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If you played with Barbies growing up like my sister and I did almost every day, you probably knew several things before the “Barbie” movie was released.
First, you probably knew that Barbie has long been considered a feminist icon (although not a perfect one) who reminded girls that, as the jingle said, “We girls can do anything — right, Barbie?” Since her debut in 1959, Barbie has been revolutionary in many ways, allowing girls to look ahead to their own futures, rather than care for someone else. She also owned a Dream House before most single women could even obtain mortgages to buy their own homes.
Secondly, the Barbie world includes a whole lot of dolls most people didn’t realize existed. While some of these Barbies may be a bit weird from today’s point of view, they have to be considered in their historical context. With so many dolls on the market, it’s natural that Mattel would make some missteps now and then. And now that the “Barbie” movie has officially reached the $1 billion mark at the box office, everyone’s getting a crash course in Barbie history.
In fact, many of these discontinued dolls are seeing the spotlight in pop culture for the first time in many years. They appear in the movie both as main characters and as Easter egg-style cameos. Some of these characters include the scene-stealing Allan as played by Michael Cera, pregnant Midge, Growing Up Skipper and Astronaut Barbie (the one from 1985, with the glittery magenta and silver “spacesuit”).
Here are some of the Barbies that have been discontinued over the years — and the fascinating backstory behind each one’s rise and fall.
Allan Sherwood was first released in 1963, but other versions of him were made in 1991 and 2002, according to the He’s A Doll Club, an official fan group for Ken. He was created to be Midge Hadley’s boyfriend and Ken’s friend, who could share clothes with him. Eventually, he was dropped in favor of Brad, a Black doll created in about 1969 to be the boyfriend of Christy.
Presumably, Allan is the one that fathered Midge’s child, so he was able to return when the Happy Family line entered the scene in the early ’90s (when his name was changed to Wedding Day Alan). While he never had much of a role in the Barbie universe, that has all changed since the movie came out. If you want to get your hands on one, you’ll probably have the best luck on eBay.
Happy Family Midge
Yes, as you likely learned from watching the new movie, there was once a pregnant Barbie doll. Ultimately, Midge Hadley didn’t play a huge role in the “Barbie” movie, even though she appeared in preview movie posters in April. But she’s been the doll’s best friend since 1963. She was designed, as doll historians say, to be the more relatable sidekick to Barbie, with red hair and freckles plus a less fashionable mien.
“Midge wasn’t the dream girl. Barbie was the dream girl. Midge was the ugly sidekick who might have made a mistake,” M.G. Lord, author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll,” told BuzzFeed News.
Midge was released six times total, with the 1990 version being the Happy Family version. At that point, she was married to Alan and had a three-year-old son. Controversially, she also had a removable belly, which held a plastic toy “newborn.” Since Barbie was meant to represent a particular time in a woman’s life when she was young and without children, Lord noted, Midge was elected to get pregnant (even though the Heart Family had been released just five years before).
The controversial Happy Family Mom & Baby set was removed from store shelves at retailers like Walmart, the Associated Press reported in 2002, with some parents complaining that the Midge doll glamorized teen pregnancy. Thanks to the movie’s success, Midge, like Allan, is once again popular on sites like eBay.
Growing Up Skipper
Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, was introduced in 1964 as the first other member of Barbie’s family. She’s meant to be about 14 years old, addressing critics that wanted Barbie to be less of a sex symbol — without making her too domestic.
According to the documentary “The Toys That Made Us” that’s streaming on Netflix, this infamous doll was the brainchild of head designer Steve Lewis, whose daughter was getting her own starter bra in about 1975. When you wound Skipper’s arm, she would grow taller and she would get breasts. Wind it the other way, and they disappeared.
Carole Spencer, a Barbie designer at the time, explained, “My sample makers, two ladies, eight children between them, took one look at that doll and said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They would not buy it, they would not work on it.”
Nevertheless, Growing Up Skipper made it to market. Although the doll was meant to teach girls about puberty, it was a misstep — and so was Growing Up Ginger, Skipper’s pal with similar features. The dolls were discontinued after a couple of years.
In this viral TikTok video from @krystybelle, you can see how the doll actually works:
@krysteybelle #growingupskipper #barbie #skipper #barbiemovie #barbiemoviedolls ♬ Barbie Girl – Lady Aqua
Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken
Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken, released as part of the Barbie Collector Line for adults in 2010, was a designer doll whose fashion was modeled after tropical prints from Trina Turk and Lilly Pulitzer. A Mattel spokeswoman told the New York Post at the time of the doll’s release that the name of the little dog is Sugar, making this Ken Sugar’s daddy.
