It all started with a German sex doll and an idea. The shapely gag toy named Bild Lillie was quickly transformed into an icon that has made its way into countless American households over the past half a century.
That icon is Barbie, who celebrated her 50th birthday this week. Creator Ruth Handler, wife of Mattel’s co-founder, wanted to make the doll after she saw her daughter — the doll’s namesake Barbara — playing with paper dolls.
“As she watched her, it occurred to (Handler) that what these girls wanted was a real
three-dimensional doll to play out this fantasy of being grown-up,” said Robin Gerber, author of Barbie and Ruth, a book about the iconic doll and her creator released in February.
“Ruth Handler had one big idea, which was that little girls just want to play at being big girls,” Gerber said.
Barbie was introduced to the world in 1949, not in pink, but in a black and white bathing suit.
“She was the first of her kind,” said Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of several Barbie books and the intro to the 50th anniversary boxed set of Barbie pictures.
McDonough has loved Barbie since the doll’s debut.
“(She was) a doll that was a woman, explicitly, and not a child or baby, and I don’t think anyone’s ever done it better,” she said.
Since then, Barbie has followed the times — and sometimes the times have followed Barbie — in fashion and beyond.
“She’s become a cultural icon,” said Elaine Taylor, a graduate student and assistant in
One way the doll has stayed current is by embodying the idea of the independent woman. She’s held hundreds of jobs since her creation, fulfilling her many dreams of being an astronaut, a drive-through McDonalds attendant, a tattoo artist and more.
Barbie has even run for president several times.
The doll’s most impressive job, though, has been inspiring imagination in young girls.
“Everything that happens to (Barbie) has to come from the child that’s playing with her,” McDonough said. “She’s an enormously creative and empowering toy.”
But it’s not just fashion trends and employment opportunities that Barbie has shuffled through. Over the years, she’s made some physical changes as well. In 1972, Barbie’s eyes were altered — their coy side-glance and almost suggestive half-closed eyelids changed to a wide-open and straightforward stare, paired with an award-winning smile.
Her waist was widened in 1992 in an attempt to end controversy over Barbie’s original waist measurement, which adjusted to human proportions would have been a tiny 18 inches. Her over-sized chest, originally about 39 inches, was another common complaint in the early years but has since been minimized.
Ken was introduced in 1961 to escort the Enchanted Evening Barbie on her magical night, but he was never meant to be anything more.
“Ken is an accessory. He’s like arm candy for her,” McDonough said. “(Barbie) couldn’t get married. She exists in this autonomous way. She is of herself, for herself and by
The couple broke up in February 2004 after 43 years of unwedded bliss (despite countless bridal outfits). Barbie, apparently not too broken up about the pre-Valentine’s Day separation, fell into the arms of the Australian surfer Blaine. However, the PR stunt ended two years later — Ken got a makeover and won her back.
But conflict wasn’t over for Barbie — and it never seems to be. She got an early birthday present when a West Virginia lawmaker introduced a proposal March 4 to have Barbie banned in his state.
Delegate Jeff Eldridge said he has problems with the image the doll presents to children, according to MSNBC.
“If a girl plays with a Barbie and she doesn’t have anyone in her life reminding her that that figure truly doesn’t exist, then that can impact the body image of little girls,” Taylor said. “Then there are the girls that can’t afford Barbie. Those little girls are impacted because all the other little girls are playing with Barbie, and they don’t get to. I think that a more realistic body form would benefit our young girls.”
Though West Virginians don’t support Eldrige’s attempts, this wasn’t the first time Barbie faced banishment.
In 2003, Saudi Arabia outlawed the doll, calling it a “Jewish” toy with an inappropriate figure and overly revealing clothes, according to USA Today. A doll called Fulla can now be found in the Middle East as an alternative. Fulla wears more conservative and even traditional clothes, offering stiff competition even in the Middle Eastern countries where Barbie is still sold.
But American culture seems to worship the immodesty Saudi Arabia finds so offensive.
“We do have a sexist culture that objectifies women, that values women more for how they look than how we think,” Gerber said. “And the doll’s been adopted into that culture. The doll seems to embody that culture.”
Gerber said this was not how Handler wanted to present Barbie, but rather how modern culture has viewed and changed the doll.
“The company responded to what consumers were looking for,” Gerber said.
Individual Barbie models have also drawn controversy. The wardrobe of the Black Canary Barbie, modeled after a DC Comics superheroine, was met with parental outrage. Her fishnets, leather jacket and heeled boots — along with her lack of actual pants — earned this doll the nickname “S&M Barbie.”
Totally Stylin’ Tattoo Barbie was also introduced to a less than enthusiastic audience. The doll comes with tattoo stickers children can place on Barbie like real tattoos, and also a “tattoo gun.” Not a real tattoo device, the gun lets kids ink themselves — at least temporarily.
McDonough said she has heard the negative buzz over Barbie, and while she agrees that the doll presents an unrealistic image of women’s bodies, she doesn’t blame Barbie for girls’ low self-esteem. She experienced what she dubbed “Barbie backlash” when she brought dolls as gifts to her son’s friends’ birthday parties only to be met with criticism.
“I thought, ‘Poor Barbie! What’s happened?'” she said.
Despite the controversies, Barbie has remained a standard these 50 years, and probably will in the future, Taylor said.
“There will always be a marketability to Barbie,” she said. “I think that she’s a part of our history that we won’t be able to put in the closet.”
“She’s the first and she’s the best,” McDonough said. “Others have come along after and tried to model themselves after Barbie, but I think she remains the one.”
Additional reporting by Candace Kaw.