the world-building in Paw Patrol.