Barbie @60

Deccan Chronicle.  | Kaushik Bhowmik

Sunday Chronicle, cover story

Barbie transcended ethnic and colour barriers too, to make the non-white people identify with her.

While most know Barbie as a global phenomenon and a multi-million dollar business for the Mattel toy company, a lesser known fact is that the iconic doll, which turned 60 this year, was the brainchild of Ruth Marianna Mosko, the youngest of ten siblings born in 1916 in Denver, Colorado into a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants.

While most know Barbie as a global phenomenon and a multi-million dollar business for the Mattel toy company, a lesser known fact is that the iconic doll, which turned 60 this year, was the brainchild of Ruth Marianna Mosko, the youngest of ten siblings born in 1916 in Denver, Colorado into a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants. At 19, she moved to Los Angeles and married her high school sweetheart, Elliot Handler, an artistic young man. Not only did they jointly set up the Mattel company during World War II, but the visionary Ruth also designed Barbie to be a role model for her daughter and other young girls. Spurring both criticism and copycats since making her debut in 1959, Barbie has remained in the spotlight through seasons of change and popularity, and easily remains one of the most recognisable brand names in the world, writes Kaushik Bhowmik.

Way back in the 50s, a meagerly earning American stenographer named Ruth Handler, while watching her daughter play with dolls, thought of one. Years later, Barbie was born — a doll made to give a purpose of life to young girls. Ruth Marianna Mosko

In May this year, when famed Indian-Hollywood cine star Deepika Padukone emerged at the MET Gala 2019 event at the Museum of Arts in the US, she mesmerised the world in her Barbie avatar — pompously attired in Zac Posen’s pink coloured strapless metallic lurex jacquard gown embellished with 3D printed embroidered pieces. Her actor hubby Ranveer Singh went gaga over his wife, showered endearments on her Instagram pictures and urged her, “Come on Barbie, let’s go party”, picking up the line from the popular 1997 track Barbie Girl by Aqua.

Barbie, though, is not all looks nor a party partner alone. There’s more to her that’s set to inspire.

Bringing a purpose to life
In fact, was a plaything ever designed to influence people? Way back in the 50s, a meagerly earning American stenographer named Ruth Handler, while watching her daughter play with dolls, thought of one. Years later, Barbie was born — a doll made to give a purpose of life to young girls.

Rachel Evans Barbie

In the last six decades since her launch, Barbie has exuded dynamism — changing looks and professions from time to time, and sending out a clear signal to girls to exercise their freedom in shaping their lives and do anything that they wish to.

Emerging in her hourglass like figure, on high heels and a strapless monochrome striped swimsuit, over the course of time, Barbie has sported a variety of body shapes, skin tones, hairstyles and even eye colours. She has also traversed some 200 different career profiles, spanning from astronaut to entrepreneur to UNICEF volunteer. Barbie represents a heady dash of both beauty and brains.

Stefano Canturi Barbie

At the time when Ruth designed this iconic fashion toy, she was probably confident that little girls would imagine themselves to be all round professionals like Barbie when they grew up.

Down the ages
Born in 1959, when Barbie began toddling up to the American shelves in the 60s, she became an instant hit with look-a-likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the First Lady of the United States. Barbie has since then only continued to evolve.

Through the 70s and 80s, Barbie displayed a plump look with chubby face. A happy and smiling Barbie emerged in 1976 with big wide eyes and long lashes, having done away with those stern heavy lids she flaunted in the 60s. In the 90s and 2000s, Barbie got even more stylish with her pink lips.

American movie star Paris Hilton got herself a $200,000 priced GT Bentley Continental car and splashed pink paint on its exterior and the wheels to make her dream car look much like Barbie’s.

While Barbie enticed onlookers with her beauty, she also carried the vision of her creator in her stride. For instance, by becoming an astronaut four years before Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969. Barbie not only stole away the imagination of young girls but also their mothers who dreamt of seeing their daughters grow up to be attractive and successful professionals like Barbie.

And Ruth’s doll ably kept up to their aspirations. Teenage girls clamoured to have one in their laps and parents did not mind pampering their little ones with the doll.

Dipa Karmakar

Barbie transcended ethnic and colour barriers too, to make the non-white people identify with her. While the storefronts showcased blonde and brunette Barbies, in 1980, the first African-American version was introduced.

