The life and times of an American icon: Barbara Millicent Roberts

October 6, 2013

Barbara Millicent Roberts has most certainly lived life to the full so far. Born in 1959, she comes from the town of Willows, Wisconsin, where she was brought up by her parents, George and Margaret Roberts. After graduating from the prestigious Manhattan International High School in New York City, she has tried her hand at a number of jobs including astronaut, doctor, pilot, flight attendant, ballerina, palaeontologist, and a SCUBA diver. She also played Karen Carpenter in the Todd Haynes film Superstar. And in 2000 she became president. With all this frantic activity it is hardly surprising that she has never had the time to tie the knot, although she has had an on-off romantic relationship with her boyfriend Ken Carson, who came on the scene in 1961. However, in February 2004 they decided to split up. In this aftermath she became friendly with Blaine, an Australian surfer.

By now you will probably have realized that we are not talking about a real person, but the most successful doll in history – Mattel’s Barbie. It is estimated that over a billion of these 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 1/6 scale. The standard dolls are approximately 11½ inches (29cm) tall, which would make her 1.75m. Her vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a large range of Barbie branded goods such as books, apparel, cosmetics and video games.

The origin of this global phenomenon is rather surprising. She was invented by the president of the toy manufacturer Mattel Inc. – Ruth Handler, who took her inspiration from a German toy doll called Bild Lilli, which was not designed for children, but for adults, originally being marketed as a novelty gift in bars and tobacco shops. Barbie was based on a popular character appearing in a raunchy comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. This blonde bombshell certainly liked a good time. She was a working girl who would use men to get what she wanted – “I could do without balding old men but my budget couldn’t!”


Bild Lilli doll

On returning to the United States, Handler redesigned the doll and it was also given a new name, Barbie, after Handler’s daughter Barbara. It made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is considered Barbie’s official birthday. Five years later Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll and production of Lilli was stopped. The first Barbie doll, which was available as either a blonde or brunette, had her wearing a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and sporting her signature ponytail. The doll was marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model”. The first Barbie dolls were actually manufactured in Japan, their clothes being hand-stitched by Japanese home workers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production. Although this is now the norm, Barbie was one of the first toys to harness the power of television advertising as the cornerstone of their marketing strategy. There is no doubt it has been incredibly successful. As the Economist pointed out, if all the Barbies and her family members – Skipper, Francie and the rest – sold since 1959 were placed head to toe, they would circle the Earth more than seven times.

But there’s a more sinister side to Barbie. She is seen as a product of a sexist and materialistic society. In 1993, the Barbie Liberation Organization, a culture jamming group, secretly modified a group of Barbie dolls by implanting voice boxes from G.I. Joe dolls. They then secretly returned them to the toy shops from where they were purchased.

The most frequently heard objection is that the doll promotes an unrealistic idea of body image for a young woman, which leads girls to anorexia, bulimia and diet disorders. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, Barbie would lack the 17% to 22% body fat required for a woman to menstruate. There is a condition known as “Barbie Syndrome” in which pre-teenage and adolescent females seek the physical appearance and lifestyle that the Barbie doll embodies. Indeed, this condition is not limited to young girls. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova sought to mould her body into Barbie-like proportions. She claimed that the breasts were implanted, but that the rest was down to exercise and a special diet. In 1997, perhaps as a reaction to the criticism Barbie was given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs.


Valeria Lukyanova

Barbie has been banned in some parts of the world. The most notable case is Saudi Arabia, which 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.” In the Middle East you can find alternatives such as the Fulla doll, which are more suited to Islamic mores.

There is also something about the doll which makes some people want to inflict physical damage on them. 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 hatred of their Barbie dolls drives to a subject them to the violence and torture, including removal of hair, burning, decapitation and even nuking them in the microwave. Dr. Nairn stated: “It’s as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.” It also the butt of satire and Mattel is not exactly known for its sense of humour. For example, they sued artist Tom Forsythe over a series of photographs with kitchen appliances called Food Chain Barbie. In one of them she is put in a food blender.


Food Chain Barbie

In November 2002, a New York judge turned down an injunction against the British-based artist Susanne Pitt, who had produced a “Dungeon Barbie” doll in bondage clothing. You can find it on E-bay for $49.99. And they didn’t appreciate Aqua’s song “Barbie Girl”, suing MCA Records. Once again they were unsuccessful. Judge Alex Kozinski ruled that the song was a “parody and a social commentary”.

I find what Barbie represents rather questionable, but I think that it is rather simplistic to blame her for anorexia. We tend to look for simple explanations for complex social phenomena. What does the future hold for this doll? Will she be around for another fifty years? That’s difficult to say. Now she faces new challenge from the Bratz franchise. These are the new kids on the block and Barbie has now become more of an establishment figure trying to see off this usurper. Once again Mattel have resorted to the courts, suing MGA Entertainment for $500 million, alleging that Bratz creator Carter Bryant was working for Mattel when he developed the idea. On August 5, 2011, after a protracted legal dispute, Mattel was also ordered to pay MGA $310 million for attorney fees, stealing trade secrets, and false claims. They should have got the doll to represent them.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

October 6, 2013

Thanks to YouTube it’s possible to see Todd Haynes Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story online. Barbie plays the part of the ill-fated singer in this 43-minute film.