Barbie's commitment to diversity and inclusion has come a long way since 1959

Back in 2011 here at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow shared the first-ever Barbie commercial, which aired in 1959 during an episode of the Mickey Mouse Club. In anticipation of the new Barbie movie that debuts tomorrow—which is expected to earn up to $100 million during opening weekend in North America—I thought it would be good to revisit that commercial and share how far Barbie has come since then. NPR describes that original commercial:

It shows four stiffly posed Barbies in fabulous '50s frocks, and it ends with the line "Someday I'm going to be exactly like you," and a lingering close-up on a Barbie bride. In other words: Someday, I'm going to be married, Mattel-style.

The Barbies in the ad are all white, all impossibly thin, and all happily embracing traditional stereotypical gender roles—and the dolls highlighted in Barbie commercials mostly stayed that way for decades. Again, NPR:

Black Barbies were sold in the late 1960s, but you wouldn't know it from the ads on TV. Then in the '70s, commercials started to show girls of different races playing with Barbies together, but only with white Barbies. And while the doll did develop a sportier side, increasingly unfashionable gender roles remained. In one ad from the early '80s, two girls pretend Ken and Barbie are fighting over how she should do her hair. When Barbie wins the fight — about how to wear her own hair — they decide she needs to fix Ken a sandwich.

Barbie marketing changed dramatically with a 1985 campaign — developed by women — that reflected their changing roles in the workforce.

Since the 1980s, Mattel has worked to make its Barbie collection more diverse and inclusive. While the first Black doll created by Mattel was produced in 1968 and was named Christie (here's a great history of Black Barbies that provides more detail), in 1980 the first Black and Hispanic dolls actually named "Barbie" were released. Currently, Mattel marketsitself as "The Most Diverse Doll Line," stating that: "Barbie recognizes the importance of representation and is committed to doing the work to inspire the next generation" and highlighting that Barbies now come in "35 skin tones, 97 hairstyles, 9 body types and counting." In addition to bringing more racial and ethnic diversity to its Barbies, Mattel has also created gender diverse dolls, inclusive dolls with hearing aids, a prosthetic limb, a wheelchair, a doll with vitiligo, and a doll with Down's syndrome. Barbie has certainly come a very long way since 1959. 

In light of Barbie's moves toward diversity and inclusion, some are questioning why the new Barbie movie seems to default to Barbie's original thin, white, norm. Alix Nicholson, writing for Mama Mia, states:

Despite all the buzz about diversity and inclusivity, there's one inevitable truth we cannot ignore: our leading lady is still a tall, thin, blonde bombshell, epitomising the very traditional standards of beauty and femininity that the (some would say problematic) doll has represented since its inception.

I haven't seen the movie yet so I can't know where director Greta Gerwig will go with her storyline. Perhaps in the movie Barbie will harness her privilege to become an anti-racist activist and accomplice who helps disrupt racism and oppression, and fights against gender and body norms. Somehow I don't see that happening, but I do suspect the movie will try to at least forward some of the issues of racism, sexism, and body and gender norming that the Barbie franchise has both perpetuated and problematized–which I'd count as a win. But I guess I'll have to watch and find out.