Happy social security birthday Barbie Millicent Roberts!

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

A line utilized during the 1970’s by Consumers Markets, a now defunct regional supermarket chain, to promote their in-store bakery was “Every day is somebody’s birthday – don’t forget the cake!”. That line made an impression on me because it made me realize that every day someone, somewhere has a birthday.

Today is the birthday of an American icon, a character that everyone recognizes whether they love her or hate her – Miss Barbie Millicent Roberts, better known as simply Barbie.

On March 9, 1959, Barbie made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York City and became popular with young girls.

Barbie’s inspiration came from Lilli, first a German comic strip character and then a sexy doll considered inappropriate for children. Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel Toys, brought back some Lilli dolls and used them to create her own version – Barbie, named for her daughter.

In the first year, more than a quarter of a million Barbie dolls were sold. Little girls now had an option beyond baby dolls that they could mother. They had a doll they could dress in fashionable clothes.

Like most girls of my generation, I had Barbie dolls. Mine lived in a heavy case designed for skates that offered a deep bottom for storage of the dolls, clothes, and accessories. The lid became Barbie’s living space, her home, or the stage on which she played many roles.

My Barbies did much more than change clothes and be fashionable. Mine played out a variety of stories, often complex ones. A budding storyteller and one day author, I created storylines for my Barbies, whether it involved high school (at the time I thought of Barbie as a teenager or young adult), home life, dating Ken, or exploring the world at large.

Of course, I wasn’t content to just play “house” either – I had a version that I called “Western Days” in which I played the role of a pioneer traveling by covered wagon (which was often built with the dining room chairs) or someone living in a log cabin or soddy on the frontier. Sometimes I was a dance hall girl who twirled to music. I did nurture my baby dolls, some of which I still have and enjoyed a new round of infanthood with my daughters. I also had some of the short-lived but popular “Dawn” dolls, which were about half the size of Barbie but similar.

I had a few official Barbie outfits including a wedding gown complete with veil and tiny bouquet but my favorite outfits were some I received for Christmas one year that my mother had made. There’s some idea that all Barbies were originally blonde but I had at least one brunette Barbie doll back in the day and a few Malibu Barbies that set me dreaming about beaches and California. It took years but eventually I made it to Malibu, to the Pacific, to California, and to Los Angeles, the trippiest city I have ever visited.

Today, Barbie marks 62 years – old enough to draw social security if she were human but I’ve yet to see a mature or a Grandmother Barbie. Instead, Barbie remains ageless, young, a body that no real woman could ever inhabit, with a variety of skin colors, hair colors, and occupations.

Like most things today, Barbie has garnered her share of criticism but at the end of the day, she’s just a doll – a toy intended to fire children’s imaginations and dream of the world and life to come. For me, she served as an early device to spin stories – and that’s a good thing.

-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a storyteller, writer and author now writing full time after years as a reporter and editor. She makes her home in the far southwest corner of the Missouri Ozarks.