Wednesday, July 12, 2023



With all the fuss happening at the moment about the new Margot Robbie Barbie movie, I thought it apt to update and add to a past item from Bytes from May 19, 2016 about Barbie’s origins.

Most of the written material is from:

Barbie was inspired by an R-Rated German doll called Lilli.

Bild Lilli was a doll based on a character from a German comic strip. A kind of Mae West figure, Lilli was known for dressing provocatively, gold-digging, and saying saucy things to men; in fact, the doll was first marketed to adult men as a sort of joke gift. Soon enough, Lilli became popular with younger consumers, and toy accessories were eventually produced to cash in on her popularity among children.

In 1956, having already pitched a similar kind of doll to Mattel's directors that failed to capture their imagination, Barbie creator Ruth Handler spotted a Lilli doll in Switzerland. She bought three and used them as inspiration to create Barbie. Handler had also been inspired by watching her daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls, and wanted to move away from baby dolls that encouraged little girls to act like mothers. Instead, she wanted to give girls an adult woman doll to help them live out their fantasies.

Barbie launched on 9 March 1959, and after the toy became a success, Mattel acquired the rights for Bild Lilli and production on the doll came to end.

Lilli, the cartoon

Bild Lilli dolls

 The original Barbie doll, 1959

Barbie was one of the first toys to be advertised on TV.

Back in the '50s, TV adverts for a toy like Barbie were truly groundbreaking! Mattel was the first company to buy spots and advertise during The Mickey Mouse Show, which was revolutionary because it changed the consumer from parent to child. In commercials pitched to young girls, Barbie appeared as a real person, which engaged kids and had them begging their parents to buy her.

Essentially, Barbie/Mattel are responsible for advertising toys to kids, an incredibly effective strategy!

Andy Warhol once created a painting of Barbie... Sort of.

Pop artist Warhol had been desperate to do a portrait of his friend and muse, “BillyBoy”. BillyBoy had refused several times, but eventually allowed Warhol to paint him, but as a Barbie doll since he was a big fan. The portrait – entitled "Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy" – ended up being Warhol's final work before his death. In 2014, it sold at auction for $1.1 million. A second version with an orange-red background was created for and acquired by Mattel.


The man who designed and patented the original Barbie doll used to design missiles for the Pentagon.

Back in 1955, Jack Ryan was working at Raytheon, an aerospace and defence conglomerate, when Ruth Handler tempted him away with the position of Head of Research and Development at Mattel. During his time with Raytheon, Ryan had helped to design the Sparrow and Hawk-guided missile systems. He set his engineering skills to good use at Mattel, developing Barbie's signature twist and turn waist and "click click" knee joints.

Ryan stayed with the company for 20 years, but ended up suing Mattel in 1980 for nonpayment of royalties totalling in the millions. He ended his relationship with the company after they settled out of court.

In 1971, the first major change was made to Barbie's appearance when her eyes we changed to face forward.

Originally, Barbie's eyes had been fixed in a demure sideways glance, a hangover from the sex doll that inspired her. In the early '70s, this was done away with, and it would be the last change Handler would make to Barbie before she was ousted from her own company for issuing false and misleading financial reports.

In 2000, Barbie also received a navel, which she hadn't had for the first 40 years of manufacturing.

Previous Barbie dolls have come with accessories like a bathroom scale permanently fixed at 110 pounds, and a book entitled How To Lose Weight with the single instruction – "Don't eat".

Alongside accusations of promoting an unhealthy body image, early Barbie dolls have been cited as encouraging disordered eating. In 1963, the outfit "Barbie Baby-Sits" came with several accessories including the infamous How To Lose Weight book. The same book was included in the outfit "Slumber Party", which also featured a pink bathroom scale that read 110 pounds. At 5' 9", that would put Barbie in the underweight category for adults of her height.

In 2016, following decades of backlash and declining sales, Mattel finally released some different body shapes in three new Barbie models: petite, tall, and curvy.

An African-American doll and friend to Barbie, Christie, was released by Mattel in 1968. This was a mere four years after the landmark passing of The Civil Rights Act in the US.

According to Barbie expert and author of Barbie: 60 Years of Inspiration, Susan Shapiro, Ruth Handler was keen for Barbie to be an inclusive brand from early on. Hating the prejudice she experienced as a Jewish woman, Handler pushed Mattel to create African-American dolls like Christie, Francie, and Julia (released in 1969 and modelled after TV icon Diahann Carroll).

The '60s was a turbulent time for civil rights in America, and numerous pieces of landmark legislation were passed during the decade to help protect Black Americans. Christie represented an evolving USA, but she wasn't perfect. Even though her face sculpt was made to emphasise African-American features, Christie was criticised for only representing one skin tone, and for upholding white standards of beauty in her hair, body, and face. Christie would go on to be superseded by Nikki in 2005.

In 1980, a Black version of Barbie finally made her debut, designed by Kitty Black Perkins – a principal designer for Mattel who grew up in segregated South Carolina. Since then, the So In Style range has been introduced, which now offers African-American Barbies in over 22 skin tones, 94 hair colours, 13 eye colours, and five body types.

Barbie once dumped Ken for a hunky Australian surfer named Blaine.

Two years after Barbie's debut, Ken Carson was brought to market as her sort of on-again-off-again boyfriend. Though the two were linked for several decades, they publicly called it quits in 2004, and Barbie began spending time with Blaine.

Blaine was billed as an Australian surfer type, and Barbie "dated" him for two years before getting back together with Ken following his makeover. Blaine dolls were available in between 2004-2006, but were discontinued after that.

In 2003, Barbie was banned in Saudi Arabia for being "shameful" and "decadent".

Barbie has been banned around the world in several places, including Russia and Saudi Arabia (temporarily) and Iran (permanently). Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice outlawed the sale of Barbies in 2003, declaring that "their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West."

Barbie actually entered the Saudi market in the mid-1990s, although many consumers would buy the dolls abroad and take them home before that. During the ban, numerous doll alternatives popped up across the Middle East including Fulla, Razanne, Saghira, and Iran's Sara and Dara dolls. These dolls wore more traditional Muslim garb including abayas, headscarves, and hijabs.

After the ban was lifted, Mattel considered critics who felt Barbie encouraged "un-Islamic dress codes", and began releasing international editions of the doll in traditional costumes for different countries. Mattel also began licensing Fulla dolls for sale in certain markets.

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