The Skeleton in Barbie’s Closet

Barbie has a skeleton in her closet and it isn’t in the closet in her mega-mansion.

I suppose that many a little girl of certain time periods were coerced, cajoled, or even praised for her femininity. My mother desperately wanted me to be a girly-girl. No surprise, I was a tomboy. However, I was a girly tomboy who didn’t like dolls. She thought I “should” play with dolls. I can’t tell you how much dolls creep. me. out. I also didn’t find much fun playing with them, especially the plastic ones. I liked to read, rollerskate, and collect stuffed animals, most of which my mom couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around.

Enter Barbie. She was my mom’s (nearly) last-ditch effort to make me behave more like a “girl.” 🙄😐

In her mind Barbie was the “grown up” version of “dolls” that I detested, which I find hilarious because that’s how the co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler, envisioned Barbie. Something for those who were too old for “baby dolls and bedtime stories” ( Fine and good. I would say the one thing I kind of enjoyed about Barbie was dressing her up, but that’s about it. That also didn’t entertain me for long. I mean, how many times can you dress and undress a doll? Honestly, a form probably would’ve done me better 😂 I’m not kidding.

Here’s the rub (no pun intended): Barbie’s really a knock-off of an intentionally overly-sexualized, gold-digging cartoon character, Lilli, that became very popular in the German tabloid Bild-Zeitung. A doll was later created after this bold and outrageous character. It was originally found in tobacco stores and adult stores (doll indicated she was also sold in some toy stores), and given as gag gifts to men. Handler had it copied, almost exactly, and sold as a “fashion model.” She pulled a sort of Eliza Doolittle on Lilli and girls went crazy for it. “Cleaned her up,” so to speak: created a different persona, “softened the curves,” and changed her face–a little.

That kind of “clean up” is generally doomed to fail. It’s a facade covering the ugly underbelly of sexism and unrealistic standards–Lilli’s dimensions were purposefully exaggerated for comedic reasons. Barbie exists for aesthetic reasons but also the natural financial gains. The skeleton in the closet is Lilli’s very existence. Mattel glosses over Lilli’s hyper-sexuality, especially her ownership of her sexuality, as well as their blatant plagiarism of Lilli. Despite his best efforts to recover from Mattel’s success with Barbie, which included an unsuccessful lawsuit, Rolf Hausser, the creator of the Lilli doll, eventually sold the “copyright and patents” for a “small sum” to Mattel and his toy company went bankrupt soon after ( Lilli is a memory and artifact for doll and history enthusiasts as Barbie went on to dominate the toy market.

You could argue that pushing Lilli (Lilith, anyone?) into the closet reinforces the Victorian dichotomy of Madonna and whore, or a kind of moral, sexual, and behavioral good and bad. While Barbie isn’t really a Madonna, because she was being billed more as a modern woman, she was the more socially appropriate of the pair. She was supposedly independent, worldly, and smart.

See all her outfits? She can do anything!

I’m assuming the subtext is she can do all these things as long as she looks the part and maintains her figure and hair.

a pile of undressed barbie dolls in various states of disrepair
“Barbie Nightmare”–Pixabay

Handler loved the womanly figure because of the dressing options and its alignment with her original vision of a “grown up” doll for older girls–one that was originally shot down by her husband and the other Mattel designers. Slightly altering the doll’s face doesn’t make the baggage just “go away.” I wonder if she thought about her actions when she copied Lilli to create Barbie or if she was just driven to fulfill her own vision of a mature doll for girls. Essentially billing a German “pornographic” (not my words–see link above) doll as an “all American doll” (not my words) is a bold move. I realize physical ideals were different in 1959, but the “hidden sister” doll is definitely a skeleton in the closet. She was the floozy to the wholesome “we can do it” sister. Lilli’s goal was to tease men and push societal limits. She also liked to argue with “authority.” She is Bertha locked away in the attic; however, her crime isn’t insanity but sexuality.

