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How Barbie Was Born: The Real Story Behind the Plastic Phenomenon

Updated on June 9, 2017
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Join Michelle as she explores people of interest, politics, and everything in between.

Barbie
Barbie | Source

Paper Girl

If you're of a certain age, you probably played with paper dolls when you were a child. What you may know is that paper dolls were the real life inspiration of a mother for her daughter that would eventually become the plastic sensation called "Barbie".

Ruth Handler was a mother who watched her older daughter playing with paper dolls, and noticed how her daughter would depict real-life scenarios or imaginative role-playing stories.

The problem was, the paper dolls were flimsy and the clothes would often fall off.

Ruth realized that at that time - which was the mid-1950s - there were no "adult" dolls on the market for older girls to act out their stories with. The only dolls sold at that time were baby dolls or infants.

Ruth decided that older girls would appreciate a more mature doll to play with, and so she began her journey to find what we now refer to as, "Barbie".

The journey began in Germany with the "Bild Lilli" doll.

Vintage 1950s paper dolls
Vintage 1950s paper dolls | Source

The Bild Lilli Sketch

Bild Lilli was a doll that came about by way of the German tabloid, "Bild Zeitung". They were looking to fill a blank spot in the paper and, in 1952, a man named Reinhard Beuthien was tasked with the project.

The idea Beuthien came up with was a sketch of an adorable baby, but his boss didn't like it and sent him back to the drawing board.

Beuthien then came up with a drawing of an entire woman, keeping the baby face, but adding a ponytail and a curvy body. He named his creation, "Lilli". Lilli was drawn sitting in a fortune teller's tent asking, "Can't you tell me the name and address of this rich and handsome man?"

Lilli was a smash hit.

Every day, Beuthien had to draw a new sketch about Lilli, who evolved into quite a bold character. Lilli's sketches were cheeky and ahead of the times. Lilli had her own job, as a secretary, so she supported herself. Lilli's stories were often tongue-in-cheek political opinion pieces taking aim at post-war current affairs.

Lilli also became quite a fashionista, and the sketches often depicted Lilli challenging the state of fashion, such as wearing a two-piece bathing suit.

Bild Lilli Cartoon
Bild Lilli Cartoon | Source

Lilli had her own job, as a secretary, so she supported herself. Lilli's stories were often tongue-in-cheek political opinion pieces taking aim at post-war current affairs.

The Lilli Doll

After the Lilli cartoon was such a success, a Lilli doll was developed. Originally, the doll was sold in bars and tobacco shops as a gag gift for adults, but little girls soon caught wind of Lilli and became drawn to the curvy doll with make-up and red painted nails.

Lilli was eventually sold for children and additional accessories were created to accompany her, such as fashion clothing, doll houses, and furniture. Though popular in other European countries for children, Lilli remained a much sought-after adult novelty in Germany.

Lilli was distributed to many European countries, as well as the United States. Hong Kong created their own version of the Lilli doll and began manufacturing it for distribution.

Spain attempted the same thing, creating a version of the doll with darker skin, but mothers did not buy the doll for their daughters because she was too "sexy" and Spain was quite conservative at that time.

What the original "Lilli" doll looked like
What the original "Lilli" doll looked like | Source

Mattel And The Explosion of Barbie

Back in the United States, Ruth Handler was still envisioning an adult-figured doll for girls to play with. Ruth's husband, Elliot, had founded a company with his partner, Harold Matson in 1945, which primarily sold picture frames and dollhouse furniture. They named it, "Mattel".

When Matson became ill, he sold his share of the company to Elliot Handler, and Ruth Handler took over his position. Mattel had it's first hit toy in 1947 with a toy ukulele called the "Uke-A-Doodle," and went on to become the first year-round sponsor of "The Mickey Mouse Club" TV show in 1955.

While in Europe, Ruth Handler discovered the Lilli doll and brought one of the dolls back with her to the United States. She decided to rework the Lilli doll her into her own design, debuting the "Barbie" doll at the American International Toy Fair in New York, in 1959. And the rest - is history.

Barbie was fittingly named after Ruth Handler's daughter, Barbara.

During Barbie's debut, the doll was dressed in a zebra print swimsuit with her hair in a ponytail. She came in blonde and brunette versions. Barbie is still Mattel's best-selling toy - ever.

Of course, many parents during the time of Barbie's debut had strong reservations about Barbie's body - mainly her breasts, as they were quite pronounced. Despite this, though, sales went through the roof and girls everywhere wanted to play with Barbie.

Ruth Handler's hunch about American girls wanting to play with a more mature doll paid off. In the first year, they sold 350,000 Barbie's. To date, somewhere over a billion Barbie's have been sold worldwide, in 150 countries.

The modern-day Barbie aisle
The modern-day Barbie aisle | Source

Ruth Handler's hunch about American girls wanting to play with a more mature doll paid off. In the first year, they sold 350,000 Barbie's. To date, somewhere over a billion Barbie's have been sold worldwide, in 150 countries.

Politically Incorrect Barbie

This is where things get more interesting. Just like her German predecessor, Barbie has been swimming in controversy since the day she was introduced. For one, her body has come under intense criticism by parents and women.