She even motivated people with handicaps and helped to fight the stigma around physical disabilities, when recently, she appeared in her prosthetic limbs and on-wheelchair avatar.

Ruth’s doll started her life with her real name — Barbara Millicent ‘Barbie’ Roberts — in the books on her life published by Random House, which, in no time contracted to the world famous nickname ‘Barbie’. In the book, Barbie was the elder of her three siblings — sister Skipper and twins Tutti and Todd — and lived with George (engineer father) and Margaret (housewife mother) in the fictional town of Willows in Wisconsin, US. Like small girls her age, Barbie attended the Willows High School which, with the change of the book’s publisher, converted to Manhattan International High School in New York City.

Beginnings of Barbie
Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Marianna Mosko, and went on to become a phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar business. Ruth, born in 1916 in Denver, Colorado into a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants, was the youngest of 10 siblings. When she was 19, she moved to Los Angeles and married her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler, an artistic young man.

During World War II, the Handlers started a company, Mattel, in their small backyard garage, combining Elliot’s name with the last name of their partner, Harold Matson. On weekends, Elliot would make toy furniture for Ruth to sell.

By the mid-1940s, the young company was raking in revenues to the tune of $ 2 million. However, Matson sold off his shares and the Handlers took full control of Mattel. Borrowing additional money from A. P. Giannini’s Bank of America, Mattel began manufacturing plastic ukulele toys, toy pianos, and launched a music box that sold 20 million units by 1952.

A role model for little girls
Engaged in her toy business, Ruth Handler had an interesting observation. Her young daughter, Barbara and her girlfriends preferred playing with adult female dolls over the baby versions.

Ruth, a visionary and progressive woman of her time, sensed that it was important for girls to imagine the way they would like to grow up and realise what motherhood would be like by way of caring for children. “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” Handler later said in a 1977 New York Times interview.

Ruth kept mulling over creating a life-like three-dimensional adult female doll.

Deepika at MET event

In 1956, the Handlers went on a trip to Europe with their two teenagers — Barbara and Ken. They came across a German made 3-D adult looking doll, Bild Lilli — created after a sassy, curvaceous and free-spirited secretary named Lilli — a character in a popular German comic — exactly what Ruth had fancied.

Ruth felt such a doll could help her children extend their fantasies of adult life onto play items. Ruth purchased one and started thinking of creating a doll like Lilli.

Encountering roadblocks
Returning to the US, Ruth pitched her idea to the ad executives at the Mattel company. Initially, the male dominated committee nixed her idea on the pretext of cost effectiveness and low market potential. In her 1994 autobiography Dream Doll, Ruth wrote: “The reluctance stemmed mostly from the fact that the doll would have breasts.”

But Ruth remained undaunted. She hired marketing psychologist Ernst Dichter to explore whether Barbie with breasts would stop parents from buying their girls the doll. Dichter surveyed girls and their mothers and came up with a revolutionary advice: make them bigger!

An overnight sensation!

Ruth went against the dominance of the male bastion in her organisation and improvised on not only her entrepreneurial vision but also Barbie’s design. Mattel finally cleared her proposal. Ruth started working on designing a doll that would resemble Lilli and hired a designer to make realistic doll clothes.

Three years later, Mattel released Barbie — named in honor of the Handlers’ daughter Barbara — which premiered at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. Unlike the baby dolls that were popular at the time, this was a doll with an adult physique. It turned out to be an overnight sensation, selling 351,000 units priced at $3 each in its first year alone.

Mattel, with a valuation of $10 million within a year of its inception, went public, became a Fortune 500 company, bought up the rights for Bild Lilli with all its associated patents and shut down its production.

Barbie’s popularity, since then, has continued to soar unbridled. In 1965, Mattel released a model sporting bendable legs and blinking eyes. Two years later, a Twist ‘N’ Turn Barbie hit the stores with a movable body that twisted at the waist. The best-selling model of all times was the Totally Hair Barbie of 1992, which had hair from the top of her head to her toes.

Ruth Handler invented a fashion trendsetter that caught the fancy of women of diverse ages and profiles and refashioned not only Mattel but also the entire toy industry.

The doll, from the history of her dresses, various facial makeovers at different times, professional, political, and charitable dispositions, and in the multi-culturalisation of her product line, mirrored an ever-changing society.

