Barbie as Inspiration

Barbies twoChristina 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.

AllanI 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.

OriginalRuth 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?)

BookletNo 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!

MidgeIn 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.

Tuttie and ToddOn 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.

DisneyI’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.

Star Wars barbieBeing 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!


King and queenWhat about you – did you have Barbie dolls or their equivalent? Do you collect them or perhaps you couldn’t wait to get rid of them! And have you seen the Barbie film – if so, what did you think?

23 thoughts on “Barbie as Inspiration”

  1. Barbie dolls came along after I was past the age for them, and they cost money, so I never had any. I never liked dolls anyway. I have known one or two people who collected them; if I’d had that kind of money as a girl, I’d have spent it on books.
    But later on for some reason I learned to like those annual Hallmark Barbie Christmas ornaments and I had quite a few of them until in a fit of “make room” I sold them on Ebay. I kinda miss them, though I really couldn’t tell you why.
    No, I haven’t seen the movie, but I might check it out when it comes on free(er) TV.

  2. Although I have bought many of these dolls as gifts for dear ones over the years, I too, was a little too early for Barbies. Most of my dolls were baby dolls and I wasn’t too crazy for them either.
    I did love paper dolls though. I don’t know if they are even still around. They came in books (some were coloring books). The doll was made of a thicker paper and the clothes had little flaps that you would use to attach them to the doll. I loved changing their clothes, so I probably would have enjoyed Barbie had she been around.
    I’ve not seen the Barbie movie and probably won’t unless it ends up on TV. I’m not surprised it was a big hit though – it did have a built in audience. It looks like fun.
    Fun post.

  3. Christina, you definitely were a Serious Barbie Person! I never had or wanted one; I much preferred books and teddy bears. (I must admit that I still like stuffed animals. We finally had to declare a bear-a-torium, meaning no more bears. But the stuffed sheep have been multiplying…. )

  4. I bought my daughter Barbie dolls and imitation Barbie dolls but I didn’t really care for them. I couldn’t sew the small clothes needed to turn Barbie into a Regency Lady. If I could have, I would have so I could have a doll to represent a character in a novel.

  5. I’m very partial to stuffed toys myself Mary Jo – still can’t resist them and bought myself a little stuffed raven just the other day . Your bears sound wonderful!

  6. Yes the dimensions were tiny weren’t they! I remember I tried to crochet outfits but usually just ended up with hats or blankets lol.

  7. Like Mary T, I also played with paper dolls as a child. I don’t recall having heard of Barbie in Australia, but I certainly did on arriving in Guam in the early seventies.

  8. I love Barbie dolls. I still have my original Barbie, Midge, Francie & Skipper. My parents wouldn’t buy us the boy dolls. Lol. I had the original cardboard dream house that folded away like a suitcase. That thing was so neat. Alas, I couldn’t keep it when we downsized. I probably should have tried to sell it. I did keep the original doll case. I have some collector ones too. My favorites are Legolas from Lord of the Rings & the couple from Jude Devereau’s The Raider (from the book cover I guess). I also love & had tons of paper dolls. I even made by own dolls of the Beatles. I guess you can tell what era I’m from. I can’t wait to see the Barbie movie but I’ll wait till I can watch it at home.

  9. That sounds wonderful Jeanne! I have that couple too but didn’t know there was a Legolas – oh dear, might need to make room on the shelf for that! Making paper dolls was such fun!

  10. My sister was 13 years older than me, born in 1953 and our Aunt made clothes for her Barbies with wonderful snaps and great quality fabric. I still have these and cherish them. I do own my sister’s Midge, but we didn’t experience a baby belly with hers. Although,one of my friends split the side of Midge’s neck, boo hoo. She is still mostly intact. Thanks for sharing your Barbie history.

  11. Great blog, Christina. I wasn’t much of a barbie person, though I did have one — peer pressure, I think — and liked making things for it, but it was the making things that appealed, not the doll itself. The Barbie “lifestyle” etc was nothing I identified with, and
    I was much more attached to my teddy, and to actual live pets.
    But I was fascinated by the idea that Barbie was copied from a German doll and when I googled Bild Lilli I saw how closely Mattel has copied her.

  12. Thank you Anne, so glad you enjoyed it! And yes they really did look alike! I can definitely understand the wanting to make things for the dolls. That always appealed to me too.

  13. Thanks to my parents, the Sears catalog, and the US military mail transportation system, I got my first Barbie and Ken for Christmas, 1961, when I was 6 years old, and our USAF family was stationed in Teheran, Iran. I was enthralled! Every night when I got ready for bed, B & K got changed into their negligee and pjs. This made long-distance gift-giving by the stateside grandparents easy; got Barbie paper dolls and books and more clothes. And the next Christmas, I got not only the Barbie Dream House, but the Barbie convertible. When we moved back to the US in January of 1964 and had a belated Christmas with my mom’s parents, I got a Barbie watch, which I still have. I adored the clothes, and never thought I had enough, LOL. I, too, made my own clothes for the paper dolls. My Barbie met with a tragic end when I was 9; left her in the backyard when we went shopping and came home to find the next door neighbor’s beagle had snacked on her. Tragic! Got a replacement one that Christmas, but she just wasn’t the same, plus I was starting to age out of her. Wish I still had the dream house and car, but they didn’t survive another overseas assignment. Wore out the cardboard dream house and have no idea what became of the car. I loved to create imaginary worlds for my Barbie (usually Ken fit in there somewhere, but he was definitely Just Ken!) and years later, when a 50th anniversary edition of the original Barbie came out, you bet I was waiting in line. Loved the Barbie film and can’t wait to own a copy of my own; I’m a longtime film buff and fan of director Greta Gerwig, so was thrilled that the film is just so good. I now own the new Stereotypical Barbie that looks like Margot Robbie, too, and was startled when she arrived by her size, larger than standard Barbies. Barbie was always about possibilities and exploring dreams for me. Glad I wasn’t the only one!

  14. That all sounds wonderful Katherine! And yes you could never have too many clothes or accessories :-). So glad you still enjoy them!

  15. I never had a Barbie as my parents couldn’t afford them. My friend had a whole array of them and we used to play with them all the time. I bought them for my girls though and they still have them though they’re in the attic now. What I did get one Christmas was a Daisy doll. She was slightly smaller than Barbie and was designed by Mary Quant. I wish I still had her. I played with her for hours on end. I got an extra suit of clothes with her but unfortunately they were for a Sindy doll and far too big so I knitted and crocheted a wardrobe of clothes for Daisy myself.
    I also loved paper dolls and drawing my own clothes for them. To me they were as good as any of the real things that my parents couldn’t afford.

  16. I like the sound of your Daisy doll and well done for creating a unique wardrobe for her! Paper dolls were great weren’t they! A good outlet for the imagination.


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