Development And Culture Effects Of Barbie Cultural Studies Essay

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Passing a toy shop you can not just ignore the "pink part" among the girl's playthings, the Barbie doll with her numerous Friends and equipment. Some love her and ask Santa Claus for her, others hate this curvaceous doll, but nobody is able to keep her out of his or her mind.

As I am familiar with Barbie owning a "collection" of eight dolls it tempted me to examine her attraction and the phenomenon of her constant success during my work.

Healing people complain about Barbie all the time because of various reasons, I intend to focus on her positive impact.

The critics stressing danger caused by Barbie, eating disorder or beauty mania, are excluded because it would take too long dealing with these topics. The different playing experiences with the doll and the problem caused by look-alikes {or Barbie copies) would also not fit in my work.

What is the special attraction of this "peace of plastic"? How did the doll manage it to be the number one Plaything over 50 years? Especially men or boys just call Barbie "stupid", but this doll is just more.

In the following text 1 want to give the basic information about the creation of this toy, than have a look at further developments and ideas, examining the secret of Barbie's constant success.

2AThe Development of "Barbie World"

If asked nearly every little girl would name "Barbie"1 as her favourite toy, as this pink-dressed plastic thing has become a well-known brand. Today Barbie-Doll is the best selling product of the giant toy business Mattel with worldwide more than $3.3 billion at retail trade.1

2.1 Presentation of a new doll

Over 45 years this doll has been a "best-seller", attracting not only children but also their mothers and other collectors. The toy company behind this has proved its dominance at toy markets all over the world. Since its formation by Elliott Handler, his wife Ruth and their friend Harold Mattson in

' (03.01.2011)

1945 Mattel has grown from a profitable business into a corporate giant. The company is named Mattel, MATT for Mattson and blL for Elliot.2

2.1.1. German example "Lilli"

Ruth Handler, originally responsible for marketing in the firm'1, came up with the idea of an adult doll when she watched her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls that looked like grown-ups rather than like children. When visiting Switzerland in 1956 with her family, she came across a woman-shaped, fashionable doll - Bild-Lilli.4

1 jlli was a famous cartoon character created by the German

cartoonist Reinhard Beuthicn for the newspaper Bildzeitung

.,*.,- in Hamburg. Germany in 1951. Her character represented men's

ill. I: Bild-Lilli" dream of a woman, sexy and feminine with her endless legs and

curvaceous shape but at the same time innocent and nai've with a

single stray curl falling in her face. Because of the great response in the newspapers, especially by men, a doll of this character was produced by Max Weissbrodt from the Hausser/Elastolin company. Since 1955 these dolls where sold in two sizes, the 18 cm issue with a price between DM 3 and 7.50. the 30 cm issue with a price between DM 5 and 12. at German smoke shops and a few toy stores. Later the product was exported to several European countries, and even the Asian and American market was reached with the "Marx-Lilli"'. produced by Marx Toys USA in Hong Kong. *

Ruth Handler finally bought two Lilli dolls one for her daughter and one for the development department of Mattel which eventually would create the famous Barbie-Doll named after Ruth's daughter Barbara.

If you compare both dolls, Lilli and Barbie, it is obvious that Lilli was the inspiration for Ruth Handler developing the first Barbie (see: ill. 1). The two of them had the look of the ultimate

' (05.01.2011) 1 Rand, E.. Barbie's Queer Accessories. Durham/London, 1995. p. 30 4 Handler, R., Dream Dqll-Stamford, 1994, pp. 1-5 ^ (09.03.2011J

6 Warnecke, D., Barbie-im

7 see: ibid., p. 29 "see: ibid.,p. 150 q Handler. R., p. 5

woman at the end of the 50s: a painted face with side glancing eyes, red lips and fingernails. But ihe whole marketing idea was different, as Lilli was intended lo be a party or gag gift for adult men and Barbie the new type of doll for Hllle girls to play with.

