Since the beginning of time, toys have often been an indicator of the way a society behaves, and how they interact with their children. For example, in ancient Greece, artifacts recovered there testify that children were simply not given toys to play with as in the modern world. The cruel ritual of leaving a sick child on a hillside for dead, seems to indicate a lack of attention to the young (Lord 16). The same is true of today?s society. As you can see with the number of toy stores in our society, we find toys of great value to our lives and enjoy giving them to children as gifts. Ask just about any young girl what she wants for Christmas and you?ll undoubtedly get the same answer: ?A Barbie.? But what exactly has caused this baby boomer Barbie craze, and how did the entire world get so caught up in it? The answer lies in Ruth Handler?s vision for the first children?s adult doll. Mrs. Handler?s eleven and one-half-inch chunk of plastic began causing problems even before it?s public debut in 1959, yet has managed to become one of America?s favorite dolls.
Ruth Handler and her two young children, Barbara and Ken, were merely sightseeing in Lucerne, Switzerland, when Mrs. Handler first saw the doll she herself had been trying to create (Lord 29). In the window of a small gift shop was an eleven and one-half-inch tall plastic doll with a slender woman?s body and a long blond ponytail. Her name was Lilli (?Bad Girl? 1). She had been created from a cartoon character in a West German tabloid similar to the National Inquirer (Lord 8). Dressed provocatively, and with a seductive look in her eye, Lilli had become a ?popular pornographic gag gift for men? (?Bad Girl? 1). Excited to see her long-time idea a reality, Mrs. Handler bought three of the dolls and hurried home to begin work on her own doll (?Bad Girl? 2). It was 1956, and within three years, Mattel Creations began marketing the ?teenage fashion model? as ?a new kind of doll from real life? (Tosa 30). The new doll, deemed ?Barbie?, was named after her own daughter Barbara, who?s many years of play with paper dolls had actually inspired her to begin designing the three-dimensional adult doll (Lord 30). Though Mrs. Handler?s version of the doll was not as racy or alluring as Lilli, her imitation of the ?German streetwalker? would come back to haunt her many years later (?Bad Girl? 2). But for now, the Barbie doll would launch Ruth Handler and her company, ?Mattel Creations?, into what was soon to be a successful national corporation. In fact, the Barbie doll was so popular that three years after her release in 1959 Mattel was still filling orders from her first year (Long 17).
It wasn?t until the late 1960?s that critics began ?comparing Barbie to a Playboy Bunny and calling her a corrupter of youth? (?Bad Girl? 3). One woman commented, ?She?s an absurd representation of what a woman should be? (?Bad Girl? 3)-?and that?s exactly what many others thought she was, too. With such impossible real-life measurements of 5?9? tall, 36?-18?-33? bust, waist, and hip (Benstock and Ferriss 35), it?s easy to see why mothers across the country banned the doll from their homes and refused to let their impressionable young daughters be influenced by a piece of painted plastic (Bestock and Ferriss 35). Since dolls have often been responsible for teaching children what society deems important or beautiful, many concerned parents wondered why Mattel did not design a doll that taught more valuable lessons than dressing pretty and being dangerously skinny (Edut 19)? Who said a runway model was best suited for teaching a child what is beautiful anyway? ?According to a Mattel spokesperson, a Kate Moss figure is better suited for today?s fashions? (Edut 19), and that is one reason why Barbie must be so disproportional. Actually, another reason for Barbie?s anorexic figure can be traced back long before Kate Moss and the fashion runway. Barbie was originally designed as a doll with a body one-sixth the size of a real person, who would wear clothes made from fabrics scaled for people (Lord 12). In order for her waist to appear ?life-size? in her skirt made from four layers of human fabric, her waist must be disproportional to her body, or with clothes on, her waist would look wider than her hips (Lord 12). The truth is, her ?exaggerated proportions? also gave her wardrobe designers no limits to their imagination in creating a myriad of doll clothes for the company to market (?Bad Girl? 2).
