Why Barbie is still a hit in the age of female empowerment

From the moment she was introduced in 1959, Barbie proved controversial. Her creator, a feisty California businesswoman named Ruth Handler, based the toy on a German sex doll named Lilli. Her husband, with whom she ran Mattel, then a doll-furniture company, thought she was crazy. Parents saw the figurine’s shapely proportions, which in real life would have measured a fantastical 36-18-38, and moaned that they were made for men, not little girls, and said Barbie was immoral.

Girls loved her nonetheless. Mattel sold 300,000 in her first year.

And despite the cartoonish proportions, the doll came to represent not pornographic male fantasies but female empowerment.

“Before Barbie, pretty much the only dolls that were available at that time were baby dolls — because most women at that time only became moms,” said Cindy Eagan, author of “The Story of Barbie and the Woman Who Created Her.” With Barbie, girls could play-act their futures not as mothers, but as career gals.

“The message of Barbie and her paraphernalia was very much the message of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book ‘Sex and the Single Girl,’” M.G. Lord, author of “Forever Barbie,” told The Post. “She encouraged girls’ not just sexual autonomy but financial autonomy, because from the get-go she always came with some sort of equipment for earning a living.”

Early “equipment” included tweed skirt suits, geek-chic glasses, sturdy clutches and — by 1965 — an astronaut’s helmet. Handler did reluctantly introduce boyfriend Ken in 1961 but made him as anodyne as possible: a disposable accessory to Barbie’s already-full life. “She was a proto-feminist,” said Lord.

But as the new movie, “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie,” now streaming on Hulu, points out, Barbie’s body image has lagged behind her career pursuits. Originally, her impossibly tiny waist and bodacious bosom echoed the Christian Dior hourglass silhouettes that dominated 1950s fashion. But even as her clothes and hair changed with the times, her Playmate figure stubbornly remained.

“Barbie is [and has been] a reflection of her time,” said Andrea Nevins, director of “Tiny Shoulders.” Take 1965’s Slumber Party Barbie, who came with a bubblegum-pink night robe, a bathroom scale permanently set at 110 pounds and a diet book titled “How to Lose Weight” (the flip side offered a two-word prescription: “Don’t eat”).

In 1971, Barbie went through her first radical cosmetic change: Her eyes, at first demurely cast down, now looked straight ahead.

Unfortunately, that same year her breasts actually got bigger — but moms seemingly revolted. In 1972, sales of Barbie declined for the first time since her introduction.
“The movement against her began during the women’s movement,” said Nevins. “This very static version of femininity [that Barbie represented] became something that feminists felt was holding them back.”

Barbie introduced at least a degree of diversity before many other toys. Her black friend, Christie, was introduced in 1968, and the first African-American Barbie arrived in 1980. And yet her proportions remained unrealistic. Even when a workout Barbie was added in the ’80s, her body retained its absurd shape.

“They were afraid of messing with the formula,” said Lord.

After decades of tiny tweaks — including a breast reduction and waist expansion in 2004 — Barbie now comes in a variety of skin tones and sizes. In 2016, Mattel launched tall, petite and curvy versions. But there are still missteps. When the company debuted its line of Inspiring Women Barbies on March 8 — International Women’s Day — social media flared up over a Frida Kahlo doll that failed to include the artist’s signature unibrow and one based on boxer Nicola Adams that boasted woefully, comically waifish arms.

Still, Barbie has proved her adaptability time and time again — global sales of the doll were up 24 percent in the first quarter of 2018.

“Like many successful women, Barbie has had like 150 careers and done so much,” she said. “But we’re still talking about her looks.”

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