The Barbie Mystique

By Published on .

In the 1959 TV spot introducing Mattel's Barbie, the doll is at the top of a staircase, as if to be worshiped like a religious figure, and dressed— in a body-obscuring gown—as a bride.

The sanctified vibe was a lie, concocted by Ernest Dichter (hired by Mattel's then-agency, Carson/
Roberts L.A.) to veil the doll's semi-pornographic roots. Barbie started life as Bild Lilli, a German call girl character made into a gag gift for men. Dichter positioned her as a teenage fashion model who embodied a culture focused on grooming and appearance. It did the job, with 350,000 dolls sold the first year. And the need for actual—not pasted on—clothing not only expanded Mattel's coffers, but allowed for the growth of her multiple identities.

Barbie's duality remained through the decades. The plaything body—those preposterously long legs, tiny pronged feet and missile breasts—contrasted with her independent, and later even feminist, life: She "dated" Ken for decades, remained single, and had a sports car, dream home and many careers of her own. For better or worse, she became a mirror and a lightning rod for women's culture.

Mattel continued to try to take the heat off Barbie's body and to present her as a personification of possibility for women, within the confines of the culture. For the past several years, the Barbie industrial complex—which still rakes it in, but has seen sagging sales—has been targeting woke millennial parents with three shorter and wider Barbie body types, and seven new skin tones.

And Mattel recently has focused on dads by making Barbie about imaginative play with their daughters. Far removed from the first frozen and very proper spot, it shows her diversity and p.c.-ness. And perhaps most importantly, it also plays off one of the best advances for females in the last 60 years: That men are considered parents, too.

Most Popular