More than just a doll: the history and scandals of Barbie
For over 50 years, Barbie has reigned as queen of the toy world. She’s a marketing miracle, with millions of dolls sold. Over the years, she’s acquired an extended family and numerous pets, has gone through dozens of occupations and amassed an astounding number of possessions. She’s even managed to be involved in a number of scandals of varying severity. All in all, not too bad for a doll that Mattel originally didn’t want to produce.
Go back in time to the 1950s. Many things were different then, but one thing was very much the same – kids love toys, and dolls are the most popular toy for girls. Baby dolls ruled the roots, but Ruth Handler noticed that her daughter enjoyed playing with ‘grown up’ dolls just as much. At that time, adult dolls were paper or cardboard, and Ruth sensed an unfilled niche.
Ruth suggested to her husband that an adult fashion doll might be just the thing. Elliott Handler was one of Mattel’s co-founders, so he was certainly in a position to get her idea noticed by the right people. In this case, the right people – the all-male directors of Mattel – didn’t embrace the concept. Feeling that there was no market for such a toy, they rejected Handler’s suggestion.
Ruth, as they say, begged to differ, and she found support for her position during a 1956 trip to Europe. While visiting Germany, she found than an adult doll named Bild Lilli was popular with both adults and children. After her return home, Ruth found a willing engineer and they began to work on a design.
Although executives at Mattel had reservations, this time they agreed to take a chance. The new doll was named Barbie after Handler’s daughter, and she debuted in New York at the American International Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. For only $3.00, buyers could take home either a blonde or a brunette Barbie, but there the choices ended. All dolls came with the signature ponytail and a black-and-white striped swimsuit. Barbie promptly set about proving the executives wrong in their assessment of her potential. In the first year alone, 350,000 dolls were sold.
Barbie is a doll with quite a story
Barbie may originally have been a woman of mystery, but that mystery was quickly dispelled and the gaps in her history were filled in. A series of books published by Random House in the 1960s identified her as Barbara Millicent Roberts. In this first series of books, she was from Willows, Wisconsin. Continuity, however, is apparently not one of Barbie’s strong points. At various times, she’s also been listed as an alumni of Manhattan International High School in New York City as well as a California native, born in both Los Angeles and Malibu.
Barbie has an extended family, including her parents, cousin Lulubelle, and Aunt Lillian, although no dolls were ever created for these characters. The Roberts are a large family. In addition to Barbie, there’s her sister Skipper, the twins, Todd and Tutti (who was called Stacie in some versions), as well as Kelly and Krissy. There’s also her cousin Francie, who is Lillian’s daughter, as well as her cousins Jazzie and P.J. And of course, there are dozens of friends, including Midge, Teresa, Christie, and Christie’s boyfriend, Steve.
And, of course, don’t forget Ken. In 1961, Mattel introduced Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken Carson (Ken was also named for one of the Handler children). The two seemed inseperable until 2004, when Mattel dropped a bombshell. In a press conference that made news around the world, Mattel announced that the couple had split – and that Barbie had a new man. Blaine was a boogie-boarding Australian that apparently swept Barbie off her stilleto heels. Blaine was just a passing fancy, though, and by 2006, Barbie and Ken had reconciled.
Barbie was a hit, but she ruffled feathers
A child’s toy seems like something that should be fairly uncontroversial, but Barbie has drawn criticism right from the beginning. The tall and shapely Barbie was created at 1/6 scale, known as play scale. With a little bit of math, it was calculated that if Barbie were re-created life size, she would be 5’9” tall, with a 36” chest, 18” waist, and 33” hips – somewhat startling dimensions, and not very common in real life. Barbie was immediately pegged as an unrealistic role model.
Even with those measurements, Barbie was worried about her weight. In 1963, the “Barbie Baby-sits” outfit came complete with a book How to Lose Weight. (The advice? Don’t eat.) And since one appearance wasn’t enough, the same book was packaged with the “Slumber Party” set two years later. That set also gave Barbie a scale that showed her weight at 110 pounds – at least 30 pounds underweight for a 5’9” woman. Barbie maintained her figure until 1997, when Mattel widened her waist slightly.
Mattel tried to make the Barbie world more like the real world, but it often seemed that they were tone-deaf to that real world. In 1967, Mattel introduced a doll they called “Colored Francie.” Not only was the name less than appealing to many, the doll was made with the same mold used for the white Francie doll but slightly darker colored plastic.
It took several years before Mattel caught on and began releasing dolls that reflected differences in hair and features, and even then, they didn’t seem to catch on very quickly. In 1997, they teamed up with Nabisco for a cross-promotion, and released the Oreo Barbie in both a white and a black version. Apparently, no one at Mattel had the foresight to imagine the public reaction to pasting the label ‘Oreo’ on an African-American doll.
Race relations weren’t the only misstep. Their release of 1997’s Share a Smile Becky, a doll in a pink wheelchair, was a bit marred when a high-school student pointed out that the chair didn’t fit in the Barbie Dream House.
And despite the long-running concerns about Barbie’s voluptuous figure, Mattel continued to create public relations issues with dolls that were viewed as overly sexualized. In 1975, the Growing Up Skipper doll was released. In this incarnation, Skipper had a dial on her back that could be turned, causing her breasts to grow.
And then there’s Midge. She was first sold in the 1960s, and was designed to dampen complaints that Barbie was nothing more than a sex symbol. Midge had a slightly fuller face, usually with freckles, and was meant to look more ‘wholesome.’ She disappeared for some 20 years, and was re-released in the mid 1980s. In 1991, the wedding day version was released, marrying Midge to her long time boyfriend, Allan Sherwood – and that’s when things went downhill.
As part of the ‘Happy Family’ set, Midge was sold pregnant; she had a magnetic stomach that could be removed to reveal a baby. The set also included an infant, making her an instant mother of two. Unfortunately for Mattel, the first dolls released were minus a wedding ring. The set also didn’t include Allan. These missing details led to a public relations uproar as parents complained that Midge seemed to be an unwed mother (and a teenage mother, at that). Outcry was vocal enough that some retailers, including Wal-Mart, pulled the doll from store shelves. A new version was produced, with a not-pregnant Midge and a cardboard cut-out of Allan included in the box.
And to think, all of that from a child’s toy.