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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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08/01/2004 Archived Entry: "Book review: "Forever Barbie""

Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll
Written by M.G. Lord
Walker Publishing Company, Inc. , 2004

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

"Forever Barbie" tells you everything you wanted to know about Barbie, as well as some things you really didn't want to know, from the point of view of a former Barbie owner, as well as someone whose view of womanhood was shaped by the childhood trauma of losing her mother to breast cancer. Whether you love Barbie, hate her, or are just plain indifferent to her, you've got to read this book for the sheer satisfaction of discovering the truth about one of our most popular cultural icons. Let's face it, Barbie is to dolls what Elvis Presley is to rock music and Marilyn Monroe is to glamour.

What can you say about a gal who has everything? Everything that you never had growing up, like good looks, lots of pretty clothes, cars, houses, glamorous jobs, a good-looking boyfriend who never makes sexual demands--that's our Barbie, the "teenage fashion model" doll created in 1959 by Ruth Handler and named after her daughter Barbara. Ruth founded Mattel Creations with her husband Elliot in 1945; the idea for a child's doll with a woman's body came to her when she saw her daughter and her friends playing with paper dolls who were "never the playmate or baby type," but rather "the teenage, high-school, college, or adult-career type." ("Forever Barbie", Para.3, page 29)

"Through their play," Ruth said, Barbara and her friends "were imagining their lives as adults. They were using the dolls to reflect the adult world around them. They would sit and carry on conversations, making the dolls real people. I used to watch that over and over and think: If only we could take this play pattern and three-dimensionalize it, we would have something very special." (Ibid, paga. 2, page 30)

So when Ruth came across the Lilli doll while she was shopping in Switzerland on a family vacation--Lilli being "an eleven -and- a -half- inch, platinum-pony tailed, Nefertiti-eyed, fleshtone plastic doll", based upon a gold digging comic strip character popular in Post WWII Germany, intended as an erotic toy for men--she immediately saw the potential in it. She bought three Lilli dolls, two for Barbara, already in her midteens, and one for herself. "I didn't then know who Lilli was or even that its name was Lilli, Ruth said. ":I only saw an adult-shape body that I had been trying to describe for years and our guys (the male designers at Mattel) said couldn't be done." (Ibid., para. 2, page 29)

So the Lilli doll was passed on to Jack Ryan, a Yale-educated electrical engineer at Mattel who was a whiz at designing toys. He took it with him on his next business trip to Tokyo in July 1957. He had to go through several Japanese doll manufacturers before he found one--Kokusai Boeki Kaisha (KBK), a Tokyo-based novelty dealer-- willing to take on the challenge of redesigning Lilli, whose slutty look definitely did not appeal to the prudish Japanese. After two years of trial and error, their doll maker, Yamasaki, finally came up with an acceptable design, in which Lilli's hard plastic body became soft vinyl and her arms and legs acquired definable fingers and toes via "rotation molding", that is, turned slowly in their molds while the vinyl hardened.

Meanwhile, back in California, Jack Ryan was giving Lilli a makeover with the help of his friend Bud Westmore, the makeup czar at Universal Pictures. After getting rid of her beestung lips, heavy eyelashes, and the "weird widow's peak" on her forehead, they came up with the prototype "All American Girl" look that we are all familiar with. Oddly enough, the doll bore a strong resemblance to Charlotte Johnson, the fashion designer whom the Handlers assigned the task of creating Barbie's wardrobe. Ms. Johnson, a tall, statuesque blonde, worked closely with the Japanese designers who created the prototype for Barbie, so it is possible that the doll maker and the seamstresses were so impressed by her good looks that it subconsciously influenced the final casting of Barbie's face.

The hard part was convincing American mothers that Barbie would be a wholesome influence on their little girls. So the Handlers hired Ernest Dichter, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Motivational Research in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, to do a study for them. In 1957, Dichter was considered a marketing genius; people like Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique", considered him an evil genius, for being able to zero in on people's weaknesses and use them as a marketing device. For example, in his research for Chrysler, Dichter found that "men viewed sedans like wives; they were "comfortable and safe", while convertibles were like mistresses; they were "youthful, beckoning to "the dreamer" within. So, to lure men into showrooms, car dealers should use convertibles as "bait". (Ibid, para. 2, page 37) Betty Friedan devoted a whole chapter of her famous book to Dichter's sins; she asserted that his research backed up her thesis; that being a housewife made most women miserable. Dichter exploited their misery by seeking to fill their anguished, barren lives with products. "Properly manipulated ('if you are not afraid of that word,' he said), American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack--by the buying of things." (Ibid, para. 1, page 38)

