They say truth is stranger than fiction. Sure, it is, but when we take a look at the incredibly dramatic life of the popular doll, ‘Barbie’, there’s more drama than the life of Erica Kane and all of her daughters, combined. This tall, dishy young lady isn’t exactly young anymore, either. Barbie will be turning fifty (yes, 50) on the 9th of March, 2009, and she seems set out to show us 50 is the new 19. She’s still hip, with it, groovy, totally cool, trendy, bitchin, rocking, solid, far out, and right on. Not only that, but even the most inquiring minds can look all they want and be hard-pressed to find signs of any significant work done. Okay, she had a navel installed some time ago, she had her breasts done so they wouldn’t be so obvious, and added some moving joints, but that’s about it. All right, let’s face it; the chick is hot, or, was supposed to be. Bring the 1/6 scale to a one and she’s a very nice, slender, shapely lady stepping in at about 5′ 9″.
While Barbie has demonstrated for fifty years (as of the above date) that she is really just a toy for little girls, she has somehow evolved far from that. Also, her roots aren’t exactly pure, either. Regardless, Barbie is among the most sought after collector’s toys in the realm of toy collecting. An early Barbie dating back to the origins, in excellent shape, can easily fetch incredible sums of money, approaching $10,000.
In terms of origins, Barbie has hers. A co-founder of Mattel (a highly successful corporation, by the way) by the name of Elliot Handler was married to a nice lady named Ruth. Ruth Handler is very much the mother of Barbie, since Ruth noticed her young daughter, Barbara (see the correlation?) enjoyed playing with her little dolls and paper dolls, but often imagined an adult role for many of them. This makes sense, giving that children so often wonder about the grown-ups in their lives. Ruth, being connected to the toy business with her husband and also the mindset of her children, felt there was a gap in the market they should fill before anyone else does. They did not, in fact, fill this gap before someone else, but they did assume the rights to that gap. Read on.
While traveling in Europe, Ruth comes across a figurine/doll named Bild Lilli. Bild Lilli actually wasn’t around for very long by then, since Lilli was introduced some time in 1955. Ruth picked up a few of these dolls, gave one to her daughter and then brought the rest back to the Mattel shop. Although there was some hesitation and doubt among some people, production soon began, and within a couple years the first genuine Barbie dolls were rolling off assembly lines in Japan. Oh, you didn’t think this all-American girl was actually built in the USA, did you? An interesting note is that Barbie’s original clothes were hand-stitched by Japanese home workers, prompting the thought that any good-quality examples of those first lines of clothes for the doll would make collectors drool. Another interesting note is that the first Barbie dolls looked very much like the Bild Lilli, which was designed as a gag for adults, with Lilli being a brash, working girl knowing exactly how to manipulate men and was more than happy to do it. From the innocent perspective of a child, she would be a simple toy, but the first Barbie dolls shared many attributes of Lilli, including the alluring pose, sideways glance, and figure wrapped in a bathing suit. In fact, the two dolls were so similar that many people wonder how Mattel had the audacity to crush MGA Entertainment, the makers of Bratz dolls, for some sort of breach. The Bratz dolls looked more like Martian freaks than anything else, including Barbie, with the only similarities between the two being the materials and market. But the wonder is dismissed with the fact that Mattel accused some Bratz people of doing things on their clock (someone working for Bratz supposedly came up with Bratz while employed by Mattel- how they decipher that is a mystery in itself, but they clinched it in court), and Mattel acquired the rights to Lilli in the early sixties and shut the production down, making the blatant copy perfectly and legally acceptable.
So, now the world has this popular little toy for girls named Barbie. As most know, Barbie did quite well quickly, prompting Mattel to fill the market with accessories along with friends and family of Barbie. Soon, Ken Carson came along, courting Barbie and subsequently assuming the role of Barbie’s beau. While Barbie was named after Barbara, the daughter of the Handler’s, the Ken doll of the line was named after the Handler’s son, Ken, making the on-off relationship these two have shared over the years even creepier still.
This just in…
On the 12th of February, 2004, Mattel’s Vice President of Marketing, Russell Arons, announced via a press release that Ken and Barbie’s long-standing Hollywood romance was ending, with both of them feeling it was time they enjoyed some quality time away from one another. They made it a point to note there was no animosity between them and that they would remain friends.
Various tabloids suggest G.I. Joe was a snag in this insipid love triangle, but such speculation lacks the appropriate verification. More on this late-breaking story at eleven.
