is a best-selling fashion doll
launched in 1959. The doll is produced by Mattel, Inc.
, and is a major source of revenue for the company. The American
businesswoman Ruth Handler
(1916-2002) is regarded as the creator of Barbie, and the doll's design was inspired by a German
doll called Bild Lilli
Barbie has been an important part of the toy fashion doll market for nearly fifty years, and has been the subject of numerous controversies and lawsuits, often involving parody of the doll and her lifestyle. In recent years, Barbie has faced increasing competition from the Bratz range of dolls.
Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara at play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children's toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel's directors.
During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, Ruth Handler came across German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The adult-figured Lilli doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.
Upon her return to the United States, Handler reworked the design of the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler's daughter Barbara. The doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is also used as Barbie's official birthday. Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll in 1964 and production of Lilli was stopped. The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette. The doll was marketed as a "Teen-age Fashion Model," with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.
Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, and early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll's chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie's appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll's eyes were adjusted to look forwards rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model.
Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising, which has been copied widely by other toys. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.
The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 6 scale, which is also known as playscale.
Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a huge range of Barbie branded goods such as books, fashion items and video games. Barbie has appeared in a series of animated films and makes a brief guest appearance in the 1999 film Toy Story 2.
Almost uniquely for a toy fashion doll, Barbie has become a cultural icon and has been given honors that are rare in the toy world. In 1974 a section of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week, while in 1985 the artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie.
Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts
. In a series of novels published by Random House
in the 1960s, her parents' names are given as George and Margaret Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin
. Barbie has been said to attend Willows High School and Manhattan International High School in New York City
, based on the real-life Stuyvesant High School
. She has an on-off romantic relationship with her beau Ken
), who first appeared in 1961. Like Barbie, Ken shares his name with one of Ruth Handler's children. A news release
from Mattel in February 2004 announced that Barbie and Ken had decided to split up, but in February 2006 they were back together again.
Barbie has had over forty pets including cats and dogs, horses, a panda, a lion cub, and a zebra. She has owned a wide range of vehicles, including pink Corvette convertibles, trailers and jeeps. She also holds a pilot's license, and operates commercial airliners in addition to serving as a flight attendant. Barbie's careers are designed to show that women can take on a variety of roles in life, and the doll has been sold with a wide range of titles including Miss Astronaut Barbie (1965), Doctor Barbie (1988) and Nascar Barbie (1998).
Mattel has created a range of companions for Barbie, including Hispanic Teresa, Midge, African American Christie and Steven (Christie's boyfriend). Barbie's siblings and cousins were also created including Skipper, Tutti (Todd's twin sister), Todd (Tutti's and Stacie's twin brother), Stacie (Todd's twin sister), Kelly, Krissy, Francie, and Jazzie. For more details, see the List of Barbie's friends and family.
Barbie's popularity ensures that her effect on the play of Western children attracts a high degree of scrutiny. The criticisms leveled at her are often based on the assumption that children consider Barbie a role model and will attempt to emulate her.
- In September 2003 the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls, saying that she did not conform to the ideals of Islam. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful. In Middle Eastern countries there is an alternative doll called Fulla which is similar to Barbie but is designed to be more acceptable to an Islamic market. Fulla is not made by the Mattel Corporation, and Barbie is still available in other Middle Eastern countries including Egypt. In Iran, Sara and Dara dolls are available as an alternative to Barbie.
- The word Barbie has come to be used as a derogatory slang term for a girl or woman who is considered shallow, most notably in the 1997 pop song Barbie Girl (see Parodies and lawsuits below).
- In July 1992 Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie, which spoke a number of phrases including "Will we ever have enough clothes?", "I love shopping!", and "Wanna have a pizza party?" Each doll was programmed to say four out of 270 possible phrases, so that no two dolls were likely to be the same. One of these 270 phrases was "Math class is tough!" Although only about 1.5% of all the dolls sold said the phrase, it led to criticism from the American Association of University Women. In October 1992 Mattel announced that Teen Talk Barbie would no longer say the phrase, and offered a swap to anyone who owned the doll.
- One of the most common criticisms of Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic idea of body image for a young woman, leading to a risk that women who attempt to emulate her will become anorexic. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie's vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate. In 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight which advised: "Don't eat." The doll also came with pink bathroom scales reading 110lb, which would be around 35lbs underweight for a woman 5 feet 9 inches tall. In 1997 Barbie's body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs.
- "Colored Francie" made her debut in 1967, and she is sometimes described as the first African American Barbie doll. However, she was produced using the existing head molds for the white Francie doll and lacked African characteristics other than a dark skin. The first African American doll in the Barbie range is usually regarded as Christie, who made her debut in 1968. Black Barbie and Hispanic Barbie were launched in 1980.
- In 1997 Mattel joined forces with Nabisco to launch a cross-promotion of Barbie with Oreo cookies. Oreo Fun Barbie was marketed as someone with whom little girls could play after class and share "America's favorite cookie." As had become the custom, Mattel manufactured both a white and a black version. Critics argued that in the African American community Oreo is a derogatory term meaning that the person is "black on the outside and white on the inside," like the chocolate sandwich cookie itself. The doll was unsuccessful and Mattel recalled the unsold stock, making it sought after by collectors.
- In May 1997 Mattel introduced Share a Smile Becky, a doll in a pink wheelchair. Kjersti Johnson, a 17-year-old high school student in Tacoma, Washington with cerebral palsy, pointed out that the doll would not fit into the elevator of Barbie's $100 Dream House. Mattel announced that it would redesign the house in the future to accommodate the doll.
