The Dark Side of Barbie

On my birthday in 1959 I turned 13 years old. Far too sophisticated an age to request a doll. I don’t remember exactly what presents I got that year, but it was probably mostly clothes and jewelry, along with perhaps a portable record player like this one to play my burgeoning collection of Everly Brothers 45s.

record player

Yes, I was way too old to pay any attention to the New Girl on the Block who debuted at the New York Toy Fair that year and soon dominated the ads on TV. But if I’d been just a couple of years younger, I would no doubt have jumped on the bandwagon to nag my parents that I absolutely had to have my own Barbie, the fascinating new “teen fashion” doll in the zebra-striped swim suit. And that would have led to years of acquiring additions for her ever-growing wardrobe of the latest fashions.

In my younger years I had owned several plastic “fashion dolls,” including one dressed in a royal gown like the Queen of England. But under the glamorous fashions, the dolls’ naked plastic bodies did not look like the bodies of the kind of adult women that would have worn such clothes. The bodies were basically “pre-adolescent”…no curves of any kind.

And then along came Barbie.

How, you may wonder, did the toy industry jump in one giant leap from flat-chested girlish dolls to big-bosomed Barbie? She could have been fashioned to imitate the “wholesome” look and gentle curves of some of the popular teen/young adult stars of the day such as Debbie Reynolds in 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor. (She was 25 years old at the time, although portraying a seventeen-year-old young woman in this movie.)


But no. Instead we had a doll who looked much more like Sophia Loren (as in this 1957 pic from the movie The Pride and the Passion, when she also was 25 years old.)


Not just the large bosom and tiny waist either…they managed to capture the sultry face too, with its bright red pouty lips and eyes coyly glancing off to the side rather than right at you as you would expect a doll to do.

sophia barbie

Just who at the Mattel Corporation came up with this quirky soft-porn idea for what quickly became the All-American doll, and why?

The answer to that question takes us back several years before 1959…and far away from America.

Every American who has ever been to a grocery store in the US is familiar with weekly “tabloid papers” like the National Enquirer. You can’t go through the check-out lane without having racks of these outrageous publications shoved in your face, with screaming headlines about celebrities and scandals and secrets.


What you may not realize is that tabloids are a world-wide phenomenon. And have been for a very long time. Including in Germany.

Post-World War II Germany was a pretty bleak place. So publishing entrepreneur Axel Springer decided to liven things up with a new daily newspaper, tabloid-style, that he titled Die Bild-Zeitung. (German for The Photo Newspaper.) With a heavy dose of over-hyped news, under-dressed young women, celebrity scandals and gossip, and general smut and sleaze, the publication became wildly popular. And is to this day. Currently selling four million copies a day, it is the best-selling non-Asian daily newspaper in the world.  The more serious and respectable Der Spiegel weekly magazine had this to say in 2006 about Bild:

Axel Springer founded Bild in 1952, took lessons from the British [tabloid] Daily Mirror, and watched his readership grow fat on a diet of celebrity-bashing, populism and scandal. And, of course, well-endowed, poorly clothed babes. Whereas the Mirror relegates the flesh to page three, Bild slaps them on the front page just below the fold accompanied by a short story. Tuesday’s nugget: “Natasha Prepares for Spring.” “Finally, the moment has come,” reads the caption accompanying the photo of an improbably big-breasted blonde staring alluringly into the camera. “From now on, Natasha is only leaving the house ‘with nothing underneath.’ The tickle is so exciting — right down to her little toe. It feels so light and sexy. And gets one ready for the open-air season.”

And it takes a lot of news to bump the front page girl off the front page. When Angela Merkel won the chancellorship from Gerhard Schröder at the end of 2005, the Page One Girl stayed put. [Source]

And don’t misunderstand … although the Bild has always featured scantily-clad women, it goes far beyond what American readers at the check-out aisle are used to. Censorship of nudity in public places in Germany is much less stringent than in the US. From 1984 to 2012, all but a handful of Bild issues featured a front page photo of a totally topless model. More than 5000 over the years. (Not sure why they quit in 2012, but as I understand it, all you need to do now is turn the page to get an eyeful.)


The Bild was risqué right from the beginning. And not just in photos. Early in the first year of publication, Springer wanted some filler material for an issue and requested staff artist Reinhard Beuthien to draw a one- panel cartoon to do the job. The rest is history.

He drew a cute baby, but his boss didn’t like it. So he kept the face, added a ponytail and a curvy woman’s body and called his creation “Lilli”.


She sat in a fortune-teller’s tent asking: “Can’t you tell me the name and address of this rich and handsome man?” The cartoon was an immediate success so Beuthien had to draw new ones each day.

