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Analog Barbie in the Twenty-first Century

By Yvonne Kusiima

Caine Prize nominee, Yvonne Kusiima, writes about analog Barbie and her influence on girls, women, society and culture from her introduction in the 50s and through the ages.

Pink Doll Boots
Photo: Pink Boots via Unsplash

When I was fourteen, I put Barbie in the oven. I was serious about hairdressing and since I lacked the right equipment, the oven was the equivalent of a hooded hair dryer in the fashion of Steel Magnolias. But this is not about Barbie being a helpless plastic toy. This is about the indestructible Barbie, the doll who survives all kinds of wonders of childhood imagination and keeps accomplishing great things.

Barbie was born on March 9, 1959. Unlike the traditional clingy bairn, she entered the world an independent teenager, both blonde and brunette and had the perfect figure. She evaded baby clothes and instead wore a chic black and white swimsuit. Barbie had the perfect sunglasses for her outfit and of course, hoop earrings. In her 2023 blockbuster, her boyfriend’s job is unsurprisingly, “just beach.”

Photo: Original Barbie Doll 1959, Amazon / Barbie Media / Mattel. Barbie doll in black and white stripey swimsuit
Photo: Original Barbie Doll 1959, Amazon / Barbie Media / Mattel

Six days before Barbie’s debut, the Pioneer 4 had become the second man made object to pass the moon and to enter an orbit around the sun, becoming the first American made planetary object. Today, sixty-four-year-old Barbie, American-made but an international phenomenon who still looks like a teenager, is moving around the globe faster than a spacecraft. There are many ways to be au courant with Barbie. You might have her at home, you can see her online or in a toy store. Barbie can be seen in one of the million cinemas and on several hard to ignore digital billboards worldwide. There is even a small probability that you might be the actress Margot Robbie’s cousin. Every perfect movie has the perfect music and songs from the Barbie movie soundtrack by Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Nicki Minaj with Ice Spice are all top ten on the Global 200 chart.

Barbie started her world domination by captivating several little girls of different backgrounds. From Michelle in New York to me in Kansanga. She had the perfect wardrobe, the perfect car, the perfect friends, the perfect jobs, the perfect Dreamhouse and Ken. Her name means “stranger” but Barbie is far from that. Over a billion Barbies have been sold in around one hundred fifty countries. In acknowledgement of the diversity of her fan base, she was not going to be just a regular blue eyed blonde Barbie. No matter the color of one’s skin, there is a Barbie for everyone. In addition, Barbie represents over nine different body types and has more than ninety hairstyles.

In the era Barbie was introduced, some television shows suggested that the perfect woman was a housewife mother waiting for her working husband to come home so she could serve him deep-fried vegetables. But Barbie has always aimed for the sky. Only six years after her introduction to the world at the North American International Toy Fair in New York City, Barbie showed little girls and everyone else that she was here to make giant leaps when she walked on the moon. No, Barbie was not for the pre-programmed life many women lived. She had college aspirations and she needed to fly planes. Like she sings in Barbie in the Pink Shoes, she follows her heart and somehow it always seems to know.

I watch old Barbie commercials for fun because I am fascinated by old black and white Hollywood productions and because I am me. Anyway, in one of them, someone says Barbie has the most fabulous wardrobe designed by Mattel’s famous designers but for me, buying Barbie the new outfits a fashion model deserved was impossible so I followed my heart and ripped apart my dear old garments to turn them into dream couture. I sat for long hours using a needle and thread, laboring in love to produce the short pleated skirts and crop tops that I longed to wear.

I must say, I made Barbie look amazing but dressed in a regal Oscar de la Renta gown decorated in chocolate lace and golden brocading, she is a sight to behold. A true fashion icon. The Sirius of stars. Many celebrities have been turned into Barbie dolls. Those who were not around in 1959 are now dressing themselves and their children like her in honor of her awesomeness.

Despite her impeccable style, Barbie is not a snob. She socializes with all kinds of people who could be as young as three years or as old as Antarctic fruitcake. In a world where many women have been judged by their appearance, Barbie is the kind of friend everyone needs. She is here to prove each girl and woman is beautiful. She has come a long way from the old Barbie who made girls think they had to aspire to a specific look. Many people who had grown up with Barbie but had taken a long break from her were pleasantly surprised to find out from the Greta Gerwig directed Barbie movie that there was not just one Barbie, but that Issa Rae, America Ferrera, Ritu Arya and Alexandra Shipp were all Barbie.

Photo: Barbie Movie 2023 Poster, Warner Bros. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling on a giant 'B'
Photo: Barbie Movie 2023 Poster, Warner Bros

But Barbie is not fully running away from the past. Her twenty-first century movie pays homage to her analog origins. In creating the perfect Barbie dream world, Greta Gerwig was inspired by old Hollywood movies like Singin' in the Rain and the Wizard of Oz which were in wondrous Technicolor thus we have TechnoBarbie wowing plenty of cinemagoers who live in a world filled with computer-generated imagery. Now, Barbie is the biggest movie of 2023.

Barbie has made a lot of money from her analog days to today but most importantly, she has shown girls and humans in general to stand out in their unique way. On an earth filled with many hues, Barbie doll lives by her own shade of pink.

I am grateful that like Ruth Handler’s doll, I learnt early to step out of the box and be proudly bona fide. What makes me different is indeed my greatest strength.


About the Writer:

Yvonne Kusiima is a Ugandan writer with a degree in Social Sciences from Kyambogo

University. Her work has been published in African Writer Magazine, Kalahari Review, Brittle

Paper, Isele Magazine, Erato Magazine and elsewhere.

She is interested in the complexity of humans and the power of words in the creation of better

ways of life in societies. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2023 Isele short story prize and

the 2023 Caine Prize for African writing.


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