For those of you wiping tears of sadness right now, rest assured all is well in the world. In February of 2006, it was announced Ken and Barbie were an item once more. Perhaps Joe’s been in Iraq for far too long. Anyway, Brangelina, eat your hearts out.
Besides having a whirlwind love life making J. Lo jealous, Barbie has also been very busy building an impressive résumé over the years. She’s been in the military (Joe…), she has a pilot’s license but didn’t feel above the role of flight attendant. She’s been a medical doctor, too. She’s even been involved with the folks at NASCAR. Surprisingly, Barbie found the free time to run the road as a biker babe, since Harley-Davidson Barbie proved to be immensely popular in 1997. But hey, not even the sky is the limit for this overachieving lady, who was also an astronaut. She’s been in numerous full-length feature films, with ‘The Nutcracker’ being her first, and yet still found the time to run for President. She’s had nearly 80 careers over time, including being a member of a rap band called Barbie and the Beats. Whew!
Barbie’s long been a trendsetter, and in 1985 she modeled a line of fashions designed by great names like Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Versace, and Christian Dior, coming a long way from the rags once cranked out by Japanese labor.
It’s interesting to note how much Barbie has influenced society. She’s had sisters and friends of many names (along with several sharing her name) representing approximately 100 nationalities. She’s certainly been a major influence in the lives of millions and millions of young girls, with some saying some of this influence should be considered less than ideal. Many thought Barbie has had some negative influence on young girls, what with her unrealistic proportions and, according to some, shallow demeanor regarding the world. She’s even been rendered unlawful in some regions of the Middle East, regarded as a bad influence from the perverted West. (There’s a subject lending itself to innumerable articles and debates).
We’ve seen today’s adults come to adulthood with Barbie in memory, what with Barbie’s history now spanning a half century, and so many adult conditions have been placed on Barbie without her consent, or Mattel’s for that matter. Mattel has placed so many lawsuits against people slandering this girl, mainly because she’s been their Bread & Butter all this time. They’ve won suits (Bratz) and also lost some, too. The old G.I. Joe and Barbie scandal has been raging for decades, and the Nissan Motor Company found themselves in court over it. To the score of Van Halen, a doll strikingly similar to Barbie (but wasn’t Barbie; she was Roxanne) dumps a boy very similar to Ken (who was really Tad) for
a genuine man looking a lot like Joe who was really Nick. Mattel lost that one, and Nick got the girl while Tad cried all the way home.
This is a good illustration of how Barbie has evolved in our society, since she was, after all, supposed to be in an adult role, even if merely an older teenager. People have given Barbie the adult role with all the trimmings. There are psychologists who state the willful destruction of Barbie dolls by girls getting older and reaching an age beyond such toys could be seen as a rite of passage.
Further, she’s been the subject of so much parody, from Saturday Night Live (if you can just imagine) to The Simpson’s. Most of us have heard slander such as Redneck Barbie, Trailer Trash Barbie, and so on, and there have been numerous young women assigned these slanderous labels and worse. Just calling a woman Barbie has become a slur in itself, with the tone that the accused is shallow and narcissistic. So, for better and worse, Barbie is no mere toy and hasn’t been for some time. Barbie is a cultural icon; a Slinky is still just a toy.
Perhaps it is because Barbie is so easy to make like the real thing, or at least with the vision of what the real thing would like to be. The same thing happened to G.I. Joe, with Joe reaching an icon status and being among the most successful toy lines of the 20th century. But, and this is very much a good example of the double-standards of the world, Joe’s status is heightened for who he is and what he poses to be, while Barbie is often trashed, dragged through the mud, and even labeled as unlawful in certain places of the world. If you see her in the several animated movies where she stars (if you haven’t seen any, they’re of a higher quality and storyline than you may first suppose), she is portrayed as a very pretty, smart, courageous, and strong-willed girl with a pure heart, mind and soul. Yet, there are so many trashing her good name.
So, while Barbie is and always has been a mere toy in a little girl’s toy box, she has become a significant part of the world. One must wonder if the Handler’s had any clue about what Pandora’s Box they were opening when creating a doll representing an adult position. It’s unlikely they did, since G.I. Joe (who sprung from the success of Barbie, lending the notion that Barbie is his mother and therefore adding a level of creepiness beyond comfort) jumped into the fray with muscles flexed, fists clenched, and weapons cocked and set on automatic. But it all tells us who we are as people, too, since the adults in us place so much imaginative energy into our toys, even if we handed them down to our kids. Children project wonder into their toys representing adult roles; adults project positive and negative fantasy into those objects, and use them as a platform for easy whimsy or malice. There is an alternating current there, telling us things about ourselves that we might not want to know.