By Sivan Goren
I remember the day I got my first Barbie like it was yesterday. It was the morning of my 5th birthday (for the sake of my vanity, we will not mention the year) and my mom and dad handed over a little package, wrapped in suitably cheerful wrapping paper. As I frenziedly tore at the paper, I held my breath and sent a fervent prayer that it would be what I hoped it was. Inside the box, I was overjoyed to see, was my very first Barbie doll ever. She was blonde, obviously (this was long before the politically correct plethora of Barbies available today) and was wearing a stylish navy-and-silver ensemble. I was instantly smitten.
This year marks 60 years of Barbie: a woman who has been round the block, worn every outfit, sported every hairstyle, driven every car and had every job known to man (or woman). These days Barbie is diverse and ethnically representative of the whole world, not just California, and comes in every shape and size. But while she has moved into the 21st century, is Barbie still relevant today?
Barbara Millicent Roberts (according to her fictional biography) began her life in March 1959. She was brought to life by Ruth Handler, who spotted what she thought was a gap in the market. Ruth noticed that her young daughter would often play with paper dolls, giving them adult roles. At the time, dolls that were sold in shops were generally modelled upon babies that had to be cared for. Ruth discussed the idea of an adult doll for kids with her husband… who fortuitously just happened to be Elliot Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, one of the biggest toy companies in the US. (In case you were interested, he is the “El” part of the name Mattel – the “Matt” being for Harold “Matt” Matson, the other co-founder. Now you know.)
Mr Handler was far less enthusiastic about the idea than Mrs Handler; the directors of Mattel were even less excited (apparently it takes a female to understand what other females might like… who woulda thought?) But Ruth wasn’t deterred. On a trip to Europe in 1956 with her daughter Barbara and son – yup, you guessed it – Kenneth, Mrs Handler came across a German toy doll called Bild Lilli. It had an adult figure and was based on a blonde bombshell character from a comic strip in the newspaper Bild; a working girl who knew what she wanted and, ahem, knew how to get it. This doll was exactly what Ruth had envisaged so she bought three, one for her daughter and two to take back to Mattel. And the rest, as they say, is history. Sporting a jaunty ponytail – either blonde or brunette – Barbie (named after the Handlers’ daughter) was born as a ‘teenage fashion model’ and made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on 9 March 1959.
In the first year of production alone, about 350 000 Barbie dolls were sold and since then Mattel has sold over a billion of the dolls. But despite her stratospheric popularity, Barbie has not been a stranger to controversy. In 1961, the makers of Bild Lilli sued Mattel for copying their doll and a battle ensued, which was eventually settled out of court in 1963. To add to Barbie’s woes, many parents were horrified that Barbie had distinctive, rather sizeable, mounds on her chest. In addition, many complained that Barbie conveyed a body image not remotely rooted in reality. Of course, there was also the fact that a vast majority of the world’s population could not relate to a white-skinned, blue-eyed doll and in 1980, Mattel began to diversify and produce Barbies of different ethnicities and cultures with different skin, hair and eye colours.
Despite encountering numerous challenges in her life, including declining sales since 2014, Barbie is still around at the grand old age of 60. She may have started out as a fashion model, but over her life she has also been an astronaut, surgeon, vet, air force pilot, NASCAR driver and engineer, to name but a few. She may be beautiful and have a wardrobe full of clothes and shoes, but she has also shown young girls everywhere that they can be and do whatever they can imagine. Despite all the criticism levelled against her, I’d say Barbie embodies the female never-say-die spirit and proves that whatever a man can do, a woman can do just as well. And just like Barbie, we can even do it in killer heels.