Barbie Goes Mod: The Sixties

From "Gold 'N Glamour" to "Lamb 'N Leather": Barbie Goes Mod

After the assassination of President Kennedy America was beginning to realize that the fifties way of life was quickly disappearing. Amidst the confusion and chaos of the new era, Barbie would not wear or do anything that did not portray a positive American image. Barbie modeled some fashions strikingly similar to Jackie O's until her marriage to Ari Onassis started a scandal within the American public. Her image was tainted, and Barbie could not be associated with that which would potentially harm her own. Another significant change was that although girls did not stop playing with Barbie, many started collecting and displaying her. Older girls played with Barbie simply because "she had not outgrown her original concept...she was [still] the heroine they looked up to"(Mandeville 21). A new "Barbie goes to College" playset became available to take these older girls further down the "role model" path (19). Because she was also appealing to older audiences, quality and "classic" looks prevailed. Proms and sock-hops gave way to the "Debutante Ball" and "Benefit Performance" series. Soon, however, the Hoola Hoop and Mini Skirt threw this "couture" series into the closet.

The Beatles were twisting, Woodstock was humming, and love beads and war cries were causing an uproar. Amidst everything from violence to feminism, Mattel was sheltering what had become America's Golden Girl. She needed to show America that although the country was in political turmoil, she presented a stable yet still incredibly fashionable lifestyle. Barbie then did some twisting and turning of her own. The pearls were abandoned for bright, dangling earrings, and Barbie donned a mini skirt with her newly-designed bent legs! But she could not do it alone. Francie, Barbie's "mod"ern cousin, was introduced in a polka-dotted top and gingham bikini bottom in 1966; Twiggy, the real-life trendsetter of the day, had her own likeness pop up in 1967; and Ken was back, after a brief absence, with a new face and a more "mod" haircut. The friends allowed Barbie to wear more faddish clothes; she was jazzy, cool, even "zingy".

Although the new outfits suggested excitement and adventure, the series and titles were named for the fabrics instead of the activities. Outfits like "Fur Out" and "Mini Print" assured the public that Barbie was not burning any bras or wandering around in a drug-induced daze with a pet rock; "it was if Mattel didn't dare admit where a real college student might wear such clothes" (Lord 62). Barbie critics may have thought that Barbie could never have portrayed such a controversial time in the wholesome, demure way she had in the past, but Mattel turned this challenge into an opportunity. Through Barbie Mattel portrayed not only what society's expectations were, as in the doll's first season, but they now showed the alternatives to the controversial activities that appeared to be in the limelight. Society expects her to be participating in the same kind of activities that the majority of the teenagers were doing: smoking marijuana, practicing "free love", and protesting on the White House Lawn. Mattel presented her as the ideal MODern teenager; she normalized mini skirts and go go boots because they did not accompany drugs and protests in her representation of the era Parents found a certain sanctuary in Barbie, and they could feel confident that their daughters would not be corrupted by Barbie's activities.

Barbie was enclosed in her own fantasy world, but that didn't limit her, it pushed her into a different realm. In 1966 "Color Magic" Barbie, which included a "magic" solution to change the color of her hair and clothes, was brought to the front lines. This and other diverse themes make make-believe popular and exciting. The social havoc did not detrimentally limit Barbie's activities; she definitely had her fair share of fun. Mattel began a new era when introducing "Twist and Turn" Barbie with a moveable waist; the possibilities of making Barbie even more life-like seemed endless. Within the next few years, Mattel had created a doll that could "move, bend, pose, grasp, tilt [her] head, and change [her] hair"(Westenhouser 110). With all of the new options, young girls could never get bored.

To market the epitome of a sixties teenager Mattel began a "Total Go" promotional campaign in 1965. Barbie had bendable legs and could color her hair, and they wanted everyone to know about it. Mattel started a twelve million dollar campaign that utilized all three networks, Life and Jack and Jill magazines, and the Sunday comics. Every commercial, however, was tested with children before airing nationally; if the kids enjoyed the ad, it passed. Thus Mattel did not "superimpose(d) a culture on the kids... [they] have dictated what their own culture should be"(Schneider qtd. in Lord 42). Other toy makers were floundering with their own versions of Barbie. Tammy, introduced by the Ideal Toy and Novelty Corporation was essentially a mere "baby" doll in a woman's clothes and had trouble in the market; and Judy Littlechap of the Littlechap family produced by Remco revolved around her family and had no identity of her own (Lord 56).

Barbie had a house, a car, a boyfriend; she had the lifestyle envious to girls and dolls alike.

Mattel also announced a new "trade-in" program in 1967. This entitled young girls to trade-in their old Barbie dolls (plus $1.50) for the newest Barbie. Perhaps Mattel was only trying to update the doll, but maybe they "wanted to erase forever the old image of Barbie"(Mandeville 26). The ideal image of the teenager was changing, and Mattel wanted its consumers to connect with and become as devoted to the new dolls as they were to the older versions. The program also taught young girls that "man's relationship with things are increasingly temporary"(Billy Boy 92). Some girls would rush to get the new and improved doll, while others clung onto their treasures from past years. Holding onto the past was becoming more difficult as society immersed itself in transient attitudes that transformed to conform to each prevailing fad, issue, or cause. Mattel would have to decide which of these would be rejected and which would be embraced to satisfy the American public.

Questions of racial equality dominating the country were answered by Mattel in 1967 with a black version of Francie. Francie was well established and had her own personality and society was not ready to automatically associate her traits with that of a black doll. This may be a result of Francie's image being "almost directly inspired by 'Gidget'," a television teenager played by Sally Field who "spoke hip lingo and...was a sensation"(Billy Boy 78). Perhaps Caucasian parents were not ready to integrate their child's playroom, and black parents did not associate Francie's characteristics with their own. Regardless of the consumers' motivation, the racial tension influenced her sales, and she was discontinued shortly thereafter. She was replaced just a year later in 1968 by Christie, a friend of Barbie's who was black but had her own personality, and she fared quite well in the market (Billy Boy 82). Barbie was, however, "at the forefront of newscasters' snide comments [because she] was 'mainstreaming'"(Mandeville 28). Prejudice came from the parents, for children saw nothing peculiar or reprehensible about the integration of Barbie's new friend. With activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, though, the country began to realize that the civil rights movement was not a passing fad; African-Americans wanted and rightfully deserved equality. Just as blacks were trying to assert their self-sufficiency across the country, Christie owner's were able to develop a personality for her; she was not playing off of another doll . Christie's success may also be attributed to what she was saying: consumers liked what they were seeing and hearing.

Barbie fans' were rejoicing over Mattel's unveiling of Talking Barbie! By the end of the decade Barbie and all of her friends could talk about their new clothes and hairstyles and boyfriends; not only that Barbie's fan club had reached 600,000, second only to the Girl Scouts of America (Westenhouser 15). Society had invented their own personality for Barbie, each little girl may have done so in a unique way, but Barbie spoke a language they could all understand. Mattel listened to and answered the public, and in turn girls found an incredibly hip role model. Barbie, however, could not stay "mod" forever.

  • Introduction
  • Inventing Barbie
  • Barbie in the Seventies and Eighties
  • Barbie in the Nineties
  • Bibliography Return to Home Page