Barbie in the Seventies and Eighties

"New! Dramatic! Living Barbie" doesn't live too long

Mattel started looking for a new direction in the characteristically apathetic and psychedelic seventies, and amidst the influence of women's liberation and the sexual revolution they took their next move. Barbie's eyes had formerly been an averted, sideglance, but she needed to discard any submissive undertones and assert herself. In 1971, Barbie looked straight ahead at the world in front of her; the picture, however, appeared somewhat bleak. Despite high hopes of portraying women's new freedom in "Live Action Barbie", the "most posable Barbie doll ever made"(Billy Boy 100), with fringe-trimmed and "tie-dyed" outfits, only lasted a year. The continuing war in Vietnam caused teenagers to become indifferent to current issues, and hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD were even more prevalent. Mattel had taught society to expect changes in Barbie, but where were these kinds of disturbing trends going to lead America's most popular doll?

In addition to the political and social instability that the country could not seem to escape, Mattel experienced a fair amount of turbulence themselves. They underwent "the three R's: Restructuring, Reflection, and Re-examination"(West 106). Although Barbie sales never significantly fell, the company itself had severe internal difficulties and almost went bankrupt in 1974. Ruth and Elliot Handler, founders and chief executives of the company since its beginning, were expelled after Ruth was indicted by a federal grand jury for securities fraud. Because sales of the Barbie doll had progressively increased since her introduction, after experiencing two quarters with falling stocks in 1970, Ruth panicked. She and some other inside financial employees falsified financial documents to raise stock prices and in turn get loans (Lord 94,5). She was destroying the company she had created, and only the faith of Barbie lovers and consumer support would place Barbie back at the top.

With fresh faces in control, Barbie's face saw some changes. In 1975, Mattel decided she would show a warm grin, and in 1977 her golden smile became permanent(Westenhouser 25). They tried to focus on Barbie's "Sweet Sixteen" in 1974, but the doll was not as glamorous as her predecessors partly because "teens themselves were wearing less make-up and had...long straight hair"(Mandeville 32). She could move around much more readily so Mattel focused on a "sun, sand, and surf" design to portray a relaxed, care-free Barbie in times that were not. The company also spent two million dollars in an attempt to tie Barbie to the 1975 Winter Olympics. Barbie was the athlete of the year as she appeared as a swimmer, skater, and skier in foreign markets with the appropriate gold medal draped around her neck(Mandeville 33). This was a clever marketing move for Mattel to portray Barbie as an international star. This would help pull the country back to see Barbie's stability and flexibility amid troubled times.

Barbie may not have been at her height, but few Americans even took notice. In 1976, Barbie was given a place in "America's Time Capsule" at the nation's bicentennial celebration, giving her a permanent place in our country's history. In her Betsy Ross dress with lace trim, Barbie was proving that she could uphold an image amidst troubled times; she had survived and remained as an icon of America. The nation disregarded any valleys Mattel might have fallen into because she still symbolized an ideal teen; Barbie's active, healthy lifestyle kept her on top of the mountain. With this historical marker, she was literally transcending through time. She and Ken were still "Super Stars"(1976) and were seen as such in their glamorous, lively new line. America was engulfed in the disco craze, and Mattel's look was strikingly similar to the trend-setting stars of the day. Ken looked strikingly similar to Robert Redford as Barbie resembled the new star of "Charlie's Angels" Farrah Fawcett with her wide smile and winged hair . Donny and Marie Osmond, Barbie's licensed friends, added their disco flavor and popularity to Barbie's as well. She was still the fresh, poised young lady girls loved and admired, and they had not forgotten her.

  • Introduction
  • Inventing Barbie
  • Barbie in the Sixties
  • Barbie in the Nineties
  • Bibliography Return to Home Page