Knowing who Barbie was based on will taint your childhood forever
If you asked me for a list of everything I despise about Barbie, I’d warn you to grab a cup of tea and get comfy. But it’s not, as you might imagine, the outdated insistence on everything she owns being pink or the ridiculousness of her body proportions (no one will ever be blessed enough to have that bum, those boobs and a pair of legs that long). It's not even the sheer absurdity of a body with no nipples.
No, it’s the falseness of it all. Make your way to the Barbie website today and you’ll find pictures of squeaky-clean, sweet-faced young girls grinning at their all-American dolls backed up by "empowering" slogans such as #YouCanBeAnything: “an athlete”, “a pilot”, “a fairy princess” (is this realistic?) For over 50 years, she's somehow managed to sell herself on purity and aspiration at the same time as looking like a porn star while doing little more than being a clothes hanger. But a quick delve into this iconic doll’s history and you’ll see that there’s a reason for this contradiction.
The plastic princess first came around back in the 1950s, when Ruth Handler, whose husband was the co-founder of Mattel, Barbie's manufacturer, decided that girls needed a more grown-up doll to engage with and prepare them for adulthood, having watched her daughter play with child dolls. Although Mattel, which she would later become the President of, weren’t entirely keen on the idea, she kept an eye out for inspiration. And some very adult inspiration is exactly what Handler found during a trip to Germany when she came across Bild Lilli, a fashion doll originally based on a cartoon-prostitute of the same name.
Now, as much as Barbie can be accused of objectifying women and resorting to stereotypes, cartoon Lilli was something else. Created by Reinhard Beuthien and published by the Bild-Zeitung, she was a buxom blonde who realised that in order to keep life comfortable she could use her body to seduce wealthy men. In other words, she was a high-end call girl. Frequently portrayed in little more than underwear, tight dresses and heels, she was brazen, sassy and definitely not shy.
Her 3D alter-ego, created in response to her incredible popularity, was initially targeted at adult men and sold in sex shops, bars and at tobacco stands, along with interchangeable corsets and negligees. Available in two sizes and with different colour hair options, she was, according to Jill Nagle, author of Whores and Other Feminists, referred to as "always discreet" and "the star of every bar". Such was her detachment from real, human women that she actually had stilettos for feet. Eventually as children started to play with her too, a new range of more child-friendly outfits were introduced and she moved into the mainstream.
On Handler’s return to the US, it was Mattel designer Jack Ryan who was charged with making Lilli more saleable in domestic markets. But Ryan wasn’t exactly without his own murky reputation and, according to Jerry Oppenheimer, author of Toy Monster: The Big Bad World of Mattel, frequently patronised prostitutes himself. “When Jack talked about creating Barbie, it was like listening to somebody talking about a sexual episode”, recalled former friend Stephen Gnass in conversation with Oppenheimer, explaining that he was borderline obsessed with Barbie’s bust dimensions and height.
But despite his best efforts, re-designing might be a strong word for Ryan’s work considering the incredible resemblance between 3D Lilli and the first Barbie, which was - rather creepily - named after Handler’s own daughter Barbara:
Nonetheless, Handler and Ryan's creation would go on to be one of the most successful and recognisable toys ever, with Mattel having sold over one billion of these little plastic dolls to date. After Mattel bought the copyright rights to Lilli back in 1964 and ceased production, her existence and influence on the doll so synonymous with childhood was all but swept under the carpet, with the company keen to cement the version of Barbie as a toy for little girls.
Today, Barbie's falseness has taken on a new form. In the last few years, a slew of new Barbies have been released, all designed to diversify her image in response to criticism about the fake, outdated ideal of beauty that she promotes. Now there's a short one, a curvy one, there are Barbies with different skin tones and hair colours - there's even a pregnant one, complete with detachable foetus. But the fact that it has taken so long for these to become part of Mattel's offerings only underscores their status as tick boxes aimed at saving their profits amid falling sales.
The truth is, Barbies are still reincarnations of the same old "slut" stereotypes that Lilli started life as and that Mattel sought to deny. And if you needed further proof then consider the fact that even Doctor Barbie, supposedly part of the new wave of "anything is possible" dolls, is decked out in a mini-dress, heels even Beyonce would have trouble with and a lab coat that’s cropped to show off her legs. Because, after all, what good is a female doctor without a fine pair of pins?