So it was only a short step from making Mommy want to buy things to relieve the stress and boredom of being a housewife to making Mommy's little girl want to buy Barbie and all her pretty clothes and accessories, so she could play at being the independent career girl that Mommy never got to be, but she still had a chance to become. After interviewing hundreds of housewives and their little girls in the 8 to 13 age group, Dichter came up with a marketing strategy for Mattel: Convince Mommy that the well-groomed, well-dressed Barbie doll would be a good influence on her tomboyish daughter, that acquiring a Barbie doll would teach her little roughneck to dress well, to accessorize, to appeal to men in a more ladylike way as she grew old enough to care what boys thought of her. So Barbie was marketed as a teenage fashion model, making her official debut at the American Toy Fair in the winter of 1959 in her black-and-white swimsuit and bushy blonde hairdo. By the summer of '59, the doll was flying off the shelves of toyshops, and thus a star was born.

Barbie was given a steady boyfriend in 1961; like her, Ken was purchased in a swimsuit. Like his girlfriend, he was also not anatomically correct. In fact, there were initially three different versions of the Ken doll with "bumps" in the groin area of varying sizes; small (you couldn't even see it), medium (you definitely noticed it), and large enough to make Ken's gender unmistakable. Ruth and Charlotte, Barbie's co-creators, initially wanted the Ken doll with the most realistic looking bulge, but the male executives at Mattel were too embarrassed to release a male doll that actually looked like a man. So they compromised by choosing the version with the medium-sized bulge, modified to fit under his tiny tailored trousers, after rejecting the male executives suggestion that he should have a permanent swimsuit painted on. Barbie's best friend Midge came along in 1963; a freckle-faced, brown-haired girl who could wear Barbie's clothes, but never with the same panache as Barbie. No, her reason for existence was to be Barbie's faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson to her Sherlock Holmes, more comic relief than competition. The following year Midge got a boyfriend named Allan and Barbie got a little sister named Skipper.

Other toy companies tried in vain to make their own fashion dolls that would knock Barbie off her pedestal; Ideal Toy & Novelty made Tammy, American Character Doll Company made Tressy, and Remco created the entire Littlechap Family. But none of these knockoffs could come close to matching Barbie's glamour and her allure as a swinging single girl of the 60's. Tammy was a nice but boring doll based on Debbie Reynold's character in a movie of the same name, about a simple country girl who comes to the big city and wows men with her beauty, honesty and character. Tressy's main attraction was her hair, which could be pulled in and out of her head like a tape measure and made up into elaborate hairdos. When the beehive hairdo became passé, so did she. And the Littlechap Family was a transparent attempt to push the concept of the Nuclear Family on the American public, whose structure was slowly changing as more and more women were forced to take jobs outside the home to maintain the family's standard of living, making it all but impossible for them to preserve the cherished male ideal of a wife and mother who only exists for and through her husband and children.

Barbie's most serious competitor was Miss Seventeen, created by Louis Marx & Co., who actually copycatted the Handlers' idea by acquiring the rights to the German Lilli doll and releasing their own version in America. Then on March 24, 1961, they had the nerve to sue Mattel for patent infringement. It seems that both Barbie and Miss Seventeen had a leg joint that enabled them to sit down with their legs together rather than spread apart, which I'm sure you'll agree is a useful feature on an adult fashion doll. Anyway, Marx accused Mattel of ripping off the patent for this joint, as well as copying the "form, posture, facial expression and novel overall…appearance" of the Lilli doll, which they now owned, (Ibid, para. 1, page 59) while Mattel accused them of conspiring with the Germans to market "an inferior doll in the United States of confusingly similar appearance to Barbie". (Ibid, para. 2, page 59) After two years of suing and countersuing, Judge Leon Yankwich handed down a "plague on both your houses" ruling by dismissing both Mattel's and Marx's claims and counterclaims and awarding no damages to either side, with each side to bear its own costs and attorney's fees, and neither being allowed to reintroduce the suit. This wouldn't be the last time Mattel was forced to defend Barbie's honor in court.