Many people think that Barbie's measurements are too unrealistic for young girls to be exposed to. The idea is that girls will be influenced to try and have the "perfect" body just like Barbie.

Mattel has responded to such opinions, and in the 90s they came out with a Barbie that had a wider waist. This still did not satisfy many consumers, and so in 2016, Mattel launched a new Barbie campaign, which is advertised as "The Evolution of Barbie". The dolls come in tall, petite, curvy, and thin variations.

Just like her German predecessor, Barbie has been swimming in controversy since the day she was introduced.

Clearly, you can't please everyone, especially in regards to Barbie, but Mattel is trying to keep up with the times to help boost sales. Hence, "The Evolution of Barbie"
Clearly, you can't please everyone, especially in regards to Barbie, but Mattel is trying to keep up with the times to help boost sales. Hence, "The Evolution of Barbie" | Source

Digging into more scandal, we find Barbie at the center of a Middle Eastern controversy, where her looks, clothing, and attitude have offended many people in this part of the world. In 2003, Barbie was outlawed in Saudi Arabia for not conforming to the ideals of Islam.

Barbie was said to be perverted and shameful in her postures, her clothes too revealing, and her choice of careers not appropriate for a woman.

Then came, "Fulla". Fulla is a doll made for sale in the Middle East who is Barbie-like in appearance but not made by Mattel. Fulla is thinner, smaller chested, and younger that American Barbie, and she prefers to spend her time baking, tending to family, and reading.

Fulla does not wear swimsuits and has no male companion such as Barbie's long time beau, Ken. Fulla is also sold in China, North Africa, Brazil, Egypt, and Indonesia,

Barbie was said to be perverted and shameful in her postures, her clothes too revealing, and her choice of careers not appropriate for a woman.

The "Fulla" doll
The "Fulla" doll | Source

As far as variations in ethnicity, the Barbie doll has been struggling since the beginning. In 1967, "colored Francie" was introduced, which was supposed to be the African American version of Barbie's cousin, Francie.

There was also "Christie" who was introduced in 1968. Christie was supposed to be African American, but the problem was, these dolls still had "white features" because they were made from the same mold as the original Barbie. The only real difference was the color of their skin.

In 1980, Mattel came out with "Black Barbie," but the company was still criticized for not having realistic African American features on the doll. Then came the "So In Style" line, which was meant to depict a more African American look.

The "So In Style" collection
The "So In Style" collection | Source
Mattel has also marketed Barbie as Asian, Hawaiian, and Latina, just to name a few. Mattel has tried to have the Barbie doll represent as many ethnicity's and cultures as possible.
Mattel has also marketed Barbie as Asian, Hawaiian, and Latina, just to name a few. Mattel has tried to have the Barbie doll represent as many ethnicity's and cultures as possible. | Source

"Barbie Syndrome"

In all of the storms that the Barbie doll has created, probably the strangest of all is something called "Barbie Syndrome". This term is used to describe a behavior where some girls want to look like, and actually be Barbie.

As we know, Barbie's measurements are not realistic and a real-life Barbie would probably not even have enough body fat to menstruate properly.

The Barbie Syndrome behavior is primarily associated with adolescent girls who are obsessed with Barbie's physique and want to become as thin as Barbie, potentially getting plastic surgery to change their features or increase their bust size.

The model, Valeria Lukyanova, made a name for herself by getting plastic surgery to look like a human Barbie. Lukyanova proclaimed that she was going to become more Barbie-like by eventually not consuming any food or water, existing only on air.

The Barbie Syndrome behavior is primarily associated with adolescent girls who are obsessed with Barbie's physique and want to become as thin as Barbie, potentially getting plastic surgery to change their features or increase their bust size.

It's fairly safe to say, that no matter what Barbie does with her looks, her careers, or personal life, controversy will follow. But the fact remains, that Barbie has a way of staying in the news and has survived for over 50 years now.

In 2013, a web-series of computer animated shorts called, "Barbie, Life in The Dreamhouse" debuted and has become increasingly popular. The show consists of Barbie, her sisters, (Chelsea, Stacie, and Skipper), her boyfriend, Ken, many of her pets, friends, Barbie's rival, Raquelle, and Raquelle's vain brother, Ryan.

Each episode is only approximately 3 minutes long and can be found on the Barbie.com, Netflix, and YouTube.

The show is often a clever tongue-in-cheek parody of the Barbie doll, occasionally making fun of all Barbie's controversies while keeping the themes of friendship, music, and love in play.

In 2014, Mattel launched the "Unapologetic Campaign," where Barbie essentially represented being proud of what she was and refused to apologize for any more for it. No doubt, this was a tactic used by Mattel to say they were no longer going to bow to the critics.

Nevertheless, with 2016's "Evolution of Barbie" campaign, we see that the one thing Mattel does care about is sales.

Only time will tell if America's favorite doll will be able to evolve again to adapt to the new generations of Barbie lovers.

#Unapologetic.

The "Unapologetic" Campaign
The "Unapologetic" Campaign | Source

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