- In March 2000 stories appeared in the media claiming that the hard vinyl used in vintage Barbie dolls could leak toxic chemicals, causing danger to children playing with them. The claim was rejected as false by technical experts. A modern Barbie doll has a body made from ABS plastic, while the head is made from soft PVC.
- In December 2005 Dr. Agnes Nairn at the University of Bath in England published research suggesting that girls often go through a stage where they hate their Barbie dolls and subject them to a range of punishments, including decapitation and placing the doll in a microwave oven. Dr. Nairn said: "It's as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.
Parodies and lawsuits
Barbie has often been referenced in popular culture and is frequently the target of parody. Some of these occasions include:
- A commercial by automobile company Nissan featuring dolls similar to Barbie and Ken was the subject of another lawsuit in 1997. In the commercial, a female doll is lured into a car by a doll resembling GI Joe to the dismay of a Ken-like doll, accompanied by Van Halen's version of You Really Got Me. According to the makers of the commercial, the dolls' names were Roxanne, Nick and Tad. Mattel claimed that the commercial had done "irreparable damage" to its products, but lost the copyright infringement lawsuit.
- Saturday Night Live aired a parody of Barbie commercials featuring the fictional "Gangsta Bitch Barbie" doll and a "Tupac Ken" doll.
- The Tonight Show with Jay Leno displayed a fictional "Barbie Crystal Meth Lab" which mocked how Barbie usually has a career that is "in keeping with the times or in this case, in keeping with society's current problems."
- Malibu Stacy is a parody of Barbie in the cartoon series The Simpsons. In the 1994 episode Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy, a talking Stacy doll is introduced, speaking phrases such as "let's buy make-up so the boys will like us". Lisa is disgusted by the "sexist drivel spouted by Malibu Stacy," leading her to market an alternative "Lisa Lionheart". The episode is based loosely on the controversy surrounding Teen Talk Barbie from 1992.
- In 1993 a group in the United States calling itself the "Barbie Liberation Organization" modified Barbie dolls by giving them the voice box of a talking G.I. Joe doll, and secretly returned the dolls to the shelves of toy stores. Parents and children were surprised when they purchased Barbie dolls that uttered phrases such as "Eat lead, Cobra!" and "Vengeance is mine."
- In 1999 Mattel sued the Utah artist Tom Forsythe over a series of photographs called Food Chain Barbie, which included a photograph of a Barbie doll in a blender. Mattel lost the lawsuit and was ordered to pay $1.8 million in costs to Mr. Forsythe.
- In November 2002 a New York judge refused an injunction against the British-based artist Susanne Pitt, who had produced a doll called Dungeon Barbie in bondage clothing. Judge Laura Taylor Swain stated: "To the court's knowledge, there is no Mattel line of S&M Barbie.
Mattel estimates that there are well over 100,000 avid Barbie collectors. Ninety percent are women, at an average age of 40, purchasing more than twenty Barbie dolls each year. Forty-five percent of them spend upwards of $1000 a year.
Vintage Barbie dolls from the early years are the most valuable at auction, and while the original Barbie was sold for $3.00 in 1959, a mint boxed Barbie from 1959 sold for $3552.50 on eBay in October 2004. On September 26, 2006, a Barbie doll set a world record at auction of £9,000 sterling (US $17,000) at Christie's in London. The doll was a Barbie in Midnight Red from 1965 and was part of a private collection of 4,000 Barbie dolls being sold by two Dutch women, Ietje Raebel and her daughter Marina.
In recent years Mattel has sold a wide range of Barbie dolls aimed specifically at collectors, including porcelain versions, vintage reproductions, and depictions of Barbie as a range of characters from television series such as The Munsters and Star Trek. There are also collector's edition dolls depicting Barbie dolls with a range of different ethnic identities. In 2004 Mattel introduced the Color Tier system for its collector's edition Barbie dolls, ranging through pink, silver, gold and platinum depending on how many of the dolls are produced.
Barbie will celebrate her 50th anniversary in 2009, and Mattel plans a new reproduction of the original 1959 Barbie doll.
Barbie versus Bratz
In June 2001 MGA Entertainment
launched the Bratz
range of dolls, a move that would give Barbie her first serious competition in the fashion doll market. In 2004 sales figures showed that Bratz dolls were outselling Barbie dolls in the United Kingdom
, although Mattel maintained that in terms of the number of dolls, clothes and accessories sold, Barbie remained the leading brand. In 2005 figures showed that sales of Barbie dolls had fallen by 30% in the United States
, and by 18% worldwide, with much of the drop being attributed to the popularity of Bratz dolls.
In December 2006 Mattel issued a lawsuit against MGA Entertainment and Carter Bryant, a former doll designer for Mattel, claiming that company secrets were stolen by MGA. In August 2008, Mattel was awarded an estimated $40 million in damages after a jury in California agreed that Bryant had created most of the original drawings for the Bratz dolls while he was working for Mattel in 1999 and 2000.
- Lord, M.G., Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. Paperback ISBN 0-8027-7694-9.
- Rogers, Mary F., "Barbie Culture". Paperback ISBN 0-7619-5888-6.
- Knaak, Silke, "German Fashion Dolls of the 50&60". Paperback www.barbies.de.
- Beckham, Victoria (Foreword), John, Elton (Foreword), The Art of Barbie. Paperback ISBN 0-9537479-2-1
- Essays, Guys'n'dolls: Art, Science, Fashion & Relationships. Paperback ISBN 0-948723-57-2