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.

Criticisms

  • One of the most common criticisms of Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic idea of body image for a young woman,
    Diwali Barbie is one example of Barbie's global market
    leading to a risk that girls who attempt to emulate her will become anorexic. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie's vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate. In 1997 Barbie's body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist.
  • In 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with a book entitled "How to Lose Weight" which advised: "Don't eat." The doll also came with  bathroom scales reading 110lb, which would be around 35lbs underweight for a woman 5 feet 9 inches tall.
  • In July 1992 Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie. Each doll was programmed to say four out of 270 possible phrases. One of these 270 phrases was "Math class is tough!". Although only about 1.5% of all the dolls sold said the phrase, it led to criticism from the American Association of University Women. In October 1992 Mattel announced that Teen Talk Barbie would no longer say the phrase, and offered a swap to anyone who owned a doll that did.
  • In 1997 Mattel joined forces with Nabisco to launch a cross-promotion of Barbie with Oreo cookies. Oreo Fun Barbie was marketed as someone with whom little girls could play after class and share "America's favorite cookie." Mattel manufactured both a white and a black version. Critics argued that in the African American community Oreo is a derogatory term meaning that the person is "black on the outside and white on the inside," like the chocolate sandwich cookie itself. The doll was unsuccessful and Mattel recalled the unsold stock.
  • In September 2003, Saudi Arabia 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. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful." In Middle Eastern countries there is an alternative doll called Fulla which is similar to Barbie but is designed to be more acceptable to an Islamic market. Fulla is not made by the Mattel Corporation, and Barbie is still available in other Middle Eastern countries including Egypt. In Iran, Sara and Dara dolls are available as an alternative to 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.

References

  • In an interview with M.G.Lord, the author of Forever Barbie, Ruth Handler said that she saw the doll in Lucerne, Switzerland. However, the book points out that on other occasions Handler said that she saw the doll in Zurich or Vienna.
  • "Vintage Barbie struts her stuff". BBC News. September 22, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5370398.stm. Retrieved April 26, 2010.
  • Lawrence, Cynthia; Bette Lou Maybee (1962). Here's Barbie. Random House. OCLC 15038159
  • Biederman, Marcia (September 20, 1999). "Generation Next: A newly youthful Barbie takes Manhattan.". New York. http://nymag.com/nymetro/urban/family/features/2033/. Retrieved 2009-06-04.
  • Madeover Ken hopes to win back Barbie CNN February 10, 2006
  • Sarah Sink Eames, Barbie Fashion: The complete history of the wardrobes of Barbie doll, her friends and her family, Vol. I, 1959-1967, ISBN 0-89145-418-7
  • Sarah Sink Eames, Barbie Fashion: The complete history of the wardrobes of Barbie doll, her friends and her family, Vol. I, 1959-1967, ISBN 0-89145-418-7
  • M.G. Lord, Forever Barbie, Chapter 11 ISBN 0-8027-7694-9
  • "Barbie undergoes plastic surgery". BBC News. November 18, 1997. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/32312.stm. Retrieved April 26, 2010.
  • Gerber, Robin (2009). Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her. Collins Business. ISBN 978-0-06-134131-1.
  • Knaak, Silke, "German Fashion Dolls of the 50&60". Paperback www.barbies.de.
  • Lord, M. G. (2004). Forever Barbie: the unauthorized biography of a real doll. New York: Walker & Co.. ISBN 978-0-8027-7694-5
  • Plumb, Suzie, ed (2005). Guys 'n' Dolls: Art, Science, Fashion and Relationships. Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery & Museums. ISBN 0-948723-57-2
  • Rogers, Mary Ann (1999). Barbie culture. London: SAGE Publications. ISBN 0-7619-5888-6
  • Singleton, Bridget (2000). The art of Barbie. London: Vision On. ISBN 0-9537479-2-1
  • Boy, Billy (1987). Barbie: Her Life & Times. Crown. ISBN 978-0517590638.


See Also


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