2.1.2 Aquirement by Mattel

Ruth Handler aroused the enthusiasm of the whole company for the creation of a new type of doll with her philosophy thai the little girl could be anything she wanted to be through this perfectly shaped, pretty plastic plaything.10

A patent for Barbie was obtained in 1958, but Mattel acquired the rights for the Lilli doll only in 1964 as the production stopped.'' During the three years of development of Barbie several problems occurred. Financial issues forced Mattel to produce the dolls in Japan where new contacts had lo be made. However, the doll remained of high quality, a special type of vinyl gave her a better look than the ordinary plastic J.illi. A huge wardrobe was designed by fashion designer Charlotte Johnson including typical clothes for this time with little details like buttons.l2After hard work the first Barbie-Doll was presented at the International American Toy Fair in New York Ci!y in 1959. This 30 cm tall fashion model with a pony tail wore a black-and-white-striped bathing suit, shoes and white

ill. 2: Barbie #1l? sunglasses (see: ill. 2). Additionally to this $3 doll there were clothes

separately packaged for $1 to $3 available.14

At first the response was minimal and Mattel faced the problem that Barbie was not the typical

baby doll popular in these times.

As many members of Mattel had feared: "No mother would buy her child a doll with breasts." ^

The expression in her face also shows more attraction to men man to little children (ace; ill. 2).

Luckily the mood of the customers changed by 1960 and Barbie "ran" off the counters that Mattel

only caught up production some time later.

r Ausstcllimg, Nr. 1/94, p. 46

'"Handler, R., p. 3 'Warnecke. D.. pp. 46-48 2 Handler, R., pp. 5-8

\,Barbie in Berlin", Vernissage^_djc.ZciisehriIt z '' Handler. R., pp. 10/11 ? Handler. R.. p. 12

2.2 Further developments

The development ol'the Barbie-DoH did not stop at that moment but went further until today. No product can stay on the market without constant changes. Barbie managed to '"survive" because a whole marketing team has been working on her appearance through all the time. Changing trends, opinions and traditions were not ignored but used to make the sells even larger.

2.2.1 Fashion and look

One concept involved in Ruth Handler's original marketing ideas of the Barbie doll is the supply of separate clothes: "the doll sells ihe clothes and the clothes sell the doll.""' This completely new strategy led to great selling numbers and has been copied by nearly all modern companies producing children's dolls. Since clothes had been an important factor from the beginning, Barbie's wardrobe always followed the trends of time which can be seen from hippie-outfits in the 1960s and 70s to the Disco-Glamour clothing in the 1980s. The "Hot Stuff' on the eatwalks in London, Paris and New York will definitely appear in Barbie's new collection.

Celebrities like actresses and singers inspired the fashion of Barbie, for example the "Enchanting Evening" dress of 1960 influenced by a glamorous outfit worn by the famous actress Grace Kelly on a well known photograph by Phillippe llalsman17 1955.18

"My Size Barbie", which measures 96.5 cm, makes it even possible for her little owner to share clothes with her blond idol.14 Little girls can then enter Barbie's fashion world themselves.

Throughout the years face and make-up also went through changes. 'I he originally cast down eyes were changed to "sleepy" eyes in 1964 (Miss Barbie). After the "Eyelash Era"1 in the late 1960s and early 70s when the dolls got realistic rooted eyelashes, Barbie's eyes went bright and open in 1971. Of course all colours of eyes exist today. Having begun with the expressionless face which should allow children imagine

ill. 3: Totally Hair Barbie Brunette'

16 Westcnhouser. K.. The Story of Barbie. Paducah, Kentucky, 1994, p. 14

l7Halsman,P., 1955 in: Ufe, Jan. 19?6

]S Spencer C., Barbie - Beauiv Queen. Munchen, 2000, p. 13

19'My-Size-Barbie- Doll/5303285/produa.html (01.02.2011)

20 b!tp:// (09.03.20011)

whatever play they wanted, the first "smiling" Barbie appeared in 1975 and this expression finally succeeded in 1977. The dominating face design is the "Superstar face" mould by designer Joyce Clark since 197721; the typical" Barbie Face" today.

As important as the face and make-up is Barbie's hairstyle, another marketing plus. Dolls have been produced with all imaginable hair styles and colours from blond and straight to red and curly. Barbie's haircut followed the actual trends, e.g. the Bubble Cut of the 1960s introduced by Jaqueline Kennedy, the first lady, wife of John F. Kennedy.23 "Totally Hair Barbie" of 1992 is the best sold Barbie do!! ever because of her 29 cm longhair fitting to all looks.2"1 As illustration three shows this model has everything a little girl wants, long hair, beauty accessories and stylish clothing.

