Monday, January 15, 2007

Was the Barbie doll based on a real person?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

Before I get to this answer, let me state for the record that I have never owned a Barbie doll. Mom did not approve of them. My younger sisters, Peggy and Susan, had Barbies -- originally a gift from our dad, who I guess didn't get the memo -- but I never did, and as far as I know, my twin sister Kathy never did, either. To this day, I wonder whether having a Barbie would have made me a girlier girl, or whether I didn't insist on having a Barbie because I wasn't a girly girl. Too late now, in any case.

Anyway, according to Barbie's official biography, Mattel Toys' co-founder Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll because her daughter, Barbara, had no three-dimensional dolls to play with that weren't baby dolls. Ruth and Elliott Handler introduced the Barbie doll at the American Toy Fair in 1959, and Barbie was among the first toys to have a nationwide television marketing campaign. The rest, as they say, is history.

But it's not the whole story. Before there was Barbie, there was a German doll named Lilli -- the same height as Barbie, the same blonde ponytail -- except that Lilli was the plastic representation of a Bild Zeitung cartoon character who... uh... traded one type of favor for another. In her book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, M.G. Lord describes the process of transforming Lilli -- originally designed to be a gag gift for men -- into something suitable for American pre-teens.

Now, of course, women spend a great deal of money trying to look like Barbie. If the original Barbie doll had been a real woman, her measurements would be 39-18-33; a few years back, Mattel reduced Barbie's bust size and made her waist a little bigger, but she's still not a realistic representation of a woman.

As the immortal line from Sid and Nancy goes, "I'll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn't have bruises."

In other news, the first-ever Mystery Bookstore podcast is now live. I'm talking with Don Bruns, Jim Fusilli and Nathan Walpow about the stories and songs in their recent anthology from Poisoned Pen, A Merry Band of Murderers. To listen, go to iTunes, choose Podcast, click on "Advanced" from the toolbar menu, and then subscribe to Because this was the first one, there are a couple of technical glitches -- you can hear buzzing at a couple of points -- but we'll sort that out in future episodes.

1 comment:

AnswerGirl said...

This is apparently the #1 Google link for people looking for information about whether Barbie is based on a real person. The source for this post is M.G. Lord's fine book Forever Barbie, which I recommend for additional information.

Because so many people visit this page and the comments were often ignorant and ugly, I have deleted all of them and am no longer allowing comments on this post. But to address a few of them:

-- No, the Barbie doll is not based in any way on the Barbi Twins, adult models who have enhanced their resemblance to the doll through plastic surgery. The Barbie doll is four years older than the Barbi Twins.

-- No, the Barbie doll is not in any way Nazi propaganda, and Barbie's looks and measurements were not based on those of Eva Braun. Ruth Handler, Barbie's American inventor, was Jewish, and it's hard to imagine that anything she did was meant to glorify Nazism.

Thanks for visiting.