Sixty years ago, an American icon made her debut. Adored, reviled, imitated and parodied, Barbie’s appeal has lasted from the Eisenhower administration to the days of Trump.
Since her debut in March of 1959, more than a billion of her likenesses have been sold.
Barbie was the brainchild, or perhaps adopted brainchild, of Ruth Handler. Handler’s husband, Elliott, was co-founder of the Mattel toy company, putting her in a rather favorable position to float a new idea for kids.
At the time of Barbie’s conception, most children’s dolls were models of infants. The inspiration for an adult doll came from Germany.
The German doll, Bild Lilli, created in the 1950s was adult-figured, styled after a newspaper comic-strip character, a sexy blonde working girl who knew how to get what she wanted.
In Bild Lilli’s first appearance in print, she is asking a fortune-teller, “Can’t you give me the name and address of this tall, handsome, rich man?”
The Bild Lilli doll was first targeted to adults, particularly men. Further contemplation of this fact perhaps would be unseemly.
But on a family trip to Germany, Ruth Handler stumbled on the Bild Lilli and thought an adult doll for children might work in the United States.
The first Barbies were made in Japan, and they came as either blondes or brunettes. Mattel sold about 350,000 of them the first year. Some parents weren’t happy that the doll had breasts, but Barbie was a hit from the beginning. Mattel took advantage of the booming television market to sell her over the airwaves.
Barbie products soon expanded far beyond clothes and accessories to books, apparel, cosmetics and video games. And, of course, she was accompanied by her much-lampooned boyfriend, the feckless Ken.
There have been Barbie direct-to-DVD animated films, Barbie television specials and Barbie roles in movies (“Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3”). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre in Paris had a Barbie exhibit in 2016.
Barbie’s full name, by the way, is Barbara Millicent Roberts, according to a series of novels published by Random House in the 1960s.
From the beginning, critics have claimed that Barbie’s appearance encourages young girls to aspire to unreasonable physical expectations. She has been blamed for eating disorders and a surge in cosmetic surgery.
Critics notwithstanding, Barbie endures. Mattel says there are more than 100,000 avid collectors of the doll today, mostly women, with an average age of 40.
And even her critics must admit that, at 60, she’s taken pretty good care of herself. Not a wrinkle in sight.