Barbie is a worldwide famous fashion doll, which has become a cultural icon during her half a century history. ‘Barbie may be the most potent icon of American popular culture in the late twentieth century’ – says M.G. in ‘Forever Barbie’ (p. 6). Barbie was created over fifty years ago and during this time her fame spread all over the world. At first, she was persecuted, now she was worshiped.
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Barbie doll was first introduced in 1956. The idea to create Barbie belongs to Ruth Handler. Her husband, Elliot Handler, is a co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company. Mrs. Handler had noticed a gap in the toy market. The majority of toys were representations of children or animals and there were no dolls with the appearance of an adult. However, her husband rejected the idea of producing a new kind of toys. Later, during a trip to Europe Ruth Handler came across a doll named Bild Lilly, which represented an adult woman.
This doll had been sold in Germany since 1955 and represented a comic strip character. That was a young beautiful girl with feministic views. This doll inspired Mrs. Handler to create Barbie. The design of the doll was reworked and she got the name after Ruth’s daughter Barbara. In 1959, the first version of Barbie was introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Barbie products include dolls, accessories, fashionable outfits, and a wide range of books, cosmetics, videogames etc (McDonough p.14).
There is a series of animated films with Barbie as the main character. She also appeared in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 films. Moreover, Barbie was honored several times. For instance, in 1974 a part of Times Square in New York was renamed for one week. It was called ‘Barbie Boulevard’. In 1985, a famous artist Andy Warhol honored Barbie by painting her portrait. For the first time in history, a wax figure of a doll was displayed in the Grevin Museum beside the figures of world celebrities. The figure of Barbie is wearing a dress by the famous couturier Gianfranco Ferre. The wax figure of Barbie was installed in the museum in 1993, on her 35 anniversary.
Barbie is not just a doll she has her own life and biography. Her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. She was born in a fictional town, Willows in Wisconsin. Her official birthday is March 9, 1959. Barbie is a very gifted and independent girl. During her life, she had 130 careers, represented about 40 nationalities, and worked with 75 famous fashion designers (Barbie par. 2). ‘She’s a successful businesswoman, a member of a rock band and a Women’s World Cup Soccer player’ (Ament par. 3).There is a range of books published by Random House, which tell the story of her life. The Mattel Toy Company created the whole family for Barbie. She has sisters, cousins, friends and boyfriends and each of them has his or her own story.
In 2009, Barbie’s 50th anniversary was celebrated with the peculiar chic. A runway show in New York during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week was a part of the celebration. The top models brought the famous doll to life. They walked along the podium representing the best Barbie images. Famous haute couture designers including Vera Wang, Diane von Fürstenberg, Christian Louboutin, Calvin Klein, and Bob Mackie worked together to make top models look like Barbie.
Barbie has acquired a worldwide fame, which has influenced the culture of many countries. Barbie doll has become a cultural legend. Nowadays, Barbie is the main topic for a number of analytical studies and fanzines all over the world. Many controversies have arisen around this doll. M.G. Lord has claimed that Barbie is a representative of American middle-class woman, but a brief analysis enables to see that the image of this doll does not coincide with its reference group.
Barbie does not have anything to take care about as she has an unlimited income, which guarantees her luxurious life with houses, cars, and latest fashion clothing. She has no children, housework, or job, and she will never change. Barbie will never have any wrinkles, gain weight or fall ill. In her article ‘Who is Barbie, Anyway?’ M.G. Lord writes: ‘Barbie has an advantage over all of them. She can never bloat. She has no children to betray her.
Nor can she rot, wrinkle, overdose, or go out of style.’ (Lord p. 746). In fact, it appears that Barbie, with her lavish lifestyle, cannot be compared to middle-class women she is claimed to represent. This doll may cause psychological harm to girls under 13, because Barbie becomes the role model for them. However, when the girls grow up, they realize that it is impossible to live or look like Barbie. This leads to frustration, disappointment, and depression.
In 2003, Barbie was banned in Saudi Arabia. She was considered vulgar with her bright revealing clothes and shameful behavior. Instead of Barbie, a doll called Fulla was introduced. This doll conformed to the ideals of Islam and was acceptable for the Muslim society. However, Barbie is still sold in other Islamic countries, for instance, in Egypt.
Another controversial issue about Barbie is her appearance. She has unrealistic for a young woman proportions. However, her proportions have become model in the society. This may lead to misperception of human body by girls who want to resemble their favorite doll. In their attempts to look like Barbie, they resort to rigid diets, which lead to anorexia and bulimia. Girls spend huge sums of money on plastic surgery, which is not always successful, to make their faces and bodies look like Barbie’s.
For instance, an American girl Cindy Jackson endured 55 plastic operations to shape her body and face according to the image of Barbie doll. Eventually, only her lower lip remained unchanged. There is one more example of a living Barbie – Valeria Lukianova, who lives in Odessa, Ukraine. She has become quite famous in the Internet due to her stunning resemblance to Barbie. Valeria claims that she had never resorted to plastic surgery to acquire such appearance. In response to public criticism, the Mattel Toy Company has changed the proportions of the famous doll, in 1997 and Barbie got a wider waist. In 2000, her breasts became smaller and she got a navel.
