'A Doll With Breasts': The Radical Legacy of Barbie

In almost every way, Barbie's existence challenged the sexist standards of her day. Created by a woman who forced her way into a male-dominated business world, Barbie blanketed America with a new understanding of what womanhood could be.

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Apr 2 2016, 1:00pm

Image by ianmacm via flickr

At the American Toy Fair in 1959, a historic mistake was about to be made: some of the first people to ever see a Barbie doll decided that no one would ever want one. "Fully fifty percent wanted nothing to do with her," as Barbie's creator Ruth Handler explained in her autobiography Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story.

"Ruth, little girls want baby dolls," one buyer explained. "They want to pretend to be mommies."

"No, they don't," Ruth answered. "They want to pretend to be bigger girls."

In almost every way, Barbie's existence challenged the sexist standards of her day. Created by a woman who forced her way into a male-dominated business world, Barbie blanketed America with a new understanding of what womanhood could be. She showed that women could be the centers of their own lives, rather than mere accessories of husband, family, and household.

As a character that girls were encouraged to think of as a representation of themselves, Barbie inspired an entirely new category of toys. Any doll that its user projects themselves onto, from She-Ra to Monster High to American Girl, owes something to Barbie. A "doll with breasts," as a gallery of horrified adults described her, Barbie proved that a grown woman could be a role model for girls, instead of a sex object unfit for innocent eyes. The ideological victories Barbie's creation secured are so great and enduring that they are often taken for granted.

"Girls want to pretend to be bigger girls."

Although Ruth Handler was happily married and the mother of two children, the notion that this was all a woman should ever hope to accomplish filled her with despair. "If I had to stay home," she once said, "I would be the most dreadful, mixed-up, unhappy woman in the world."

Ruth knew that her children felt the same way. Handler noticed her daughter Barbara—who also went by "Babs" and, yes, "Barbie"—had a particular way of playing with paper dolls: she used them to imagine her adult life in roles besides parent and homemaker. "Wouldn't it be great," Handler thought, "[if] little girls could do their dreaming and role-playing with real dolls and real clothes?"

Handler was uniquely equipped to make the toy her daughter wanted into a reality. She had already founded a toy company with her husband Elliot called Mattell. In its humble beginning, Mattel's products consisted of anything Elliot knew how to make that Ruth knew how to sell. But one thing had changed since Mattel moved out of the Handler household garage: it now employed a room full of designers which Ruth would have to convince to develop her doll concept. And they insisted that an eleven-and-a-half-inch fashion doll with adult proportions and detailed clothes would be too intricate to produce—at least at an affordable price. To that charge, Ruth Handler had no answer—until she took a vacation to Europe. There she found the doll that would become the basis for Barbie: an adult novelty doll called Lilli, based on a bawdy comic strip that appeared in the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung. Although the Lilli doll was never intended for children, a variety of saucy outfits were sold separately that men could use to dress—and undress—her.

While Lilli was a gold digger with a fondness for exposing her curvaceous figure in the comic strips, Barbie's personality was inspired by a very different comic strip character with a strangely similar name—Tillie the Toiler. Appearing in newspapers from 1921 to 1959, Tillie was an early portrayal of an independent career woman. Tillie worked in the office of a clothing company and even joined the army during World War II. While Tillie had the attitude Handler wanted for Barbie, Lilli had an affordable doll in the likeness of an adult woman.

The raunchy context of the Lilli doll meant nothing to Ruth Handler. "I didn't know who Lilli was," as Handler put it in Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. "I only saw an adult-shape body that...our guys said couldn't be done."

Lilli doll and comic at a museum in Prague

Handler suspected that Mattel staff dismissed her doll concept as impossible simply because they were uncomfortable of the idea of creating "a doll with breasts." But they were right that creating the doll would be a challenge. Mattel employee Frank Nakamura spent weeks searching Japan for a manufacturer with the equipment to recreate Lilli and found only a single one: Kokusai Boeki Kaisha. Even then, the doll maker had never performed the specific plastic-molding process he knew would be required.

Once Barbie had been given physical form, she needed clothes. For this task, Ruth Handler selected Charlotte Johnson, a clothing designer and instructor at the Chouinard Art School. Barbie's original wardrobe was designed and manufactured by women: Japanese housewives sewed the tiny garments at home as a part-time job.

Barbie's original wardrobe was designed and manufactured by women: Japanese housewives sewed the tiny garments at home as a part-time job.

With the challenges of production behind Barbie, the task of marketing laid ahead. Handler estimates that half of Mattel's usual buyers initially passed on Barbie, including a representative for Sears. The rest ordered Barbie conservatively, seemingly motivated more by Mattel's solid track record than faith in the product.

Tillie the Toiler paper dolls

Mattel knew that Barbie would need a pitch as original as the doll itself. To achieve this, they enlisted Dr. Ernest Dichter, a psychiatrist who applied his expertise to the world of advertising. Dichter was already famous for assignments like his research for Chrysler, where he determined that his male subjects liked to think about buying convertibles, but were more likely to buy sedans.

Doing research for Mattel, Dichter determined that children liked Barbie, but her mature figure made parents uncomfortable. A compromise revealed itself when one mother's resistance softened upon hearing her daughter say, "She's so well groomed, mommy!"