There is so much I could say about Barbie, but I’ll leave you with this: No matter how you view Barbie, she certainly comes with all sorts of baggage and not the pretty pink, round kind.

Give me a shoutout! 🤠

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  1. Hey Ami,
    I had similar conflicts with Barbies as a kid, but my mother tried to get us to play with flat-chested “Skipper” instead. Do you know that a real-life woman with Barbie’s dimensions wouldn’t be able to walk? True story!
    One Christmas, my sister and I received the Barbie Dream House, but we mostly left Barbie chatting with the girls in on the sofa and played with Ken, GI Joe, and some other male doll. The boys clearly had more fun, while the girls had more cothes. 🙂

    I didn’t know that people had squirrels for pets, but I did know that carrier pigeons were hunted to extinction around the same time. 18th century Americans were trippy! Hm….a historical novel where they breed squirrels for the pet trade and kill pigeons for their meat? I guess their kids play with Lilli?


  2. Kris!

    Oh, Skipper–memories. I have a totally off color meme about Barbie, Ken, and GI Joe that I left off the post. It took that crazy mess in yet another direction. It makes me laugh, hoever. I may just send it to you directly 😁

    I have heard that about Barbie and that just makes her whole situation even more ludicrous, right? I enjoyed her permanent tip-toe status, myself. It fascinated me, for whatever reason, as a kid. As an adult my feet are less fascinated with it. Wear some flats or better yet some boots, will ya?

    I did not know that, but I think you or Laurie might’ve been talking about carier pigeons at the retreat! Trippy 18th-century Americans, sounds like a book to me. 😉 Oh, and sassy Lilli…

    Mahalo for engaging!

  3. Ami,
    This brought back some memories for me! My best friend when I was growing up, Esther, had the first Barbie in our neighborhood. Not only did she have all of the storebought clothes, but also her aunt crocheted an entire wardrobe for her each Christmas! I was so envious! Our family didn’t have a lot of money, so I got a knock-off Barbie. Mine was named Christi and if you pumped her right arm, hair grew from a hole in the middle of the top of her head. So one could style several different lengths of hair! Being the creative type, I made cardboard doll houses for Esther’s doll and mine. And someone bought me a Chuck Connors Rifleman doll at a flea market for 25 cents. He perpetually wore a blue cowboy outfit. Although Esther had the nicer doll, I made up for it by teaching her to play some soap opera type scenarios with our three dolls and my makeshift house. I’m sure her parents would have been mortified if they’d known. Too bad I couldn’t get the Rifleman’s clothes off. I would have made Lilli proud.

    Like you, I preferred stuffed (and live) animals over the dolls. I still don’t like dolls but I’m okay with puppets. I can’t explain it.

    1. Joyce-

      That’s both creative and hilarious! And “growing” hair 😂 That’s a cool trick, for a doll.

      Does anyone remember the one that was just the head so that you could do the doll’s hair and makeup? I think that Lilli’s maker partnered with another manufacturer who made just a head version.

      You have me very curious about the Chuck Connors Rifleman doll–I may have the brave the internet for that one. You made me bark-laugh with the perma-clothes on him. Lilli would definitely let you join her club, lol. Unless, she doesn’t “share.” That’s another story all together 😁😉

  4. In the 60s if you were a female child and did not have a Barbie doll, you were thought to be too poor for words. If you have more than one, you were middle class, and the rich girls had all the outfits and accessories. One of my favorite things about Barbie was that you could take her arms off to dress her. To this day, I think how fabulous it would be to take my arms off at night when I sleep on my side and pop them back in place in the morning.

  5. Jackie-

    That’s so interesting about the “levels” of Barbie. Similar to what Joyce was saying about her Christi doll. I’m dying about the taking your arms off at night! 😂 That got bark laughter, for sure. I found Barbie’s inflexibility an issue and was somewhat horrified by her arms coming off. You’ve given me a fresh way to look at that, lol!

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