Barbie at the Design Museum review: are we really still bothered about Barbie after last summer's blitz?

1984 Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie (yaeantho)
1984 Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie (yaeantho)

It is perhaps unfortunate timing that this retrospective of everyone’s favourite problematic toy has come a year after last summer’s Barbie-core blitz.

Marking the 65th anniversary of Mattel’s premiere product, the show has been three years in the planning, which was before Greta Gerwig’s box office smash was announced.

Still, 12 months on are we still bothered about the doll? The answer is yes, and no. Little girls remain entranced. My seven-year-old daughter was certainly radicalised by the endless promotion and has since acquired an ambulance, doctor Barbie and wheelchair Ken.

I’ve lost count of the Barbie-themed birthday parties friends with children have attended over the past year. Barbie-core reverberates about us, as it has for the past six decades.

This exhibition – which positions itself as looking at “the design history of the brand” – gives a thorough backstory of the doll and her accoutrements via a fun, buzzy set; in, of course, that jarring, tangy, headache inducing pink.

It opens, as the film does, with the original 1959 Barbie in her black and white swimsuit, the brainchild of Ruth Handler, who headed up Mattel’s sales and marketing division while her husband Elliot running research and design.

There is grainy footage of the Japanese factory line from which she was born. Along one wall runs Mattel’s potted history of highlights: 1961, Ken is born; 1968, Christie, the first black friend of Barbie; 1992, Barbie “runs” for President of the US for the first time.

There are the (anatomically impossible) technical dimensions of the doll, early outfits, commercials for Barbie and Ken’s 1961 six-song record. In 1965 she got bendable knees, by 1999 she was wearing outfits inspired by Prada catwalk looks.

Granular attention is shown to the design development of the doll, the evolving face and body moulds; the introduction of different body sizes and ethnicities.

For fanatics there are 180 dolls to be thrilled by, including the mechanical inside of 1968’s ‘talking Barbie’; 1975’s ‘growing up Skipper’ whose boobs grew by rotating her arm (puberty is fun!); 1961’s ‘registered nurse’; 1985’s pink suited, mobile phone touting ‘day-to-night’ Barbie and 1977’s major makeover, resulting in Superstar Barbie’s tumbling blonde locks.

Alongside this there is a room full of extended paraphernalia – games, dream houses (which started off in much more muted sepia Seventies tones than the garish puce ones formed later on when Mattel seized on its hot pink shade to help streamline the brand) and cars from Jaguars to camper vans.

The final room attempts to show the doll’s wider impact on fashion and culture. Here are her dresses created by Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan and London’s Richard Quinn; wearing Rihanna’s Guo Pei much memed yellow Met Gala dress; British model Adwoa Aboah as a Barbie.

A Barbie painting by Andy Warhol, Vogue and Time magazine covers, a poster from Gerwig’s film, Barbie’s Instagram account and YouTube channel… You may have guessed that Mattel has had involvement here – you don’t get access to the brand without keeping them happy.

It is very much a reading of Barbie via its archive – which is great if you want to see a surface level, nostalgic potted history of the doll and Mattel’s immense skill in marketing it from the get-go. But, like the film, the more nuanced debate surrounding the doll is left alone.

The idea that Barbie can of course be anything, as long as she looks perfect doing it is well honed here. The fact that this spilled over into repressive beauty standards for women is avoided (Gerwig’s movie might have tried to question the concept of Barbie, but the knock on result were clinics selling “Barbie arm botox”).

There is no inclusion of the excellent 2018 documentary Tiny Shoulders, which showed inside Mattel at an inflection point where the doll was losing traction; The exhibition seeks – as Gerwig did with her film – the idea that Barbie is but an avatar for children (and adults) to project ideas onto; a blank canvass for play.

There is a riveting exhibition to be made which looks at the feminist debate, limitations and politics around Barbie, but this isn’t it.

Design Museum, to February 23;