2.2.2 Technical amendments and expanding versions

But to stay a modern woman perfect styling is not enough. Therefore Barbie got several technical amendments like bendable legs which were invented by Dick May and sold in 1965" and the "Twist" N Turn Waist", a movable waist which occurred in 1967.2? Using the achievements of technical evolution the doll became able (o speak or even kiss with the "Kissing Barbie" of 1979. 26 Hvcn a fictional biography has been developed: Barbie's fuller name is Barbara Millicent Roberts and she is still said to attend Willows Fligh School in Willows, Wisconsin.37 The idea of creating Barbie's human existence was only followed in the early years when Barbie novels were produced. Later Mattel decided to make her image more vague for her owners in order to give them a better ehance of identification.28

But this did not hinder the firm creating Barbie family members and friends. This perfect-looking model did not stay alone but "found" several family members and friends, beginning with the introduction of her boyfriend in 1961 named after the Handler's son Ken. Since then, other longstanding friends like her best friend Midge, Theresa, Christie, Steven (Christie's boyfriend) and Alan (Midge's boyfriend whom she married in 1990) have been introduced, as well as additions to her family tree including her sister Skipper (debut 1964), twins Tutti and Todd (1966), Stacie (1992) and her little sister Kelly (1995).2g

11 Westenhouser, K.,p. 25 "Spencer, C., p. 17

23 Westenhouser. K.. p. 53

24 Westenhouser. K., pp. 88/89 2f Westenhouser. K, p. 20 2" Warnecke, D., p. 169


28 Rand, E., p. 24

29 Spencer, C., pp. 114/115

In addition to all her friends and family members a whole "Barbie World" emerged with cars, houses, shops, offices etc. Realizing the typica! dream of the normal citizen. Barbie got a home in 1961 with the "Barbie Dream House" in paper folded structure.30 In this artificial environment, dominatingly pink since the 1970s and 80s, this doll is her own boss and everything seems to work out for her.

2.2.3 Global brand awareness

Fans have also the possibility to celebrate "Barbie Lifestyle" as different items from Barbie

lunchboxes to tooth brushes are available.

Sharing their timeless desire for these dolls several Barbie fan clubs were founded. Appealing to

the older "Barbie maniacs", porcelain Barbie dolls where first introduced in 1985 with the "Blue

Rhapsody" line. Grasping the collectible idea of the dolls these special items won a big market


Since the presentation of the first Barbie doll in 1959 the brand has achieved best selling status

worldwide with three Barbie dolls being bought every second. "

3. Constant Success of the "Barbie Doll"

The celebration of Barbie's 50th birthday in 2009 leads to the question of the constant success of this 30 cm doll. Why has Barbie become a global brand and is still "en vogue" in 2011?

3.1 Marketing strategies

With best-selling status worldwide the marketing department of the doll at Mattel has achieved what other firms dream of. But behind this success hard work and clever ideas can be seen; next to the basic marketing ideas also changes of the toy are important.

3.1.1 Three basic ideas

In the view of marketing analysis three ideas are important: Firstly, the creation of an adult doll surely filled a market niche, up to this time the dominating type of doll has been the baby version. Secondly, the concept of a huge wardrobe without buying a new item each lime a new outfit is sought, proved great success. This completely new idea was also adapted by other firms later.

30 Westenhouser, K.,p. 91

31 Westenhouser,K..p. 139

j: littp://www.pitchengmexom/mattel/barbiereg-celebrates-50-years-as-a-global-superbrand-/3514/ (09.02.2011)

Thirdly, the attention to detail caught the children's imagination; small things like the little earrings, shoes, or jewellery fascinate even- little customer.33

3.1.2 Clever usage of the media

Additionally to this timeless idea, Mattel successfully used the media and technical developments

to present their product. As there had only been a mixed response after the introduction of the Barbie doll the company installed displays at the retail counters, so called "viewmastcrs". By inserting a disc it was possible for the potenliai buyer to see pictures of each outfit on the doll which had been taken by a Hollywood photographer. When a decision had been made the outfit could be chosen."'4

Another decisive fact was, and is, the presence in the media, especially on TV. Nearly every advertising block during the children's programme includes a spot with Barbie. This tradition began in the 1950s as Mattel started broadcasting advertisements during the Mickey Mouse Club, a famous US children's show.

