Hello, dolly: meet the Barbie fans getting ready for a fabulous year

In a colourful Brighton living room, a group of trashily dressed friends plan a trip to Benidorm over a tray of barbecue meats, a cluster of platinum blondes gossip beneath 1970s hairdresser hoods and a “lovely lady” called Alex, dressed in a short skirt and a bra top, runs a thriving pole-dancing club. Meanwhile, in a crystal chandelier-lit salon, a dinner party is under way, where guests sit before a dining table strewn with dismembered body parts and the decapitated head of Jack Sparrow.

“The cannibals’ dinner party was a little joke to see if my husband would notice,” says Tristan Piñeiro of the quirky doll tableaux set up on his living-room walls.

“I usually hide little chocolate Easter eggs in my scenarios to see if he notices the changes, but I thought gorier scenes would amuse him.”

Marketing executive Piñeiro, 50, has been a fan of Barbie since he wearied of playing war games with muscular Action Men at some point in the mid-70s. “I thought: what’s the point if they just go to war and die?” he recalls. “It was the living that interested me.”

When Piñeiro’s grandmother bought him a brunette ballerina doll he was quickly hooked. He now owns more than 500 vintage Barbies and Sindys (her more wholesome British counterpart), although he recently sold 100 sought-after vintages to fund his Brighton flat deposit, raising “several thousand pounds”.

The good news, says Piñeiro, is that he’s no longer a “social weirdo”. “In my 20s and 30s, I was wary that dates would see my dolls and think I was odd,” he says, “but adult doll-collecting is now mainstream and the whole adult play thing is huge.”

Much has been made of the fact that the original 1959 Barbie – a curvaceous 11.5in human figure with a nipped-in waist, waterfall blonde ponytail, zebra-print swimsuit and kitten heels, now known to collectors as “Ponytail Number One” – was inspired by a German adult novelty sex doll called Lilli. For Mattel cofounder Ruth Handler, the motivation was always to design a popular doll who was a woman of her times, who “made her own choices”. Barbie, Mattel points out, never officially married Ken.

Barbie was, from the outset, a lightning rod. Initially for religious conservatives who thought her womanly dimensions inappropriate for children’s play; and soon, for feminists who reviled Barbie’s cartoonish and anatomically impossible curves. Body Wars, Margo Maine’s 2000 feminist broadside, noted that at 5ft 9in tall and with a 39in bust, an 18in waist and 33in hips, a classically moulded Barbie would have had a BMI of 16.24 and find it impossible to stand on her size-three feet.

In July, the latest volley in the long rehabilitation of the world’s most famous doll hits our screens. Directed by indie darling Greta Gerwig and co written by Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, Barbie, billed as a tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy, is the first live-action film in the Barbie franchise. Like its namesake, the project isn’t short on controversy, having run through more writers and directors since the project’s 2009 announcement than the eponymous plastic biped has had hot pink outfits (Amy Schumer dropped out in 2017 due to “creative differences” with makers Sony and Mattel), yet it arrives against the backdrop of Mattel’s long effort to address criticisms of its idealised version of white womanhood.

The past three decades have seen the launches of gay-signalling companion Earring Magic Ken (1993), Rosa Parks Barbie (2019), Fashionista Barbie in a wheelchair (2019), a Barbie with vitiligo (2020) and, in 2022, the first transgender Barbie, designed in collaboration with Laverne Cox. “Christie”, the first Barbie friend with African American features (earlier Black Barbies had used the white-Barbie face moulds), arrived in 1980.

Elsewhere, Barbie is having a moment. Barbie movie teasers, which featured leads Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken in shocking pink and tassled “Barbie Out West” outfits from the 1970s, ignited a “Barbiecore” lifestyle trend. Meanwhile, the pandemic found furloughed middle-aged westerners in a nostalgic mood. “Kidulting” (a growth in adults collecting and playing with their favourite childhood toys) led to Mattel’s profits surging by 47% in 2021, to $1.35bn and a six-year high. Boxed vintage Barbies, such as Ponytail Number One, can achieve more than $20,000 at auction.

Clare Rawling, 41 and based in Blackpool, spent the winter lockdown of early 2021
buying back all of the Barbies she had owned as a child. “I saw a Facebook meme about 1980s toys and I remembered how much I’d loved my Barbies,” she says.

In the past couple of years Rawling has bought 70 vintage Barbies with their accessories: some models have been picked up from charity shops and others from collectors’ outlets on eBay where NRFB (collector-speak for “never removed from box”) Barbies go for upwards of £100. For Rawling, who runs an online vintage film poster store, this spasm of childhood nostalgia was bound up with memories of her father, Chris, who died in 2014 and had supported Rawling’s childhood passion for dolls – converting the loft of their home into a pink-painted and carpeted Barbie room, filled with miniature furniture and a replica doll’s house to scale.

In May 2021, Rawling made a stop-motion video starring her “mini-me”, a Barbie in jeans with a high brunette ponytail, an avatar that Rawling commissioned, as many Barbie fans do, from a Barbie customiser in Thailand. The short animation, The Room Next Door, saw Barbie sitting in a wallpapered living room that resembled Rawling’s own, pining for her father, a grey-haired and bespectacled man doll, who sat on the other side of a wall. Chris doll steps through the wall and hugs Clare Barbie and then disappears, leaving the woman doll hugging an empty space. Rawling, who posts her videos to Instagram as Vintage Barbie Clare, found that she had joined a lively subculture of adult collectors who arrange their Barbies in “dioramas”, or lifelike three-dimensional scenes, and photograph or animate the results to share with fellow online enthusiasts.

There are distinct categories of adult collectors, Rawling explains. You have the purists who collect Barbies for their investment value and keep them boxed Then there are those who see their dolls as there to be enjoyed. “I suppose you would say us lot are playing.”

