Barbie


Barbie
/bahr"bee/
1. Trademark. a brand of doll representing a slim, shapely young woman, esp. one with blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.
n.
2. Also called Barbie doll. a person, esp. a young woman, perceived as blandly attractive and vacuous.

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in full Barbara Millicent Roberts

A plastic doll, 11.

5 in. (29 cm) tall, with the figure of an adult woman that was introduced in 1959 by Mattel, Inc., a southern California toy company. Ruth Handler, who cofounded Mattel with her husband, Elliot, spearheaded the introduction of the doll. Since the 1970s, Barbie has been criticized for materialism (amassing cars, houses, and clothes) and unrealistic body proportions. Yet many women who had played with the doll as girls credit Barbie with providing an alternative to restrictive 1950s gender roles. Today the doll has come to symbolize consumer capitalism and is a global brand, with key markets in Europe, Latin America, and Japan. Barbie never caught on in the Muslim world, however. In 1995 Saudi Arabia stopped its sale because it violated the Islamic dress code. Similar dolls, complete with ḥijābs (head coverings), were eventually marketed to Muslim girls.

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▪ 1995

      In March 1959 the first Barbie doll was unveiled at a toy fair in New York City. She was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, who along with her husband, Elliot, cofounded Mattel Creations (later Mattel, Inc.) in 1945. While raising her two children, Barbara and Kenneth, Handler noticed how much her daughter liked to play make-believe with paper dolls, often assigning them adult roles. Inspired by this and by a German comic strip character named Lilli, to which Mattel bought the rights, Handler created the three-dimensional Barbie doll (named after her daughter). In 1961 her son had his name immortalized in plastic when the Ken doll, Barbie's significant other, was introduced. Handler believed that allowing little girls to imagine the future with pretend play was an important part of growing up. What emerged was what came to be the world's most popular doll, including four younger siblings, a pantheon of friends, and a proliferation of accessories—each sold separately, of course. As Barbie turned 35, however, she found that along with her designer clothes, motor homes, and product endorsements came her share of controversy.

      Barbie began life as a teenage fashion model. Over the years she became a ballerina, registered nurse, American Airlines stewardess, surgeon, and U.S. Air Force pilot. In 1992 she ran for president, but she lost, possibly because, after 20 years of silence, her first utterances (much to the dismay of feminists) included the words, "Math class is tough." In 1991 Mattel took action against Kenner Products' Miss America doll, citing copyright infringement. Versions of Miss America—which was manufactured in China—were subsequently seized by the U.S. Customs Service and stored in a government warehouse. A year later Mattel settled a similar suit against Hasbro Inc., which agreed to change its popular British Sindy doll to look less like Barbie.

      By 1994 it seemed that Barbie herself could not be stopped and would continue her reign as the queen of dolldom. Since 1959 more than 800 million dolls in the Barbie family had been sold. Adult collectors invested thousands of dollars in special-issue Barbies. She had had more than 500 professions and could be found in more than 140 countries in the guise of several nationalities. However, it was unlikely that she would ever be seen in Kuwait after she was banned by a top Muslim official in August 1994. Barbie's curvacious figure had often been chastised for providing girls with an unrealistic body image. On the other hand, a group of Finnish scientists declared that she was anorexic.

      After losing $113 million in 1987 on unsuccessful new product lines, Mattel found that it was more profitable to increase promotion of the Barbie franchise, and in 1993 sales of Barbie paraphernalia exceeded $1 billion. In celebration of Barbie's 35th birthday in 1994, Mattel reissued a replica of the original 1959 doll, and in October her life was chronicled in the book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, by M.G. Lord. (ANTHONY L. GREEN)

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doll
in full  Barbara Millicent Roberts 

      an 11-inch- (29-cm-) tall plastic doll with the figure of an adult woman that was introduced in 1959 by Mattel, Inc., a southern California toy company. Ruth Handler, who cofounded Mattel with her husband, Elliot, spearheaded the introduction of the doll. Barbie's physical appearance was modeled on the German Bild Lilli doll, a risqué gag gift for men based upon a cartoon character featured in the West German newspaper Bild Zeitung.

      Since the doll's inception its body has incited controversy. Mothers in a 1958 Mattel-sponsored market study before the doll's release criticized Barbie for having “too much of a figure.” Mattel circumvented this problem, however, by advertising Barbie directly to children via television. Mattel, in fact, upon sponsoring Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club program in 1955, became the first toy company to broadcast commercials to children.

      In response to consumer demand, in 1961 Mattel brought out Barbie's ultimate “accessory”—her boyfriend, Ken. (The Handlers' children were named Barbara and Ken.) In 1963 Mattel added Barbie's best friend, Midge, and in 1964 her little sister, Skipper. By 1968 Barbie had been issued “friend” dolls of colour, but not until 1980 was the Barbie doll itself released in an African American incarnation.

      Since the 1970s, Barbie has been criticized for materialism (amassing cars, houses, and clothes) and unrealistic body proportions. In fact, in 1994 researchers in Finland announced that if Barbie were a real woman, she would not have enough body fat to menstruate. Yet many women who played with the doll credit Barbie with providing an alternative to restrictive 1950s gender roles. Unlike baby dolls, Barbie did not teach nurturing. Outfitted with career paraphernalia, the doll was a model for financial self-sufficiency. (Barbie's résumé includes, among other things, airline pilot, astronaut, doctor, Olympic athlete, and United States presidential candidate.) Nor was the doll defined by relationships of responsibility to men or family. Barbie has no parents or offspring. When in the early 1960s consumers clamoured for a Barbie-scale baby, Mattel did not make Barbie a mother but issued a “Barbie Baby-Sits” playset.

      Although Mattel has positioned Barbie as the ultimate American girl, the doll has never been manufactured in the United States, to avoid higher labour costs. Today the doll has come to symbolize consumer capitalism and is as much a global brand as Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola Company, The), with key markets in Europe, Latin America, and Japan. Barbie never caught on in the Muslim world, however. In 1995 Saudi Arabia stopped its sale because it violated the Islamic dress code. Eventually, similar dolls, some complete with hijabs (head coverings), were marketed to Muslim girls.

      Mattel registered Barbie as a work of art, but the doll has also inspired works of art, including a 1986 Andy Warhol (Warhol, Andy) portrait and photographs by William Wegman and David Levinthal. Novelists, including A.M. Homes and Barbara Kingsolver, have used the doll in fiction. When interpreting Barbie, artists tend to take one of two approaches: idealizing the doll or, more commonly, using the doll to critique ideas associated with it, from exaggerated femininity to profligate consumption.

      Barbie is a very popular collectible. Aficionados are interested in both old Barbies and the special edition Barbies that Mattel creates to cater to this market. Although Barbie's sales since the year 2000 have not risen as steeply as they did in the 1990s, they still amount to more than a billion dollars annually. Every second, Mattel calculates, two Barbies are sold somewhere in the world.

M.G. Lord

Additional Reading
M.G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (1995), analyzes the doll in its social context.

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Universalium. 2010.

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