Lilli was post-war, sassy and ambitious and had no reservations talking about sex. As she had her own job she earned her own money as a secretary but wasn’t above hanging out with rich men (“I could do without balding old men but my budget couldn’t!”). The cartoon always consisted of a picture of Lilli talking to girlfriends, boyfriends, her boss (“As you were angry when I was late this morning I will leave the office at five p.m. sharp!”). The quips underneath the cartoons handled topics ranging from fashion (to a policeman who told her that two-piece-swimsuits are banned: “Which piece do you want me to take off?”), politics (“Of course I’m interested in politics; no one should ignore the way some politicians dress!”) and even the beauty of nature (“The sunrise is so beautiful that I always stay late at the nightclub to see it!”).   [Wiki]

lillicartoon4 lillicartoon3 lillicartoon2

The Lilli cartoons were wildly popular, no doubt particularly with the male readership of Bild. So to capitalize on this popularity, as an advertising gimmick, the Bild management decided to market a 3-dimensional version of Lilli. The first attempt at this was a solid plastic figurine attached to a suction cup by a wire. In other words, like a modern “bobble-head” that you’d stick on a dashboard. This Lilli had a tight black sheath skirt, strapless top, her signature pony tail and forehead curl…and thumb stuck out in a hitch-hiking position.


Hitch-hiker Lilli didn’t sell very well. So they decided next to try a more fully-articulated doll. No, not a doll to sell in toy shops to little girls…a doll to sell in bars and tobacco shops and on newsstands, to adults as a “gag gift.”


I suppose they’d have been popular gifts or party favors for “stag parties.” Some guys no doubt used them as “mascots,” such as these smiling pilots.


A modern version in the 21st century would be sold, I suppose, in Spencer’s Gifts in the malls, next to the other “novelty sex toys.” Clothes were not originally sold separately, but she did have a wardrobe that varied…you’d just buy a new doll if you wanted a different outfit, I guess. Like these fairly modest ones.


Or these far-less-fairly-modest ones.



Later young German girls started nagging their parents to get Lilli as an actual “fashion doll” for the playroom, since there was nothing else like her on the market. And thus the toy maker decided to start marketing separate clothing outfits and accessories.

By now I would suppose you are guessing where this story is going. If you are too young to have seen the “original” Barbie, it might not be QUITE so obvious. But if you were around in 1959 to see the very first Mattel super star, here’s what you’d remember.

first barbie

And if you saw the first Lilli in 1955, here is what you would remember.


Uh-huh. There seems to be a distinct common Doll DNA going on here!


The ads made the connection even clearer.


Yes, the most famous All-American doll of all time is actually a VERY close reincarnation of a German sex toy.

Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children’s toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors.

During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, Ruth Handler came across a German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The adult-figured doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was a blonde bombshell, a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.

…Upon her return to the United States, Handler reworked the design of the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler’s daughter Barbara. The doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is also used as Barbie’s official birthday. [Source]

“Reworked the design” is a bit of an exaggeration. “Made a few tweaks” is more like it!

The body shapes are almost entirely indistinguishable, from the ridiculously tiny feet …



…to the ridiculously narrow waistline and the ridiculously over-endowed bosom.

And then there’s the skinny giraffe-like neck.


The faces are indeed a bit different…but more “cosmetically” than in the basics. Both have a broad forehead, a tiny chin (remember…the cartoon Lilli started out with the head of a baby, which is where you get such facial proportions), almost identical teensy noses, puckered red lips, arched eyebrows (Barbie’s are just “bent” a bit more), and almond-shaped eyes heavy on the shadow and eyeliner. And both refuse to look ya in the eye! They are both doing the sultry “sidelong glance” thing.


It was clear into the 1970s before Mattel even tweaked the Barbie head mold so that the doll actually looked forward instead of sideways! And relaxed the puckered lips to allow the hint of a smile and show some teeth.

eyes front

Although some might say that new look started out more of a glazed expression, a creepy “stare right through you” look than an attempt at friendliness for a change!

But at the end of the day, there is no question that Ruth Handler and the toymakers at Mattel ended up with a doll in 1959 that was easily at least a “first cousin” of Bild Lilli. They could have chosen to start from scratch and make a doll that resembled the proportions and look of a real human teenager or young adult woman. Someone recently created just such a fashion doll. Here’s what the “Lammily Doll” looks like. [Read more about her on the Lammily website.]

lammily doll

After all, long before 1959 toymakers had bragged about how “lifelike” their baby dolls and toddler dolls were. Why would they not want to make a lifelike older doll, that a child might even be able to look to in a healthy way as a “role model” to emulate? But no, Handler decided to go with the totally unnatural…and hypersexual…Lilli look. With measurements based on nothing more than the sexual fetishes of some men…wasp waist, impossibly tiny feet, exaggerated bosom. And made-up not to look like the “average” American woman of the time, but like the average American hooker of the time!

Which got me to thinking. I have a daughter who was born in 1970. Although I held off as long as I could on agreeing to get her a Barbie doll, one of her grandmothers broke the impasse and started her down the Barbie Trail in 1977 with a Superstar Barbie for her birthday.


I have to admit at least by then the newest Barbie had a much more friendly and a much less sexual expression than the original 1959 Barbie…and than most of her incarnations for the first decade. She still had the freakishly unnatural body shape, but the smile was a definite improvement!

But what if Mattel decided to revisit Barbie’s Roots for her sixtieth anniversary coming up in 2019?  They could issue a collectible clone of the Lilli doll that started it all. And call it not “Superstar Barbie,” but…

Porn Star Barbie


[P.S. For some more thoughts on the implications of Barbie, check out the entry One Size Fits All on my StarrTrekking blog.)

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