The origins of Barbie–the most popular DOLL in the world in the last half of the twentieth century–can be traced to Lilli, originally a Das Bild comic strip character of a saucy blonde, later produced as a pornographic doll popular among bachelors in postwar Germany. While on a trip to Europe, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler discovered Lilli, the prototypical doll she believed would enable girls like her daughter, Barbie, to imagine their future selves in roles other than that of mothers. (Baby dolls dominated the postwar American toy market.) Male designers at Mattel modified the German sex toy into a teenage doll they encoded with the prevailing feminine ideals of both purity and prurience and a CONSUMER CULTURE ethos. The eleven-and-a-half inch Barbie doll and her extensive miniaturized haute couture wardrobe were marketed to stimulate consumer desire among America's youngest shoppers. In turn these shoppers proceeded to make Barbie the most successful product in the history of the toy industry.

Although one billion Barbie dolls had been sold by the early twenty-first century, the doll was not immediately popular with consumers and social critics. Controversy developed shortly after the doll's marketing debut in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair. Mattel's claims about the doll's "educational value" did not convince many mothers at the time who detested the doll's exalted femininity and scandalous sexuality. Barbie's seductive figure, suggestive look, and provocative wardrobe designed to attract the attention of men like her boyfriend Ken led feminists to condemn the doll for its sexual objectification of women. Social critics denounced the doll's materialism–as exemplified by her lavish lifestyle and shopping sprees–and the slavish consumerism it fostered in daughters of hard-working breadwinners. Although Barbie changed with the times from fashion model to career woman, many still pointed to the preoccupation with body image in girls whose beauty ideal was defined by Barbie's unrealistic physique. (She would be ten feet tall if she were real.) On the other hand, scholars and others have shown that girls and boys, children as well as adults, play with Barbie dolls in ways that contest gendered norms.

As a quintessential icon of American femininity, the Barbie doll has served as the focus of countless satirical artistic works, many of which, like The Distorted $arbie website, Mattel has tried to censor. A Barbie doll starred in Superstar (1987), a movie by Todd Haynes that traced the anorexic life and death of singer Karen Carpenter. The iconic Barbie has been printed on faux prayer cards and has been crucified on the cross. In 1993, the Barbie Liberation Organization switched the voice boxes of three hundred Barbies with those of G.I. Joes, leading the Barbies to bellow, "Eat lead, Cobra! Vengeance is mine!" and the perky G.I. Joes to chirp: "Let's go shopping!"

By the early twenty-first century the average American girl between the ages of three and eleven was said to own ten Barbie dolls (purchased at a rate of two Barbies every second). However, a high-priced market developed for the dolls among adult collectors. Among the numerous collectors and dealers who specialized in Barbie dolls, the Barbie Hall of Fame in Palo Alto, California, with its ten thousand Barbies, was the largest collection in the world.

See also: Girlhood; Toys; Theories of Play.


Boy, Billy. 1987. Barbie: Her Life and Times. New York: Crown.

Lord, M. G. 1994. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: William Morrow.

McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. 1999. The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. New York: Touchstone.