Christina here. A little while ago the Wenches were discussing how we got into writing and whether we always wanted to be writers and had been making up stories since we were little. I didn’t, and it never occurred to me that I could be an author – I preferred to read other people’s stories. At home, though, I did an awful lot of daydreaming and I played with dolls all the time, particularly my Barbies. I made up different adventures and scenarios for them every day, almost always romantic ones. My Barbie wore her wedding dress so many times I ended up having to wash it frequently! I think that probably counts as the beginning of my author career and all those plots came in handy when I finally did begin to write.
I was reminded of this recently, when I saw that there was a new movie out based on Barbie dolls. The premise of Barbie is “After being expelled from Barbieland for being a less-than-perfect doll, Barbie and Ken set off to the real world to find true happiness”. Of course, I had to go and see it, but it wasn’t at all the romantic comedy I had envisaged. It’s more a serious take on gender roles and stereotypes. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I’m obviously in the minority as everyone else seems to have done so! The film stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and they really do resemble the original dolls. The guy who plays Allan (Michael Cera) does too, but as for Midge? Nah.
It’s funny to think that Barbie is virtually an antique these days (makes me feel ancient!). The first ones came out in America in 1959. They were based on a German doll called Bild Lilli, who looked like an adult rather than a child. She in turn was based on a popular comic book character and was initially sold to adults, but soon young girls were playing with her too.
Ruth Handler, the wife of one of the founders of the Mattel toy company, had seen her during a trip to Germany, and persuaded her husband to give it a try in the States. They had a daughter called Barbara – hence the name Barbie (apparently the doll’s full name was Barbara Millicent Roberts). On her debut at a toy fair in New York, Barbie was marketed as a “teenage fashion model”, although to me she’s always looked a lot older than a teenager. She wore a black-and-white striped swimsuit, had her hair in a topknot ponytail (there were blondes and brunettes), and she had thick eyeliner and red lips. She was about 11 ½ inches tall and had clothes designed by the Mattel fashion designer. The clothes were made in Japan and hand-stitched, which is probably why the original ones are so much nicer than the ones sold these days. (Does anyone hate modern Velcro fastenings as much as I do?)
No one knew it was going to be such a huge success, but the company sold over 350,000 dolls the first year alone. Apparently they retailed at only $3, with extra clothes between $1 – $5. Barbie was always very fashionably dressed and there was a range of outfits for different occasions. With every set of clothes you bought came a little booklet with drawings of what was available – very useful for telling parents what you wanted for your next birthday or Christmas.
An original Barbie from 1959 in mint condition can sell for up to $27,000 now – almost makes me wish I hadn’t played with mine or thrown away the box!
In 1961 Barbie was given a boyfriend when the first Ken doll was released. (The Handlers had a son by that name so continued to name the dolls after their children). In 1963 she got a best friend, Midge, and in 1964 a little sister called Skipper (a name that never made any sense to me). Skipper was also given friends – Skooter and Ricky – in 1965. Meanwhile, Ken’s friend Allan had joined them in 1964.
Mattel had some problems with licensing and were sued, but they eventually bought the copyright for the Lilli doll and all was settled. The doll has also been criticised for its shape – she does have a rather weird large bosom/small waist ratio! – and for giving girls unrealistic expectations of how a woman should look. In response, the company changed her shape several times and in 2016 three new types/sizes of Barbie came out – petite, tall and curvy.
On the plus side, the doll is said to have helped women escape strict gender roles. Barbie was never portrayed as needing Ken, she was always independent. (The poor guy is mostly an accessory.) Instead, she had outfits showing that she could have a career as a doctor or airline pilot, among other things. She wasn’t a wife and mother, unless the girls playing with her wanted her to be. The company never issued her with a baby, although there was a pregnant doll (Midge) with a detachable stomach and a baby inside which I remember my daughters buying. There were two tiny Barbie dolls added in 1966 – Tutti and Todd Roberts – but they were supposed to be her young twin siblings, not her children. They were discontinued in 1971 and later replaced by the Kelly and Stacie dolls.
I’m so old, I was around when the first Barbies came out (although I lived in Sweden and the dolls didn’t reach us there until 1963), and I still own my original dolls. My Barbie had dark hair and my Ken was blond. I also had the great good fortune to win a Midge doll in a magazine competition and they sent me the redhead. My parents bought me some of the others later. As an adult, I have added to my original collection and bought the dolls I was missing. I’ve also added a lot of the original clothes. As I mentioned, they are so well-made compared to the mass-produced ones of today. They are true fashion items and I cherish them.
Being a bit of a hoarder, I subsequently collected other types of Barbie doll, like all the Disney princess couples and the Star Wars set. I also went on to buy some collectors’ editions, and special Barbie dolls that appeal to me, but I’ve more or less stopped now because of lack of space. They still inspire me though, and all those hours of playing with them were definitely not wasted as they helped me learn how to develop plots. So hooray for Barbies, I say!