Because of Barbie?s powerful influences, she is sometimes held responsible for changing little girls into the women of modern society. The majority of the population portrays the woman as ?pretty, hygienic, obedient, cheerful, and born to shop? (Brydon and Niessen 178). By giving the female population an unreasonable dream to achieve, Barbie gives young girls and women alike the impression they are not good enough for society if they are not up to Barbie?s standards (Benstock and Ferriss 33). Barbie actually seems to be the ?view of how women of all races and economic classes should appear: with long slender legs and body, wasp-thin waists, large eyes and delicate features, basically straight but curled hair, elaborate living spaces, flashy cars, and state-of-the-art leisure equipment? (Benstock and Ferriss 32). It is because of this false portrayal of beauty that, sadly, links Barbie to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia in teenage girls and to breast implants and cosmetic surgery in adult women (?Bad Girl? 2). When Barbie first appeared on toy shelves, she was the ideal of feminine beauty. Was it merely a coincidence that the doll was introduced only one year before Overeaters Anonymous was founded, two years before the first Weight Watchers commercial, and only a few years before Carol Doda discovered a new use for silicone (Lord 4)? Cindy Jackson, a real-life Barbie doll, is testimony to this obsessive search for the ?perfect woman? figure. After more than 20 operations and $55,000 worth of surgeries, Cindy is finally content with her new look. She has endured painful chemical peels, tummy tucks, facelifts, eye-lifts, breast implants, liposuction, and two nose jobs to create a life-size Barbie with her own body (Lord 244). Without a doubt, the Barbie doll is the only toy in our Western culture that people actually try to resemble (Edut 17). It is because of this manipulating power that the Barbie doll has become all the more controversial.
Because of Barbie?s new-found fame, many young girls began buying the doll and looking to her as a role model (Benstock and Ferriss 34). Who else but Barbie has a perfect body, long blond hair, a new corvette, a pony, cool friends, a boyfriend and no parents? Her imaginary life was every little girl?s dream come true. One of Mrs. Handler?s primary motives behind the creation of the Barbie doll was to increase a child?s self-esteem and help them gently progress into the adult world by making friends and becoming independent (Tosa 12). Since Barbie is an adult, children could act out adult situations on the living room rug and learn from those actions (Tosa 7). By modeling different behaviors with a doll, children are better able to ?cope with the transitions and mysteries of their own development? (?Dream Girl? 2). They can take time to figure out the solutions to problems without really having to suffer the consequences (Hein 6). Experts also say that Barbie encourages safety by teaching children lessons, such as the importance of wearing their seatbelts. They also feel she inspires young girls to follow their dream and become doctors, Olympic gymnasts, cheerleaders, and astronauts (Hein 6). In fact, many children?s therapists often use Barbie dolls as tools in their work. The Barbie doll, along with her vast array of friends, provides a human model for children to communicate their problems. Therapists have had much success with this technique in diagnosing family problems and the like (Lord 82). Barbie sales have also done guite well–so well that Mattel estimates that two dolls are sold every second, somewhere in the world (Lord 7)!
A Barbie hate group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization arranged a protest against Mattel?s new ?Talking Barbie?s? during the Christmas of 1993 (Lord 252). The group mysteriously switched the talking mechanisms in thousands of the Barbie dolls with those of Hasbro?s G.I. Joe ?Talking Duke? action figures (Lord 252). Instead of their original feminine comments, the newly improved Barbie dolls screamed ?Eat lead, Cobra! Vengeance is mine!? On the opposite side of the toy store, the once dangerous and masculine G.I. Joe characters innocently remarked ?Let?s go shopping? and ?Will we ever have enough clothes? (Lord 252)? This little mix-up occurred in 43 states, but did not do much damage to Mattel. It did, however, make for some very frightened and unhappy customers.
Though Barbie has caused much controversy since her creation, she has a confident outlook on the future. Equipped with a new body and a new focus, she has plans to become even more spectacular with many new adventures and many new friends. Barbie?s new look includes a wider waist, smaller hips, a less ?torpedo-like? bust, and flat rather than pointy-toed feet (?Bad Girl? 3). She is also playing an active role in new research in prosthetics. Jane Bahor, a woman who makes replacement body parts, had experimented with the plastic knee joints in Barbie?s legs. She has found that they work well as prosthetic fingers for her patients because they ?are more realistic-looking and useful?. So far, Bahor has provided the replacement joints for more than a dozen of her patients and has been extremely successful in her studies (?Bad Girl? 27).
As Barbie gets ready to turn the big 4-2, it is unreal to think that she has completed her last makeover. No doubt that as time changes and people?s attitudes towards life change, this timely doll will also be forced to adjust to the needs of society. With more than 75 successful careers, her own official website, and a namesake magazine, this little doll has become more than a child?s plaything. Whether we love her or hate her, she will always be a part of us all.