Barbie: a forward-thinking and a behind-the-times image of womanhood
As the new Barbie film catapults the doll back into the cultural spotlight, Barbie historian Robin Gerber explores the toy’s origins – and the sometimes controversial ways in which it has depicted wider social values
Who created Barbie, and when?
Barbie was born, so to speak, in 1959 – and revolutionised dolls instantly. Up to that point, there really was no adult doll for little girls to play with.
It was the genius of Ruth Handler [co-founder and, later, president of toy manufacturer Mattel, who created Barbie] to realise that little girls wanted to play at being big girls. She came to the idea by watching her own daughter play with paper dolls.
They were very frustrating to play with – the little paper tabs were always tearing off or not really connecting, so the clothes fell off all the time – but they allowed you to pretend to be an adult. That is still, to this day, what keeps Barbie so popular. It’s estimated that one sells somewhere around the world every few seconds.
Was Barbie inspired by Bild Lilli?
Barbie does have a sexy shape, but that was purely accidental. Handler couldn’t get her design team to make the kind of dolls she had in mind. They said: don’t be ridiculous – mothers will never buy a doll with breasts. But then, in Switzerland, she saw an adult doll called Lilli, and she knew it was what she wanted her design team to make. I think if she had seen a doll that wasn’t so sexy, that would have been okay, too – it just happened that Lilli was the doll she found that she could buy, bring back and copy.
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Lilli had started as a sexy-looking cartoon character in popular German newspaper Bild Zeitung. The cartoon was very popular with men, so it makes sense that a toy was developed that men could buy for bachelor parties, or hang from the rear-view mirror of their car. That doll proved attractive to children and eventually worked its way into toy stores, where Handler saw it.
In recent decades, the brand has really evolved. You can still find the original doll, which had white skin, high heels – she could only wear high heels – and a few hair colours, including blonde. She was curvaceous, too. This was all copied from Lilli.
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There has been a recent focus, however, on producing a more inclusive doll – in body shape, skin tone and hair tone, and even in the face itself. There is a slightly heavier-set Barbie, and a taller and a shorter version, with feet that actually go flat – which is in the trailer to the 2023 Barbie movie.
How did Barbie become such a success?
At first, Handler got very few orders. Devastated, she called Japan, where the doll was being manufactured, and ordered production to stop. Then Mattel started advertising on television. (The first Barbie ad is really fun to watch – you can find it online.) This came about via [1950s marketing expert] Ernest Dichter. He was a psychologist who had studied with Freud, and his advice to companies was that they were selling their products in the wrong way – they needed to appeal to the emotions.
He also organised the first focus groups, and Handler hired him to bring in mothers and daughters to see how they reacted to Barbie. Sure enough, the mothers hated the doll – they thought it was far too sexual – but the daughters loved it.
So Dichter came up with the idea of selling Barbie as a teenage fashion model who would teach a daughter good fashion grooming, which was important in the 1950s. If you look at that first advert, you can see that she’s being promoted in that way – as a real little girl who took great care of herself. The adverts started running in 1959 and, by the time the school year ended, there was a sudden surge of orders. Approximately 300,000 dolls were sold that year. There was no looking back.
One of Handler’s big ideas was the ‘razor blade theory’: you sell a razor, then you sell blades forever. The original Lilli doll came with an outfit – to get another, you had to buy another doll. Handler thought that was stupid, and instead set out to sell each doll, which was relatively cheap at $3, with just a bathing suit and a few accessories – and then offer a whole range of clothes and other items separately. That’s what made it fun.
Charlotte Johnson, the original clothing designer, got plucked out of design school and sent to Japan to find all these wonderful materials and to design perfect little clothes with zippers and buttons. This was a massive undertaking, and became her life’s work.
When was the Ken doll introduced
Girls began requesting a boyfriend for Barbie almost immediately. There was then a huge debate about whether this new boyfriend, Ken – launched in 1961 – would have a penis or not, or a little bulge (he doesn’t). What’s interesting about the Ken doll is that no one worried about how he would impact boys’ images of themselves and their bodies. Yet there was a lot of concern about girls. I think that speaks to the sexism in our culture: women have long been valued not for how we think or what we can do, but for how we look, while boys are not objectified in the same way.
Why is Barbie a controversial toy?
Barbie has been both forward-thinking – we had a Barbie astronaut long before any US women were in space – and a behind-the-times image of womanhood. For the most part, Handler was not trying to lead the culture, but she always ran a company that was what we would now call diverse. The Handlers were Jewish, and had experienced antisemitism, so they were quite sensitive to the idea of discrimination.
I think she was happy to make the first black doll [Barbie’s friend Christie, produced in 1968; the first black Barbie arrived in 1980], though it really should have been brought out earlier. If you look at what was made and when, for the most part there was a lag in terms of the culture. A few dolls were ahead of the curve: astronaut Barbie, for instance, or president Barbie. But there were missteps, too. The talking Barbie, who famously said “math is tough”, played into the worst stereotypes about girls being bad with numbers.
Barbies have, in more recent years, depicted a broader range of professions. In the 1960s and 70s, however, the depictions were more predictable, and even by the 80s the roles that Barbie had were what you would probably expect, such as that of a doctor. Now they include a zookeeper and a whole range of other scientists.
There has been a reach for inclusion in many ways, including the types of jobs that women can do. I’ve had people tell me they entered their profession because they had a Barbie doll and could pretend to do it while they were young. They fell in love with their fantasy.
- On the podcast | Robin Gerber explains how Barbie changed the world
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