With Barbie, Mattel continued to be a market leader throughout the 60s.

The company’s stocks skyrocketed. Mattel’s $ 10 share price in 1960 awed investors as it zoomed past $ 500 in a span of eleven years and gave an impressive return of 14 percent on investment.

Facing flak
However, almost since her inception, the 11 and a half inch Barbie had to face a lot of fire. Much of the criticism was targeted at the dolls’ physical proportions, which many accused, gave young girls an unrealistic idea of the female form.

Extended to human scale, Barbie would measure 39-18-33, which appeared an incredible body proportion to the critics.

In 1971, Mattel implemented certain physical alterations, and redesigned the doll’s mold with a wider waistline and reduced bust.

The controversy, nevertheless, persisted. Critics kept blaming Barbie for her other body image issues like anorexia and plastic surgery addictions. Feminists derided the early Barbie for being dressed up as either a housewife or a party girl and an item that reinforced sexism. Mattel’s efforts at introducing Barbie’s diverse group of friends was also not well accepted.

Ruth Handler, who designed this iconic fashion toy, with her husband Elliot Handler, and their kids. Not only did the Handlers jointly set up the Mattel company during World War II, but the visionary Ruth also designed Barbie to be a role model for her daughter and other young girls.

All these resulted in a major decline in Mattel’s global sales. Between 2012-14, the company’s global sales fell by 20 percent.

Changing with the times
To arrest the fall, Mattel embarked on a new strategy. It came up with the ‘Fashionistas’ lineup, in which Barbie got a “real-world makeover”, with seven skin tones, double a dozen hairstyles and 22 odd eye colours, aimed at making the toy “more reflective of the world girls see around them”.

This collection was promoted through the launch of Barbie’s ongoing programme called ‘Shero’ — an initiative dedicated to releasing dolls representative of real-life female role models who have shattered glass ceilings and made a niche for themselves.

To jack up sales, in 2016, Mattel again made changes in Barbie’s physique, and unveiled three different body sizes — curvy, tall and petite — for the first time in its history, a landmark moment for the brand.

Despite the many hurdles, the brand, valued at $2 billion now, has survived and become the most successful product line in the annals of toy industry.

Barbie makeovers
Rachel Evans, 48, media personality from the UK, is obsessed with the ‘frozen’ look of Barbie. With her recent 150th surgery, she has spent over £ 32,000 just to look like the doll. To pursue her “human Barbie journey”, Rachel had a boob jack-up, nose job, lip fillers, jaw tightening, cheek augmentation and an eye lift, as well as top-ups of fillers and Botox apart from hitting the gym five times a week.

Kerry Miles, with 100k Instagram followers, is yet another surgery-obsessed “Barbie”, who has spent £100,000 to look like a human doll. This beauty therapist, who was bullied for her flat chest, first started fashioning herself on a plastic Barbie look in 2010. She went for a facial makeover, fake tan, hair extensions, teeth whitening, manicures, pedicures, fake eyelashes and expensive designer clothes and lives on a diet of chicken, rice and tuna. Miles runs up to eight miles a day to maintain Barbie’s slim figure and believes that every woman should be like Barbie and that if they don't, they are not doing things right.

Similarly, Lacey Wildd, an American reality television personality frequently referred to as “Million Dollar Barbie” has also blown out $250,000 for her 12 breast augmentation surgeries to become ‘the extreme Barbie’.  

Another Ukrainian blonde, Valeria Lukyanova, has done everything to look like the doll. She spent five years molding her body into a life-size version of Barbie.

Real-life heroes
As Ruth, a fighter at heart and epitome of success passed away, she left back in her creation the legacy of promoting empowerment of women. Her company’s campaign tagline featured — You Can Be Anything.

On the 60th anniversary of Barbie, as part of their ongoing commitment to #CloseTheDreamGap project, Mattel honoured 20 women from 17 countries, who have broken boundaries and turned out to be “real-life heroes” for their contribution to their respective fields and the society. Each were presented with a Barbie modeled after their looks.

Deepa Karmakar, the Indian gymnast who participated in the Olympics and the Asian Games, made it to the list and was honoured with her very own Barbie doll that donned a full-sleeve red leotard displaying the bronze medal she earned in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

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