In 1970 she became "Living" Barbie with jointed ankles that allowed her feet to flatten out, instead of being permanently on tiptoe so she could only wear high heels. Now Barbie could stand on her own two feet and wear sensible shoes. Unfortunately, by that time she had already acquired a reputation of being a ditzy glamour puss who lived only for shopping and clothes, so she was rejected by feminists, along with Topper Toys' Dawn, another glamour doll, and Ideal's Bizzie Lizzy, whose main accessories were an iron and a mop; the feminists claimed that these dolls encouraged little girls "to see themselves solely as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers," as reported by the New York Times after the Toy Fair in February 1972. As a result of this rejection, "Living" Barbie soon went back on tiptoe and stayed there.

There have even been Black and Hispanic models , released in 1980. Black Barbie was designed by Kitty Black Perkins, an African-American designer hired by Mattel in 1975. Her Barbie was considered more realistic-looking than the companion Hispanic Barbie, released the same year. No one will take credit for this stereotypical-looking chica, who comes dressed in a peasant blouse, a two-tiered skirt and a mantilla, even a rose pinned at her neck. (At least they didn't put it in her teeth!) Don't the doll designers at Mattel know that the Hispanic community is made up of more than Mexicans? The Black Barbie is allowed to wear contemporary clothing, embellished with African-style jewelry. Why doesn't Hispanic Barbie come dressed in authentic folk costumes from the various ethnic groups that make up the Hispanic community: Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, etc.?

In the 45 years between the summer of '59 and the summer of '04, Barbie has undergone a great many changes. Through all the changes in her looks and design, Barbie has been all things to all people, especially women. Feminists deride her for being a stereotypical female who teaches little girls that they are only valued for their looks. Socialists use her as an example of the changing roles of women in Western society, as she evolved from a teenage fashion model to an independent working woman who could do any job a man did, and look good while doing it. Collectors hoard her in all her incarnations, buying and selling her like any commodity as they attend conventions devoted to Barbie and her fans that make Star Trek fans look like Kiwanis Club Meetings. Artists have used her and Ken as examples of stereotypical gender roles in Western society; while Islamic Fundamentalists banned her in Saudi Arabia since 1995 to prevent the corruption of their little girls. At the beginning of every school year, the religious police blanket the schools and streets with posters denouncing Barbie for her "revealing clothes" and "shameful postures". Apparently they know nothing about child psychology, or they would know that this sort of approach only makes children more eager to sample the "forbidden fruit".

The latest lawsuit Mattel has bought on behalf of Barbie's honor was in June of this year. Photographer Tom Forsythe had to defend himself over a series of photos he had taken known as "Food Chain Barbie", in which he used nude Barbie dolls in provocative poses (nothing new there!) as well as parts of dinner entrees; wrapped in tortillas, smothered in salsa, or baked in a casserole dish. Mattel lost that battle and had to pay Forsythe $1.8 million dollars in legal fees and court costs. Forsythe described his work as critical of "materialistic and gender-oppressive values", and the judges agreed that he had a First Amendment right to parody Barbie.

While Mattel was busy defending its intellectual property (strange as it may seem to associate Barbie with anything intellectual!), our gal was busy dumping good old Ken in favor of a new heartthrob named Blaine, due to arrive on toy store shelves in August. He's a surfer boy from Australia, whose favorite saying is "Dare me?" according to the Mattel website. Let's see how long he lasts in Barbie's fickle affections before she sheds him like an old outfit and moves on to a new conquest.

Replies: 3 comments

Wow, there's an Anti-Barbie Club: I'm not making this up. I saw it on Yahoo.


Posted by Ginger @ 08/28/2004 11:58 PM PST

LOL Funny how some things can come back to haunt you. I was interviewed (and am quoted) in there. It's an interesting book although she definitely dwells on the seedier side of doll collecting.

Posted by Jan Fennick @ 09/18/2004 11:52 PM PST

Now where can one go to find out if I have the prototype of prototypes I have been to several diffrent auction houses and they have taken pictures after pictures only to no avail,I am still and the lest in what's to say in dismay as to where and how someone as myself can find out the if this doll i have is the first doll ever created!!!the real deal and have her appraised,last but not lest get her to the person who has the whole collection that has ever been made!! Possibly Barbara. my girlfriend who use to work in occupied japan for a company that did patents and trademarks stated that the was in fact the real macoy and that I should have her insured for a half a million dollars. I do know that Phil Donahue had special show dedicated to Barbie and that they wheeled out a safe as big as the stage and when they unlocked it , it had every doll that had ever been made. this was in 1988 this is all I have been able to get on this story please take me for real and only serious replies need respond, HELP ASAP..... in Arizona desperate in the desert...

Posted by corrina @ 12/31/2004 11:41 PM PST

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