Pretty, Plastic Barbie: Forever What We Make Her

Original 1959 Barbie with swimsuit i i

She mellowed with age: The original 1959 Barbie had a surprisingly worldly look — "the face of a 40-year-old woman who's seen a lot of action," in the words of collector Joe Blitman. Courtesy Mattel, Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Mattel, Inc.
Original 1959 Barbie with swimsuit

She mellowed with age: The original 1959 Barbie had a surprisingly worldly look — "the face of a 40-year-old woman who's seen a lot of action," in the words of collector Joe Blitman.

Courtesy Mattel, Inc.
Barbie collector Joe Blitman with friend i i

Barbara Millicent Roberts, as Joe Blitman's little friend is formally known, has a way of winning girls' hearts. Says Blitman: "She didn't talk back. She always looked great." Kim Masters, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kim Masters, NPR
Barbie collector Joe Blitman with friend

Barbara Millicent Roberts, as Joe Blitman's little friend is formally known, has a way of winning girls' hearts. Says Blitman: "She didn't talk back. She always looked great."

Kim Masters, NPR
Barbie creator Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot. i i

Behind the muse: Barbie creator Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot display some of their brood. Courtesy Mattel, Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Mattel, Inc.
Barbie creator Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot.

Behind the muse: Barbie creator Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot display some of their brood.

Courtesy Mattel, Inc.

Barbie's Star Vehicle

Todd Haynes' 1987 cult film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a biopic shot entirely using dolls rather than actors, charted the anorexic pop singer's tragic demise — with Barbie in the leading role. Music-rights issues keep the film out of public circulation, but it's frequently viewable online.

Note: Contains mature content.
Astronaut Barbie i i

Career-oriented: Initially confined to the domestic arena, Barbie eventually made it out of the house and into the working world — even, at the expense of her hairdo, into space. Courtesy Mattel, Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Mattel, Inc.
Astronaut Barbie

Career-oriented: Initially confined to the domestic arena, Barbie eventually made it out of the house and into the working world. Her ambitions took her into sports, medicine, the corporate arena — even, at the expense of her hairdo, into space.

Courtesy Mattel, Inc.
Barbie: Princess Genevieve i i

Despite her striving, Barbie remains most popular when she's princessy — as in her guise as the dancing Princess Genevieve. (Who apparently owns a dancing Persian cat.) Courtesy Mattel, Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Mattel, Inc.
Barbie: Princess Genevieve

Barbie remains most popular when she's princessy — as in her guise as the dancing Princess Genevieve (who apparently owns a dancing Persian cat.)

Courtesy Mattel, Inc.

She's not the centerpiece of a classic film, nor the protagonist of a great novel. She's Barbie — known not so much for her own strong character traits, but for the attributes people assume she has, based on her appearance. Barbie's character, to a certain extent, has become what people make of her.

"I don't know any other toy that has generated so much discussion and so much passion and so much, usually, ambivalence," says author Peggy Orenstein, who's written extensively about issues affecting girls.

And she's right: Barbie — ever famous, often infamous — has been analyzed, politicized and demonized. She has inspired art, along with powerful emotions.

"You either see her as the embodiment of oppressive, Teutonic standards of beauty, or you see her as all that is good and sweet and innocent about your childhood," says Orenstein. "But you can't not have a relationship with Barbie."

She Always Looks Great, and She Never Talks Back

Collectible-doll dealer Joe Blitman specializes in Barbie. His Hollywood home is packed with Barbies of every era — including the very first one.

"She's wearing the very famous black-and-white striped swimsuit," Blitman points out. "Comes with sunglasses, shoes. She came brunette or blond. And these originally sold for $3."

Today, she might fetch as much as $12,000.

Why would an adult want to pay that kind of money for a Barbie? Most of Blitman's customers are women, and they tell him the same thing:

"Barbie was their best friend growing up, because she always agreed with them," he says. "She didn't talk back. She always looked great. And they always envisioned her being five to seven years older than they were, no matter what their age."

Creators Expected Controversy

Barbie sprang from the mind of Ruth Handler, whose husband was a co-founder of Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. Handler was watching her daughter Barbara playing with movie-star paper dolls when the idea for Barbie was born.

The first version was based on a German doll named Bild Lilli. She, in turn, had been inspired by a cartoon character with a fondness for sugar-daddies.

"They basically copied the face," Blitman explains. "So it's very hard. I mean, this is not the face of a 17-year-old. This is the face of a 40-year-old woman who's seen a lot of action."

Mattel officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but Blitman says the company expected controversy from the start.

"It was clear to psychologists that the doll was going to be a hit with children, because it really filled that need of having a role-playing toy," he says. "And the parents were destined to absolutely detest it, because of the breasts."

Parents responded so negatively that Sears — the key retailer of the day — initially refused to sell the doll. Mattel soon gave Barbie's face a softer look, but the problem was not the face. If Barbie were human-size, she would have a relatively modest 36-inch chest but a waist of only 18 inches. Research at a hospital in Finland said she lacks the body fat required for menstruation.

Name another doll who invites that type of scrutiny.

Barbie Evolves

Mattel widened Barbie's waist in 1992. And in 1972, Barbie surrendered her sideways glance. Blitman believes that change was an acknowledgement of the feminist movement, since her new direct gaze seemed less demure.

But tilting Barbie's eyes didn't make her into a real girl, says author Peggy Orenstein.

At one time, Mattel tried to give Barbie a back-story. Her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, she's from Willows, Wisc., and her parents were George and Margaret.

But those details didn't catch on. Orenstein thinks the fact that Barbie is stubbornly amorphous may explain one of the more common activities that children engage in with Barbie: torturing her.

Orenstein says a friend told her about a child who lined her Barbies up in the driveway, then had her mother drive over them.

"And she was really gleeful about it," Orenstein says. "I just can't imagine another toy where you, first of all, take the time to do that ... and where you would be so happy about it."

A Potent Ideal

Director Todd Haynes, whose films include Far from Heaven and I'm Not There, thinks girls may torture Barbie because they are so ambivalent about the feminine ideals she embodies. Haynes cast Barbie in the role of Karen Carpenter in his 1987 film Superstara biopic shot entirely with dolls standing in for actors. [Note: Mature content beyond preceding link.] For Haynes, casting Barbie in the role of an anorexic young woman was an obvious choice.

"The use of dolls," Haynes says, "and the use of Barbie dolls in particular, had all of these layers of meaning that I think people really understood without it feeling like an academic exercise."

Over the years, Mattel has tried to turn Barbie into a positive role model. She became a pilot instead of a flight attendant, a doctor instead of a nurse. But the really popular Barbies now are princesses, or least princess-like. Barbie has starred in her own versions of Swan Lake and Rapunzel. These days, girls play with Barbies when they're very young. By the time they're 6, most of them have moved on.

Barbie is facing stiff challenges. She's competing with the powerhouse Disney princesses and with toys like Webkinz — plush animals that come with interactive online alter-egos.

And compared with the more overtly sexualized dolls in stores today — like the tarted-up Bratz — Orenstein says Barbie seems almost quaint.

But though Barbie may be diminished, but she isn't going away. The reason is simple:

"If you sort of put aside all the theories and the feminism and the hype and everything," Orenstein says, "I have to say that — you know, deep in my bones — I still think Barbie's kind of fun."

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