character toy

"Barbie was never intended to be anything but a reflection of what a little girl wanted her to be," Barbie creator Ruth Handler told ABCNews. "In my mind she was a prop through which the child could visualize being an adult" (Stearns & Vardell, 1998). Barbie was not just
left to right: Elliot, Barbara, Ruth, & Ken Handler
another plaything but a "personality" - a real life teenage fashion model. Her debut in 1959 marked the introduction of one of the first character toys into the toy market. Barbie was given a "back story" - a narrative that established her personality within an imaginary but familiar universe. Marketers realized they were not promoting the toy's use value as much as an imagined relationship with the toy. Cy Shneider, the former ad executive who worked on the original Barbie campaigns, recognized her unique attraction as a doll who's character children could identify with: "'Somehow Barbie filled a very special need for little girls' imaginations. SHe was the fulfilment of every little girl's dream of glamour, fame, wealth, and stardom'"(Kline, 1993: 170).

While vacationing in Switzerland in 1955, Ruth Handler happened upon an 11.5 inch doll with a blond ponytail, pouty lips and a seductive glance. "Lilli" was a figure in a bawdy German cartoon, a symbol of illicit sex that was sculpted into a doll form but never intended for children. She was a pornographic charicature, a gag gift for men.
Handler was oblivious to the doll's naughty reputation, she saw in her a body shape that she'd been intrigued with for years (Stearns & Vardell, 1998). She got the idea watching her teenage daughter, Barbara play with more mature paper dolls that were not the playmate or baby type. Handler brought three dolls back to the U.S. and Mattel's designers went to work to create Barbie, a toned down version of Lilli, but still a sexed-up form that retained the German doll's womanly shape (Lord, 1994: 29-30). Handler saw the prospect of creating a fashion doll and knew that exaggerated proportions would allow her clothes designers to create and sell and endless line of stylish doll clothes and accessories.

Barbie hit the markets in 1959, adorned in a black-and-white striped bathing suit and stiletto heels. Her eyes were painted with black eyeliner and her ears adorned with pearl hoops. At $3, she was priced to sell - and she did, exceeding 350,000 units in the first
year. Mattel enlisted the help of psychologist Ernst Dichter to ensure consumers that this toy with breasts and an insatiable lust for clothes, and he quelled the buying public by indentifying Barbie as a teaching tool, a toy that would endow young girls with the skills to attract anc catch a man. She immediately met opposition from those who felt as an voluptuous, scantily-clothed emblem of female sexuality, she was yet another example of the objectification of women's bodies. Despite adults condemnation of Barbie's overt sexuality, young girls were instantly hooked. "She was a teenage fashion model, and the world was her runway" (Lord, 1994: 41). Part of her ability to endure stems from the impassioned reactions from adults and children alike.

Barbie's multiple meanings can not erase her primary identification as a toy. Mattel kept itself constantly aware of the play patterns of young girls, at one point they segmented the market which assured Barbie's steady sales. By introducing dolls with different themes for each major play pattern - the "hairplay" doll that came with styling equipment; a "lifestyle" doll that came with sporting gear; and a "glamour" doll that came with an extravagant dress - Mattel encouraged girls to own more than one doll and could sell them at higher prices because the costumes were sold on the dolls. As her identity as a toy became diversified, her accoutrements increased exponentially, and her popularity soared, Barbie reminded the world of the character doll's ability to represent a fantasy world beyond the ordinary roles and rituals of everyday life.

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This site created and maintained by Gretchen Sund.
Last updated May 12, 2001