Dichter advised Mattel to present Barbie as a role model that could turn your daughter into a "poised little lady." This scientific recommendation was expressed in a state-of-the-art advertising medium: a television commercial. In 1955, Mattel had become the first toy company to advertise on television, allowing them to reach their audience directly.

In that original sixty-second commercial, the Barbie dolls were lit and filmed for the commercial like fashion models, an unprecedented approach with new technical challenges. As Cy Schneider, one of the developers of Barbie's television campaign explained, "Filming a close-up of a beautiful woman has its own set of problems, but when the model's head is the size of a quail's egg, enormous difficulties arise." Dolls had to be frozen overnight to prevent them from melting under spotlights.

In the commercial, Barbie is only once described as a doll, and the closing jingle established the crucial link between the dolls and the children they were being advertised to: "Someday I'm gonna be exactly like you/ 'Till then, I know just what I'll do / Barbie, beautiful Barbie/ I'll make believe that I am you."

Ruth Handler owned a pink Thunderbird and a dream house in Malibu before Barbie did.

After the unexpectedly small orders for Barbie at Toy Fair, Mattel scaled back production, anxious to avoid accumulating unsellable product. But the summer after the commercial hit the airwaves, the retailers who had passed on Barbie were suddenly swamped with shoppers requesting the doll. Mattel found itself unable to meet the demand for Barbie, and the many stores that had underestimated Handler's creation learned their lesson the hard way.

For Mattel and toy retailers, Barbie was the gift that kept on giving. Once the demand for Barbie dolls was met, the demand for Barbie's clothing and accessories continued. Those who had purchased Barbie dolls weeks, months, and even years prior still wanted new clothes for Barbie to wear and new things for Barbie to do.

Barbie was as much a reflection of Ruth Handler's own experience as the ways she wanted the world to change. Ruth Handler owned a pink Thunderbird and a dream house in Malibu before Barbie did. And like Handler, Barbie was a career woman in an era when this was exceptional. Throughout her time at Mattel, Handler was often the only woman in the room.

Barbie and Mattel enjoyed great success in the late 60s and early 70s. Mattel stock was a celebrity on Wall Street, but this acclaim turned out to be the seed of disaster. To meet sales goals, Mattel management started billing retailers for merchandise it couldn't sell in a dangerous new twist on an old tradition in the toy business called "bill and hold."

The original 1959 Barbie Doll

Normally, "bill and hold" meant a retailer had placed an order for toys that they wouldn't want to be shipped until later, such as during the Christmas rush. But now Mattel was billing retailers for orders that had not been made. Worse still, retailers could cancel these bills for unsolicited orders. Not only was Mattel collecting profits for merchandise it had not sold, it was reporting income from sales that had been cancelled.

The price of Mattel's stock became inflated, debt piled up, and though it hadn't been her idea, it all happened on Ruth Handler's watch. In the wake of a federal investigation, Ruth quit Mattel and was later convicted of criminal charges relating to the scandal. Barbie was officially separated from her creator.

After Handler's departure, an employee confided to Ruth that the new management was thinking about retiring the doll. Unfazed, Ruth calmly said that "Barbie is going to be around long after you and I are gone." And as it had so many times before, history would prove Ruth Handler's intuition right.

Even the original Barbie doll was a sea change in what toys for girls could be, and that spirit of innovation has endured. The most dramatic change to Barbie's appearance was announced just weeks ago: Barbie dolls in three new body types—"tall," "curvy," and "petite." These latest additions to the Barbie line are just one new rung on the ladder of Mattel's long game of representing as many dimensions of the feminine experience as possible—both with Barbie and through the other products she influenced.

Mattel's line of entrepreneurial Barbies

In the 1980s, Mattel created the Heart Family so that a line of dolls could celebrate family and parenthood without undermining Barbie's message of female independence. In that same decade, Barbie designer Jill Barad developed She-Ra, Princess of Power, a sword-swinging defender of a fantasy realm.

In the 1990s, Mattel released Shani, an entire line of black dolls. The psychologist Dr. Darlene Powell Hopson, author of Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society, was invited to be a consultant. At the suggestion of Dr. Hopson, the dolls of Shani and her friends each had a unique skin tone. Some of the dolls' clothing was even made of Kente cloth, a traditional African fabric.

At the start of this decade, Mattel introduced the Monster High series, featuring the teenage daughters of famous monsters. Monster High infuses traditional fashion dolls with the aggressive traits of goth fashion and monster folklore, as well as the monster's narrative of celebrating difference.

Even the company behind Barbie's other biggest competitor, American Girl, has been a subsidiary of Mattel since 1998. American Girl offers both customizable dolls as well as dolls with official backstories from all manner of ethnic, economic, and historical backgrounds.

American Girl's "Truly Me" series features forty different dolls of various skin tones, hairstyles, and eye colors. The dolls can be further customized with clothes and accessories which simulate their owner's personal effects; even wheelchairs and diabetic blood test kits are available for American Girl dolls.

Although American Girl dolls are flat-chested and child-like, they wholeheartedly embody Ruth Handler's original concept of Barbie as a personalized alter ego for each individual owner: "My whole philosophy was that with the doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be." The work of creating a doll for everyone was not finished by Barbie, but there can be no question that she started it.