Like other interactive collectors, Rawling enjoys dressing up her plastic charges in new outfits. Doll couturiers have sprung up to serve this market, including GTG Dollwear, a couture line set up by a former City banker, Dasha Dem, and The Doll Foundry, a clotheswear brand launched by Chinese-Vietnamese British tailor Phat Vi, who sidestepped into small clothing from adult suit-making in 2021. Vi also stages “doll meet-ups” where adult British doll fans gather in London pubs, accompanied by their inanimate friends.

“I can’t explain the pleasure I get from my doll hobby,” Rawling says. “Apart from to say it reconnects me with my inner child.”

Bettina Dorfman, 61 and based in Düsseldorf, is a professional Barbie collector and authenticator. A Guinness Book of Records record-holder for her 18,500-strong Barbie
collection, Dorfman secured German government funding in 2021 for an exhibition, Barbie the Career Girl, which explores the many occupations Barbie has enjoyed in her 63 years, from astronaut to basketball player and, a 2021 reproduction in a crisp Victorian nurse’s outfit, Florence Nightingale Barbie. The travelling exhibition will be staged at schools across Germany in 2023.

“What I love about Barbie is that she’s a mirror of us over time,” says Dorfman. She became a serious collector in the 1990s. Today, her collection is worth €250,000 and her dolls have been exhibited as far afield as China and Russia. The lustrous late-1960s dolls of Dorfman’s childhood are her personal favourites.

Barbie has represented 150 careers and more than 40 nationalities in the long decades of her existence, although there have been controversies. A 1990s Teen Talk Barbie was criticised for the sexist phrases preloaded into her chirpy lexicon, which included the gem, “Math class is tough”; Pregnant Midge, a 2002 take on Barbie’s red-headed sidekick, was accused of encouraging teen pregnancy; and Black Canary Barbie, designed in tribute to the female DC comic strip superhero, was pulled from shelves in 2008 after parents complained that her outfit, a latex black bodysuit with fishnets and a studded collar, was “too bondage” for child’s play.

Dorfman also runs a doll hospital from her kitchen, repairing vintage Barbies that have experienced the rough hand of their young owners’ love. Many Barbies arrive with severed hair and defaced features, she says, as well as split necks from having their heads manipulated. Dorfman herself set up domestic scenarios for her Barbies as a child and sees doll-play as an important way of exploring world’s that are forbidden to children: whether that’s recreating adult scenes from TV or exploring budding sexuality.

In her 1995 book, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, social scientist Erica Rand details the rough and imaginative play that children enjoy with their Barbie dolls. Through adult testimonials of child play, Rand explores the trashing, dyking and stripping naked of Barbies through play as a form of social resistance against the opportunistic identity
marketing of Barbie by Mattel’s corporate machine. (She’s a Rapper! She’s An Astronaut! She’s a Bride!)

Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin used to teach a module for undergraduates at the Occidental College in California called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie”. She encouraged her students to compose an autobiographical piece about Barbie and their own childhoods. “And you know there was anger there: they’d smash Barbie about, tear her limbs off; blow her up,” Chin says. “But that’s a great response to a product that for all of its claims to become diverse is brass tacks, about capitalism. Mattel’s ‘diversity’ is really about taking body positivity or differently pigmented skin or whatever, and selling it back to us in doll form.”

Chazlyn Yvonne, 21, is a digital marketing student based in Los Angeles. A “hyperfemininity” blogger and Barbiecore enthusiast, Yvonne cites Barbie as her “feminist inspiration” “because she does what she wants on her own terms”. Yvonne posts stills and videos to YouTube and Instagram [as chazlyn.yvonne], in which she poses in pink ruffled dresses that call to mind early Barbie attire. Yvonne collected Barbies as a child during the height of Mattel’s diversity drive, she says. They include African American Totally Hair Barbie (a bestseller with floor-length hair) and figures from the 2015 Barbie Sheroes collection, who included filmmaker Marie DuVernay and Scots-African American actor Zendaya.

“Barbiecore is this ultra-feminine movement that came up in lockdown when people got sick of just wearing sweatpants,” Yvonne says of a subculture that its advocates depict as feelgood froth, and detractors as feminist backsliding. Yvonne fields fan messages, she says, from young Black girls who are drawn to her Barbiecore look. “I like to show up for girls like me,” she says. “To represent feminine Black women who like ballet and Barbie.”

Tristan Piñeiro sighs when I mention Barbiecore. “It’s a trend that’s based on an outdated idea of that 1970s blonde Malibu Barbie in her saturated pinks,” he says. “Go into any toy shop and you will find Barbies are nothing like that: they come in all shapes and sizes and attires; some of them are avant garde works of art, like the Mattel partnership with [US pop surrealist] Mark Ryden that gave us Barbie as a human bee.”

The Barbie movie represents the high-water mark of Mattel’s wink-wink dalliance with the mores of the liberal left. The plot hinges on Margot Robbie Barbie being expelled from Barbieland for being a less-than-perfect-looking doll and embarking on a journey to the human world “to find true happiness”. It’s expected to feature a range of differently abled and raced Barbies.

Based in LA, Yvonne is in hot demand as a Barbie influencer in the buildup to the launch, and Rawling is looking forward to launching movie merchandise, such as Barbie’s bubblegum-pink convertible. Piñeiro and his dolls are also excited about Barbie’s day in the sun. Piñeiro plans to set his girls up to watch the movie at a drive-in cinema diorama. There will be Barbie cars mounted with miniature speakers, a Sindy doll serving the popcorn and a doll serial killer lurking in the shadows. “You can’t take Barbie too seriously now, can you?” Piñeiro smiles.