Skipper. Midge. Ken. Barbie. Everyone knows these names, but do you know the name Ruth Handler? You should, she’s the one who brought Barbie and her friends to life in 1959. Ruth was the wife of Elliot Handler, a co-founder of Mattel toy company. In 1954, Ruth noticed that her daughter, Barbara, often gave her paper dolls adult roles when she played with them. At the time, the doll market was flooded with only baby dolls, such as Chatty Cathy, so Ruth approached her husband and suggested that Mattel release a doll that older girls would enjoy playing with. He rejected the idea, and Mattel’s directors were unenthusiastic as well, to say the least. Fast forward to 1956. On a European vacation with her children, Ruth stumbled upon a German doll called Bild Lilli. This doll was exactly what Ruth had in mind when she had first approached Mattel, so she purchased one for her daughter and two to take to Mattel. Once she returned to the United States, Ruth redesigned the doll and gave her a new name, Barbie, after her daughter. The first Barbie doll was debuted at the American International Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. As they say, the rest was history. When Ruth, a mere housewife and stay at home mom, approached Mattel, I’m sure she had no idea that her idea would spawn a billion dollar franchise, a household name, or a cultural icon. But that’s exactly what happened.
All In The Family…
Barbie was a hit! Mattel sold approximately 350,000 Barbies during the first year of production. But that wasn’t enough; Mattel was hungry for more, and apparently so was Barbie. Along came Ken. Ken, named after Ruth’s son, was released in 1961 as an appropriate counterpart for Barbie. Attractive and charming, Ken was Barbie’s knight in shining armor. But Barbie needed some girlfriend’s as well. Mattel introduced a Hispanic doll, Theresa, Barbie’s official “best friend.” Mattel kept up the political correct-ness and introduced an African-American doll as well, Christie. Younger, pre-teen dolls, such as Midge and Skipper were introduced to counteract Barbie’s controversial sex appeal.
Barbie hasn’t always been faithful to Ken though. They split in 2004, and a press release was announced stating, “(Barbie and Ken) feel it’s time to spend some quality time – apart…Like other celebrity couples, their Hollywood romance has come to an end.” Barbie became friendly with Blaine, an Australian surfer boy who swooped in from out of nowhere and stole her away. Their romance was short lived, however. Barbie left Blaine in 2006 to return to a newly made over Ken. Because, you know, it’s what’s on the outside that counts…
All That Glitters Isn’t Gold
All of the fame and riches didn’t come without a little controversy. And Mattel’s own girl next door was at the center of it all.
Unrealistic Body Image
Parents didn’t like their little girls owning a doll with so much sex appeal. And the way she represented body proportions didn’t help either. According to Mattel’s size scale, if Barbie were a real person, she would be/have:
- 5’9″ tall
- 36″ chest
- 18″ waist
- 33″ hips
- 110 pounds
- BMI of 16.24
A “real-life Barbie” would fit the criteria of an anorexic, and wouldn’t even have enough body fat to menstruate. In 1963, Mattel released a Barbie that came with a book titled “How To Lose Weight,” with the only advice being “Don’t eat!” In another Barbie released in 1965, a scale was included that was permanently set at 110 pounds.
Racism and Prejudice
In 1997, Mattel teamed up with Nabisco and introduced Oreo Fun Barbie. Mattel made both a white and a black version, which had become customary with new releases. Protesters in the African American community voiced the opinion that “oreo” was a derogatory slur used to describe a person who was black on the outside, but white on the inside, much like the popular cookie. The doll failed miserably, and the unsold stock was recalled by Mattel.
Also in 1997, Mattel released “Share a Smile Becky,” a doll in a wheelchair. A high school student in Washington state that was confined to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy contacted Mattel and informed them that Becky’s wheelchair would not fit in the elevator in Barbie’s dream house. These houses sold for $100 each, so for something such as that to be overlooked was absurd. Mattel issued a statement saying that future productions of the doll house would be altered to accommodate Becky and her wheelchair.
Life is plastic, it’s fantastic
In 2002, Mattel sued MCA Records for the song “Barbie Girl,” performed by Aqua. With lyrics such as ” You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere,” “kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky,” and “I can beg on my knees, come jump in, let us do it again,” it’s not hard to see why Mattel would be offended. Mattel said the MCA violated copyrights and trademarks, tarnished the reputation of Barbie, and infringed on their advertising and marketing strategy. The case was presided over by Judge Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Kozinski eventually ruled in MCA’s favor, stating that the song was a parody, much like those of well known artist Weird Al Yankovic, and it was protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Kozinski ended the proceedings by advising both parties to “chill.”
Whether you love her or hate her, it’s fairly evident that Barbie is here to stay. Her and her friends have been around for the past 50 years, and 50 years from now your grandchildren will probably still be playing with them. Through trial, controversy, and success, Barbie has been the “it girl” of multiple generations. She’s timeless. She’s ageless. She’s Barbie.