In 1992, the Teen Talk Barbie was introduced. The dolls had a range of about 270 phrases like ‘Will we ever have enough clothes?’, ‘Let’s have a pizza party!’, and ‘I love shopping’. One of the phrases caused considerable controversy. The American Association of University Women criticized the saying ‘Math class is tough’. The Association considered that this phrase showed Barbie as a woman of low intellect. The Mattel Company was forced to withdraw all the dolls with that saying.
In recent years, the researchers observe the decline in popularity of Barbie dolls. ‘According to Dr Agnes Nairn and her colleagues at Bath University, not only has Barbie lost her popularity, but the doll is provoking violence among pre-pubescent girls’ (Waal par. 1). Little girls of 10 or 12 torture their dolls they break their limbs, decapitate them or put into a microwave oven. The analysts wonder about the reasons of such hostility. Maybe it is the rejection of consumerism, raise of violence or revolt against the idealized image of a woman. Perhaps children show their curiosity about the look of the doll without her head or disappointment when they realize that it is impossible to lead Barbie lifestyle.
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During its long history Barbie doll had many parodies in various countries, which lead to dozens of lawsuits. A most fierce competition is observed between Barbie and Bratz dolls (Talbot par. 1). The Bratz are even more disproportionate than Barbie dolls. They have small bodies, extremely big heads, and a similar carefree lifestyle. MGA Entertainment started the production of Bratz in 2001. Since that time, the similarities of the two brands were often discussed in court. Mattel and MGA had several lawsuits on corporate espionage against each other.
Almost everything that the Mattel Company did had the tendency to become an issue of controversy and dispute. Ever since Barbie had been introduced, the opinions in the society varied from ‘just a doll’ to ‘a cultural icon’. At first, the customers were skeptic about the doll, as Barbie was the first adult-looking doll at the world market. However, she quickly gained popularity among children and adults as well. Barbie became a role model, an image of perfect appearance and fashion icon.
Her role in the world culture was the topic of dispute for many researchers and analysts in the world. There were a number of parodies and the Mattel Company started lawsuits to protect the uniqueness of their dolls. Now the Mattel Company produces a wide range of dolls corresponding to the modern tastes and fashion trends. For instance, a few years ago they launched a series of dolls representing the protagonists of the Twilight Saga.
Now, after fifty years on the market, Barbie dolls are not only the desired toy for children, they are the target for a number of adult collectors who are ready to pay thousands of dollars to have a rare doll in their collection. The Mattel Company has estimated that there are about 100,000 people in the world, who own a collection of Barbie dolls. The dolls that had the price of $3.00 in 1959 now cost about $3000.00 or $5000.00. In 2006, Barbie was bought for $17,000 at Christie’s auction, London. It was the record price for a Barbie doll. The most valuable are the dolls, which had limited production or had been withdrawn from the stores.
To sum it up, I would like to say that the Mattel Toy Company did a great job when they created Barbie. They made a bold step introducing a quite new image of dolls and withstood long years of criticism and competition. Starting with an adult-looking doll, they developed this image up to the ‘fashion icon’ and representation of perfect appearance. Thousands of fans all over the world created the biography of their favorite doll. They wrote books, made films, and created a new world for this doll.
Over 1000 million dolls have been sold during fifty-six years. The Mattel Company tried to satisfy all the customers’ tastes. There are Barbie dolls of different nationalities, age groups, and social statuses. There is even a handicapped doll in a pink while-chair her name is Share a Smile Becky. Barbie became the role model for thousands of little girls in the world. Not only girls but also women in different countries were obsessed with the idea of acquiring the ‘Barbie look’.
It is the only occasion in history when a toy became a worldwide celebrity. Some people said that Barbie was the promotion of consumerism. They noted that this doll created the illusion of easy careless lifestyle, which was impossible to bring to life and caused great disappointment. Everyone had his own view of the situation, as it is the personal choice to consider Barbie good or bad.
So, who is Barbie then? Is she a cultural revolution or an outrageous deceit? You are free to choose. For some people Barbie is a long forgotten doll, for others she is the role model and never dying idol of fashion. Everyone has his own opinion but there is the undeniable fact: never in the history of the world was another doll that could have such a big number of admirers and rivals. No one can imagine a doll, which could cause such controversy and disputes or influence the society like Barbie. There is no doubt that Barbie is the legend in the history of toy production.
Ament, Phil 2006. ‘Barbie Doll’. The Great Idea Finder. Web.
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Lord, M. G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York, USA: Walker & Company, 2004. Print.
Lord, M.G. Who Is Barbie, Anyway? New York, USA: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Print.
McDonough, Yona Zeldis. The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. New York, USA: Touchstone Publishing, 1999. Print.
Talbot, Margaret 2011. ‘Bratz vs. Barbie: Who’s the Bad Girl?’ The New Yorker. Web.
Waal, Anastasia 2005. ‘Barbie in the microwave’. The Guardian. Web.