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National Review Online


Thank Barbie for Britney

May 03, 2002

By Kay S. Hymowitz

She's not that innocent.

Ruth Handler, legendary founder of Mattel Toys and creator of Barbie, the company's most successful product, died last week, thereby prompting the most urgent cultural debate since Botox made the headlines. Was Barbie, as feminists said, poisonous for young girls' self-image and the cause of an epidemic of anorexia and bulimia? Or was she—as conservatives insisted, taking the view that "the enemy of my feminist enemy is my friend"—simply good childhood fun?

Actually, both sides are wrong. Barbie may not have prompted a national crisis in female self-esteem, but she's no innocent either. The vampy fashion doll helped to bring about the sexualization of childhood, evidence of which is everywhere today. In truth, Barbie is the not-so-spiritual godmother of Britney Spears.

To understand this point, you need to consider Barbie's origins. Up until 1959, the year of Barbie's birth, little girls spent a lot of their time burping and feeding the pudgy baby dolls that were a mainstay of the toy market. But sometime in the late 1950's, during a European trip with her daughter, Ruth Handler stumbled across "Lilli," a popular German doll. A hard-nosed businesswoman, Handler was not especially troubled that Lilli was modeled on—and I'm not making this up—a cartoon prostitute. Nor was she evidently perturbed by the fact that Lilli was sold in bars and tobacco shops to grown-up men who evidently were taken with her tight (removable) sweater and short (removable) skirt.

But even without knowing the doll's scandalous past, many parents were less than thrilled once Barbie hit American stores. In fact, marketing researchers found that mothers hated Barbie. They thought she was too grown up for their four- to twelve-year-old daughters, the doll's target market. Before being redesigned with a sunnier California look, Barbie was sold in a sultry leopard-skin bathing suit, sunglasses, and with what looked like collagen-enhanced lips. Mothers had good reason to suspect she was meant to be a swinger—a kind of Playboy for little girls. After all, she had her own Playboy Mansion, called "Barbie's Dream House." She had a flashy car and a sexy wardrobe. God knows what she was doing on those make-believe dates their daughters quickly began arranging for her.

Still, Mattel wasn't overly worried about what mothers thought, because the company had just developed a brilliant new advertising strategy that all but bypassed parents. Previously, toy manufacturers, who rarely advertised anyway, never hawked their wares directly to kids. But in the late 1950's, Ruth and Eliot Handler gambled their company's entire net worth on an advertising slot during The Mickey Mouse Club. The risk paid off big time: The first product to be given its own TV ad, the "Burp Gun" (don't ask), was a phenomenal success. Barbie came next; little girls immediately grasped her faintly forbidden allure and went on a "Buy me!" rampage.

Between her sexy look and her TV appearances, Barbie, then, marked a big turning point in American childhood. It's not that no one had ever tried to make a buck off kids before. But up until Barbie, manufacturers and advertisers generally respected the prevailing cultural view about both the vulnerability of children and their subordination to their parents. Ruth Handler helped to change all that. As those disapproving mothers well understood, Barbie invited girls to identify not with mom but with their hormonal and independent older teenaged sisters. Television further fueled the fantasy of teen sophistication and independence by speaking directly to kids, and sometimes trying to sell them things their parents might disapprove of. It didn't happen right away, but over time children's television increasingly hyped the teenager as the childhood ideal: Think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Blossom, and Sesame Street's rock-and-rolling muppets. By the 1980s, bewildered parents began to see the emergence of the tween—eight- to twelve-year-olds who look (and in some cases act) like teenagers. Today's eight-year-old girls want their MTV, and demand their belly shirts and lip gloss. Even six-year-olds are Britney wannabes.

This herstory makes moot the question of whether or not you should let your girls play with Barbie. When they were little, my own daughters had so many dolls that my living-room floor often looked like an Omaha Beach of half-naked Barbies (and Barbie heads and arms). But that phase doesn't last very long. The irony for Mattel is that, today, no self-respecting seven-year-old would be caught dead playing with a Barbie. Who needs a doll when you can play the teen vamp yourself?

Original Source:



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