“Barbie was everything we didn’t want to be… everything the feminist movement was trying to escape,” Gloria Steinem said in the recent documentary Tiny Shoulders.
Researching a book for the iconic doll’s 60th birthday, I was fascinated to learn how a toy invented by a female trailblazer empowered young girls like me, while enraging the entire women’s movement—who saw her as a vapid, skinny, busty blond fashion plate. Yet they were stereotyping Barbie by her looks and body, the way they refused to be judged.
Growing up as the only girl in a Midwestern clan of boys, I was a Barbie fanatic, with the Dream House, pink convertible, Barbie, Ken, Francie, Julia, and Midge. When tiny buttons on their clothes were hard to unfasten, I’d just switch their heads. Unlike the Chatty Cathy baby doll I was supposed to take care of, Barbie was a cool teenager with her own job, pad, and wheels. Mirroring her independence, I begged my parents for the orange Cutlass that cruised me to college at 16. Role-playing with Barbies in multiple professions inspired my subsequent erratic freelance career.
So what if she first launched as a pornographic caricature given out at bachelor parties? In 1956, Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler spotted the “adult style” Lilli doll in a Swiss shop window. Lilli was a sex toy modeled on a German cartoon of a blond gold-digging good-time girl who’d exchange sexual favors for stockings and smokes. Yet Ruth, who'd watched her young daughter Barbara and her girlfriends play with grown up paper doll cutouts, didn't want another Betsy Wetsy, Tiny Tears or Chatty Cathy baby to indoctrinate girls into being good mommies. She felt doll play could be about a girl’s fantasies of the future.
"In the past, dolls had been baby dolls, all about teaching little girls how to nurture. Barbie was a wildly revolutionary toy," said M.G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie. “She became things real women couldn’t become.”
While a product of her times, Ruth Handler was also a shrewd magnate who understood the power of a girl’s imagination. The youngest child of poor Polish Jewish immigrants, Ruth noted, in her memoir Dream Doll, that her Eastern European female relatives all worked. By 10, she loved being a soda jerk at her sister’s drugstore and a part-time secretary for her lawyer brother. For her 16th birthday, Ruth was given the Ford coupe she was driving when she spied Elliot Handler, her future husband and business partner. At 22, Ruth was the one who proposed to him. She modeled the doll after herself and named Barbie and Ken after her kids, Barbara and Kenneth. An unhappy stay-at-home mom, she hired a babysitter and returned to work.
Debuting as a teenage fashion model in striped bathing suit at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959, 60 years ago today, Barbie bombed.
Ruth consulted a psychologist, who found Moms saw the doll as cheap and vulgar. (No wonder I loved her!) Yet the daughters wanted to be like Barbie- sexy and glamorous with an awesome job, long legs and big breasts. Male buyers thought Ruth was crazy to sell a big-busted toy, insisting that little girls wanted baby dolls to learn how to be mommies.
“No, they don’t,” Ruth insisted. “They want to pretend to be older girls.”
Ruth ensured the first Barbie TV commercial was pitched to girls during The Mickey Mouse Show. In an unprecedented marketing coup, they broadcast Barbie ads directly to kids. Barbie, presented as a real person, fascinated young females who begged their mothers to buy her. Ruth changed the consumer from parent to child. In 1960, when the company went public, she was president. Because male dolls didn’t sell well, Ruth marketed Ken to girls who wanted a boyfriend for Barbie. It was a major statement to make sure Ken’s title and identity was boyfriend, not husband, independent Barbie remaining the star.
Still, kids clamored for Ken and Barbie to have a baby. Eager to promote careers over the domesticity that bored her, Ruth refused, insisting Barbie represent a female’s right to choose her own life. The closest domestic role was 1963's Barbie Babysits ensemble with a telephone, baby bottle, pink bassinet, complete with infant. Closer to Barbie’s image (and Ruth's) were the black glasses and three mini-books How to Get a Raise, How to Travel and How to Lose Weight (which contained two words: "Don't Eat!")