3.1.3 Merchandising and co-operation with other Brands

As mentioned before the phenomenon of "merchandising", the sell of products with the Barbie logo, has carried on since the birth of the doll. Barbie items are sold all over the world today and the brand has acquired an awareness even among people who are not interested in this toy.36 The evergreen trend of popular mainstream brands has also been involved in marketing strategies of Mattel, examples are

"see: ibid., Westenhoiiser, K., p.14

34 see: ibid., Westenhoiiser, K., pp. 14/15

35 see: ibid., Handler, R.. pp. 83-86 3(1 Warnecke, D., p. 143 htIp://ww\\'.kathystaslfoodtoys.conVebayimages/MCD_0l_Barbie.jpg (09.03.2011)

the co-operation with the famous TV scries Baywatcli leading to Baywalch Barbie, a lifeguard, or the various McDonald's Happy Meal campaigns (see: ill. 4), where every customer of this product get a little doll. These links of two well-known brands have proved to he very successful because the customer's awareness is enlarged.

3.1.4 Collectable idea

Although holding a huge market share with sales of the ordinary dolls, Mattel also reacted to the "Barbiemania" emerging among the older fans. With the creation of the "all porcelain dolls", beginning in 1985 a whole new market branch developed (see.: "Global brand awareness") Entering the collector's economy Mattel tried to influence the sell and share of "'ancient'' dolls which had come up. By developing this new line this former danger of private sells could be turned into advantage for the toy business.3K

Enthusiasts have therefore the possibility to buy special dolls in extraordinary outfits designed especially for this Sine. A special "Barbie Collector's Magazine", "Barbie Bazaar" was founded in

1989, publishing articles and user information all about the doll." Although this journal is independent, they need the support from the firm to give them information. The collectable idea emerged during Barbie's over 50 years history is now reflected in Mattel's marketing even if the business could and cannot stop certain ideas and actions of the consumers.

3.2 Psychological ideas

Next to the obvious market success this doll implies more than that. Even if most people cannot understand the fascination by this plastic toy, certain women (and men) see Barbie in a special


3.2.1 Projection by children on their future lives

Another explanation for her constant success, not (hat easy to grasp, is the timelessness of the psychological idea built up by the creator of the Barbie Doll, Ruth Handler. She explains the "do-anything/be-anything" image in the following:

"My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could he anything she wanted to be; Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices."'40

Therefore playing with Barbie allows children to realize all their dreams and make all imaginable

decisions in life. In this view every goal is possible to be achieved and stopping or disturbing

factors in life like competition, unfairness or discrimination just do not exist.

The Danish music band "Aqua"' pointed this out in a rather ironic way with their song ''Barbie

Girl": "(...Jl'm a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world; Life in plastic, it's fantastic(...)".41

The basic concept is very simple as it focuses on the childish belief that even if negative facts do

exist in the real world there is a place somewhere to rest and live in peace. This optimism is

stressed by education and the natural demand for happiness. The attraction of this lillle doll lies

accordingly in the imagination of a paradise world without violence, fear or threat.

3.2.2 Representation of different ethnic and social groups

In this perfect worid every ethnic and social group is included, too. With the growing global awareness and success different ethnic groups have been presented through the Barbie doll. Since the first black doll, a black version of Barbie's pre-existing friend Francie of 196742, there have been various kinds of skin tones and faces presented.

This makes it possible for every little girl all over the world to buy a doll representing her cultural background. Despite that there is still the question if the typical "Barbie image1' with white skin and blue eyes will always remain in people's heads. As not only individuals with different skin tones should be able to identify with Barbie also a disabled doli was created in 1997, "Wheel Chair Becky". This doll is more expensive than Barbie because a part of the profit supports an organisation for disabled children in the USA. Becky has the same measures as Barbie and also her common smiling face (sec: ill. 5).43

" Weissman, K., Barbie - The icon, The [mage. The ideal, np. 1999, p. 61

"see: ibid., Warnecke. D., p. 94

13 Metzger, W.feditor), 4QJab.i;e.Barbie World - vom deutschen FraUleinw under zum Kultobjekl ailer

Welt. Karlsruhe. 1998, p. 129

hnp;// (12.03.2011)

This gives a hopeful message to all (disabled) children that they are not alone and that it is possible to have fun in life. Despite this there is still the question why Barbie herself did not get the role in the wheel chair. Maybe her image would have suffered...

3.2.3 Gender equality

Next to this, gender equality is maybe the decisive value promoted in the "Barbie World". Career woman Barbie has taken up many occupations over the years including sport professions like athlete at the Olympics (1975) or aerobic-teacher (1984), and academic professions like nurse (1961) or doctor (1988). Furthermore, Barbie entered the glamorous star world as a rock star (1990) or a rap musician (1992). She also obtained access to the politics as a female diplomat of the Barbie Summit in New York (1990)4:> or a politician running for US presidency (1992/2000/2004/2008).46 By getting every job. even in male dominated areas. Barbie stands for the modern, emancipated business woman.

