Barbie at 50: body ideal, femininity and gender equality

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On the day after International Women's Day (March 8th) occurs another significant landmark - albeit a more controversial
Barbie turns 50 on March 9th, 2009
one. On March 9, 2009 Barbie the blonde Mattel doll revered by young girls around the world and reviled by feminists will turn 50. On the occasion of her birthday, the debate over her (plastic) embodiment of ideals of femininity and the promotion of unrealistic body size has re-opened, with critics pointing to the irrelevance of a 1950s creation for modern generations of young girls.


History of a cultural icon

'Barbie' owes her existence to the wife of a co-founder of Mattel (a toy manufacturer), Ruth Handler, who saw that her daughters (including one called Barbara, after whom the doll is named) enjoyed giving her dolls adult roles. Most children's toys at the time were representations of infants. Handler convinced Mattel of the potential with a German doll called Bild Lilli,  who came close to what she imagined. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.

Re-modelled, Barbie made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is also used as Barbie's official birthday.

Commercial Success

Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll in 1964 and production of Lilli was stopped. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.

Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second. Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a range of Barbie branded goods such as books, fashion items and video games. In the past few decades, influenced by the women's movement, Mattel have released different versions of Barbie showing her in different professions, including Dr. Barbie and racecar Barbie.

Barbie has appeared in a series of animated films and makes a brief guest appearance in the 1999 film Toy Story 2. Almost uniquely for a toy fashion doll, Barbie has become a cultural icon and has been given honors that are rare in the toy world. In 1974 a section of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week, while in 1985 the artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie.


Barbie's 50th Birthday Party

In honour of her 50th birthday, Barbie made her New York fashion debut, dressed by America's top fashion designers, ranging from Tommy Hilfiger, Marchesa and Diane von Furstenburg.


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