More missteps included Talking Barbie’s proclamation "Math is hard," and the pink scale on 1965’s Sleepytime Gal slumber party set stuck on 110 pounds—while average American women were then 140 (168 pounds now.) I get why these mixed messages about work and weight irked feminists, who showed that if Barbie were 5 foot 6 inches, her measurements were the equivalent of 39-18-33, with a size 3 shoe. The likelihood of a real woman shaped like that was less than 1 in 100,000, her body fat percentage so low she’d be an anorexic who couldn't menstruate. Ken's more realistic dimensions meant the chances of a man developing his measurements were 1 in 50. Steinem argued the How To Lose Weight title hurt girls’ self-esteem. Yet Steinem, once called “a life-sized counterculture Barbie doll” herself, whose most famous picture was in a Playboy Bunny costume for an undercover story, arguably became the image of the woman's movement (over Betty Freidan and Audre Lorde types) because she was slim, straight, white and pretty, like Barbie.
The retro "Don't Eat" cheekily mirrored my old Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown's bestseller Sex and the Single Girl. Brown, another controversial pioneer, took pride in her figure and profession. There were many shades of female empowerment. Brown, like Ruth, favored an early incarnation of Lipstick Feminism that embraced a slender femininity embodied by Marlo Thomas, Mary Tyler Moore, Diahann Carroll, Twiggy, Cher, Diana Ross and Jackie Kennedy.
Let’s give Ruth—and the doll she controlled—credit for being progressive. In the '60s she pushed Mattel’s designers to create African-American dolls as Christie and Julia (after Carroll's TV nurse/single Mom) along with Girl-next-door Midge. Popular at first, Midge lost favor to prettier dolls so Mattel stopped making her. She and her boyfriend Allen were reintroduced in a “Happy Family Line” where Midge was pregnant, with a magnetic detachable stomach that held a small baby. After complaints she encouraged teenage pregnancy, she was discontinued (now $169 on eBay.) Then Midge dumped her mate and children and was revamped as single again. Like most successful entrepreneurs, Ruth wasn't afraid to flop and reinvent.
At Ruth’s low point in 1978, she and four other Mattel employees were charged by the U.S. Attorney’s office with conspiracy, mail fraud, and inflating financial sales records that inflated Mattel’s stock. While claiming innocence, Ruth took the fall, not her husband. She paid $57,000 in fines, got 5 years probation, served 500 hours of charity and was ousted from her own company.
Ironically, her second calling also concerned mammaries. After discovering a cancerous lump in her chest, her mastectomy made her feel de-womanized. A taboo subject before the proliferation of reconstruction surgery, doctors suggested she stuff her bra cup with stockings. In her sixties, Ruth launched Nearly Me, a business making comfortable prosthetic breasts. Ruth plugged her product on the Dick Cavett Show, asking him to feel her new breasts. Like Barbie, Ruth’s Nearly Me was a phenomenon. Ruth led a female sales team of fellow breast cancer survivors, training sales staffs, even fitting first lady Betty Ford. "I've gone from breast to breast," Ruth joked.
Ruth was ahead of her time in many ways. When she found out her married son Ken had contracted AIDS from a gay affair, she supported him and took him to top doctors, before he died in 1994. That same year, Jill Barad, Mattel’s new female president, called Ruth to help publicize Barbie’s new professions as an astronaut, doctor, dancer, soldier and president. After 20 years of exclusion, Ruth Handler was reunited with Mattel. When Ruth died in 2002 from colon cancer, obituaries returned her to her place as Barbie’s inventor, calling her the woman behind the worldwide bestselling American pop cultural icon. Barbie had a 98-percent recognition rate –more than the American president or queen of England.
To combat what Roxane Gay called the idealization of the same slim body type, Mattel recently launched a curvier doll with a more realistic shape. They also introduced a Dream Gap Project with the promise, “We need to see brilliant women being brilliant.” To add to long-time President and Astronaut Barbie, there’s now Game Developer, Lab Scientist and Robotics Engineer Barbie, to encourage girls to be proud of their brainpower and keep dreaming big, like Barbie's creator.