Another example for the representation of the independent woman could be Barbie's break-up with her boyfriend Ken in 2004. They met first on a set of a TV commercial in 1961 and have always been the perfect couple.47 Although there have been various wedding dresses for Barbie, Ken and her never got married officially.

Russell Arons, vice president of marketing at Mattel, hinted that a reason for the split might be his attitude of getting married48 - which Barbie never wanted. Therefore Barbie as totally independent woman is ready to make her own decisions apart from her boyfriend's will and is not ready to do something she does not really want.

Another possible factor could be her career. As f mentioned before Barbie stands for the ultimate business woman because she held nearly all professions during the years. The break-up with her boyfriend might have been necessary for her as Ken maybe wanted her to become a housewife if they marry. All in all this could be an example for women to make their own choices supported by the fact that Barbie already got a new man, Blame the Australian boogie boarder. (12.03.2011)

3.3 Change of image: from "All American Girl" to "Glamour Queen"

With the possible identification with this dolt. Barbie also represents popular images of the women and reflects the change of the female role through (Barbie) history. Starting as the embodiment of the typical female member of the middle class in 1950s society, her role has been changed through marketing strategies until today. Therefore Barbie accepted the credo that "she's one of us". so But today this "All-American" girl image seems to be doubtful when seeing the sophisticated Barbie dolls wearing the fashion of designer labels as Ralph Lauren or Christian Dior. With the change from a member of" the middle class to an upper-class girl in designer clothes, the mainstream dream of luxury life is represented.

An explanation might be the popularity of "celebrity shows'1 presenting the luxurious private life of highly rich people, e.g. the "Access all Areas'" documentations on the music channel MTV letting the watchers just sneak a look at the lives of human celebrities who have more money than they could spend. Many individuals, especially women are fascinated by this special lifestyle and what grown-ups watch on TV. little girls find when toying with Barbie, dressing her in the shiny evening outfit and letting her go to a cocktail party. Again Barbie has achieved the way of life the ordinary girl or woman is reaching for.

3.4 Timelessness of beauty ideals

Next to all the achievements Barbie has made in fife there is also the decisive fact of her beauty. This little doll with her curvaceous shape, endless legs, perfect face and lifelong youth represents the ultimate dream of the ordinary woman. But why are most girls and women still longing for the beauty ideal in times when the female emancipation seems to be fulfilled?

3.4.1 Beauty as pressure of society on modern women

It has often been tried to explore how women recognize the importance of their beauty, and thai they are beginning to wonder if they are not alone in this feeling? Looking at successful women in society the pressure of a pleasing appearance is obvious as the typical business woman has to be perfectly styled and if possible must have the 90-60-90 shape to be taken seriously by her competitors. This may be an exaggeration, and a woman who does not fit in this image is not said

;issman, K., p. 59 lissman, K.. p. 59 : ibid., Weissman, K,, p. 23

to be unhappy, but the attraction of the perfect beauty shown by the Barbie doll is nevertheless remarkable and an essential factor of her over 50 years success.

4. Conclusion

Looking for information about Barbie, it has been surprising how much various authors had already dealt with the special attraction of the doll. In my opinion it shows that many people underestimate Barbie when they only consider her as a common and simple toy. I was astonished reading about women who see Barbie as their super heroine, representing the ideal of the ultimate picture of the emancipated woman.

Further it is fascinating how a plaything could "survive" alt the different fashions, trends and behaviours of the time and cause a whole understanding among the people.

Barbie's huge success was built out of various factors but the most important is that she had always changed over the years and never remained on a specific point. She followed every trend to be always up to date and never uncool.

Another important factor is the reflection of female issues: Barbie has achieved everything materialistic imaginable in her artificial plastic surrounding and women are reaching for this in the real world, too.

This leads me to my concluding question if there is link between the Barbie doll and the emancipated, modern woman or if this plastic toy just stands for pink glamour without any meaning.

In my opinion the plaything must have a certain image and impact because it is a global brand with continuing success. Further, not only the target group, little girls toying with Barbie, deals with the doll but also grown-ups are infected by the "Barbie Mania". Adults who are interested in certain items and collect them are outstanding, but in the case of the doll there exist more than average. There are Barbie fan clubs and events and if the doll breaks up with her boyfriend even sophisticated papers wiil report on this.53

" ..Scheidung bei Barbie und Ken", in _SikldeutschcZei-tung. Keb. 14.2004