And at the time, spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni told ABC, “While the name of the doll does refer back to the dog, I think people are going to interpret it as they want to interpret it.” Wink, wink, nudge.
According to Mattel’s official line, adult Barbie fans wanted a Ken who could match Barbie’s stylish Fashion Model Collection line. And Collider notes that the look is influenced by photographer Slim Aarons’ Palm Springs collections from the ’70s. This Ken doll cost $82 and production was cancelled in 2012.
Earring Magic Ken
In 1993, Ken got a makeover, informed by a survey of young girls who were asked if Barbie should stay with Ken or get a new boyfriend. The girls apparently wanted her to keep Ken — but they also wanted him to be cooler. Enter Earring Magic Ken, who came with a mesh T-shirt and purple vest, and wore an earring on his left side.
Apparently the girls surveyed were getting their information from MTV, and possibly from the straight appropriation of gay culture, speculated critic and author Dan Savage (per Matt Haig’s book “Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistake of All Time”).
“Suddenly, it’s hip to be queer,” Savage wrote at the time. “The little girls of our great nation wanted a hipper Ken, and Mattel gave them a hip Ken. A queer Ken.”
Mattel quickly pulled all the Earring Magic Kens off shelves. They’re pretty rare, so they can sell for a pretty penny on eBay.
Barbie and Tanner
Over many years, Barbie has had a number of animals in her life (including horses that Ryan Gosling’s Ken might have loved). The most notorious of these came in the “Barbie and Tanner” playset, which was released in 2006. The product description explained that Tanner (a girl) is soft and fuzzy, with moving ears, head, and tail. Her mouth opens so she can get fed dog biscuits, and she comes with bones, chew toys and a magnetic scooper, plus a trash can.
“When Tanner has to go to the bathroom, Barbie doll cleans up with her special magnetic scooper and trash can,” the listing notes. It discreetly does not mention that the dog biscuits also come out the other end as “poop.”
Unfortunately, there were reports that the small magnet in the scooper came loose in several instances, resulting in a choking hazard for children. Mattel issued a recall of 683,000 sets in 2007, but continued selling versions of it. You can still buy the Barbie Walk & Potty Pup toy set at places like Target, which is basically the same idea.
TikToker @millenial.nostalgia (Alison Gatto) posted this ad, which details how the toy works:
@millennial.nostalgia another round of YUP! mattel gave us this. this time a pooping dog. #mattel #mattelinc #barbie #barbieandtanner #00s #2006 #childhood #childhoodmemories #childhoodtoy #childhoodcommercial ♬ original sound – alyson_gatto
Video Girl Barbie
Video killed the radio star, as MTV’s first video told us, and in 2010, it also killed a Barbie doll, so to speak — or at least freaked a bunch of parents out. Mattel decided to release a Barbie doll that had a video camera inside, which was capable of recording around 25 minutes of video.
A small LCD screen with buttons in Barbie’s back let you see what she was recording, and it allowed you to play, record or delete videos. The lens was placed in the center of her chest and was “disguised” as the pendant of Barbie’s necklace, while batteries were stored in her thighs. It had a microphone and everything — including editing software.
Frame Voyager’s Obscure Cameras series says that although the initial reaction was somewhat positive, it didn’t last long. In fact, the FBI soon put out an alert to police departments that Barbie could be used to record child pornography, and should not be disregarded during searches.
Mattel’s statement said there had been no actual incidents. “Mattel products are designed with children and their best interests in mind,” the company said. “Many of Mattel’s employees are parents themselves and we understand the importance of child safety — it is our number one priority.”
Mattel quietly discontinued the toy two years later, but it’s a recent enough release that there are still listings for it on Amazon.
The weird and wonderful world of Barbie doesn’t end there, of course. There are plenty of other interesting dolls in the lineup that didn’t necessarily make it to screen — from Teen Talk Barbie and Kissing Barbie (she moved her head and came with her very own “lipstick” stamp) to the problematic Oreo Fun Barbie (yes, one version was Black).
Fortunately, though, the Barbie brand is stronger than ever these days. She’ll surely continue making history from here on out — and we’re here for it!