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” (https://www.history.com/news/barbie-inspiration-bild-lilli). 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 reference.com 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 (https://www.history.com/news/barbie-inspiration-bild-lilli). 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.
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 history.com 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.