Before 1959, dolls looked like babies or young children. Girls were expected to learn about childcare when they played with these toys. But Barbie changed that forever. Barbie was a teenager who wore a bathing suit, makeup, and high heels. She had a career in fashion modeling. When girls played with her, they were free to imagine a grown-up life not necessarily tied to motherhood.
Barbie the toy and Barbie the character were direct products of post-war consumerism. The Mattel toy company sold many accessories for Barbie, including outfits, telephones, records, and magazines. In 1962, Barbie’s suburban “Dreamhouse” appeared in stores, promoting materialistic ideals. A series of Barbie’s companions were also introduced, including boyfriend Ken, best friend Midge, and little sister Skipper. A few years later, Mattel introduced Barbie’s first Black friends: Francie and Christie.
Barbie’s physical appearance informed her popularity and disfavor. Many girls interpreted her pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and hourglass figure as an ideal to which they should aspire. They wanted to be just like Barbie: beautiful, popular, adored by her boyfriend, and financially independent. But other girls—particularly girls of color—knew they could never look or be like Barbie. To them, she was a reminder that they were different and did not fit the mainstream image of a typical American girl. The introduction of Francie and Christie helped a bit. But they were not Barbie.
Even playing with Barbie was an unreachable goal for many girls who could not afford to buy a doll, let alone her lavish wardrobe.
The original Barbie appeared in toy stores in 1959. She wore a black-and-white bathing suit with her blond hair in a ponytail. Additional outfits and the carrying case in this picture were sold separately.
In 1967, Mattel introduced Francie, a darker-skinned version of a white doll with the same name. In 1968, Mattel created Christie. Christie had the same body as Barbie so that their clothes were interchangeable. But her face was a new design intended to highlight the facial features of a Black woman. Many consider Christie to be the first “Black Barbie.” Christie was part of a series of talking dolls. By pulling a string on her back, the doll said things like, “Hi! I’m Christie!” and “Let’s go shopping with Barbie.” Christie’s hair was black. (The Christie doll pictured has red hair because it has faded over time.)
Francie and Christie were advertised as Barbie’s friends in an attempt to create a racially diverse Barbie world. But whether children actually played with the dolls in this way is less clear. Most often, white girls bought Barbie, and Black girls bought Christie. In 1980, Mattel started offering three versions of Barbie: white Barbie, Black Barbie, and Latina Barbie.