Barbie has been an important part of the toy fashion doll market for nearly fifty years, and has been the subject of numerous controversies and lawsuits, often involving parody of the doll and her lifestyle. In recent years, Barbie has faced increasing competition from the Bratz range of dolls.

The doll was the brain child of Ruth Handler who had noticed that when her daughter, Barbara, played with her dolls often enjoyed gave them adult roles, this despite the fact that most dolls at that time were representations of infants. Thinking that there might be a gap in the market she 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.

While in Germany 1956 Handler came across German toy doll called Bild Lilli. This was an adult-figured doll exactly as Handler envisaged. She purchased three of them, giving one to her daughter and taking the others back to Mattel.

She reworked the design of the doll and as with the German doll she designed a range of clothes and accessories with which the dolls could be outfitted. The doll, christened Barbie after Handler’s daughter, 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 but it wasn’t until six months later that the dolls went on general sale.

The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette. The doll was marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model,” with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese home-workers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year.

Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, but early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll’s chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie’s appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll’s eyes were adjusted to look forwards rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model.

Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising, which has been copied widely by other toys. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.

The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 1/6th scale, which is also known as “play scale”. Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a huge range of Barbie branded goods such as books, fashion items and video games. Barbie has appeared in a series of animated films and makes a brief guest appearance in the 1999 film Toy Story 2.

Barbie’s popularity ensures that her effect on the play of Western children attracts a high degree of scrutiny. The criticisms levelled at her are often based on the assumption that children consider Barbie a role model and will attempt to emulate her.

The word Barbie has come to be used as a derogatory slang term for a girl or woman who is considered shallow, most notably in the 1997 pop song Barbie Girl.

Barbie has been banned in some Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia where it was claimed that she “did not conform to the ideals of Islam”. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful”.

The enduring story of Barbie is of a superb marketing campaign and proves the saying that no publicity is bad publicity. Whatever the critics say, little girls still love their Barbies!

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