What does an American Barbie doll have to do with the German “Bild” newspaper? Well, in the first issue of “Bild” in June 1952, a cartoon character named Lilli appeared. This was young, blond, long-legged, sexy and the work of the cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien. The adventures of Lilli, which often served typical blonde clichés, were so well received by the readers that the editors decided after some time to have a doll produced – initially as an advertising medium for the “Bild” newspaper.
She was modeled by Max Weißbrodt from the company O. & M. Hausser in Neustadt near Coburg. From 1955 onwards, the hard plastic doll could be purchased by anyone and around 130,000 were sold by 1959. That was a lot considering most post-war households were short on gadgets. However, the dolls were not usually bought for children, but rather served advertising and decorative purposes.
Discovered by Mattel co-founder’s wife
Ruth Handler, wife of Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler, discovered a Lilli doll in a shop window in Lucerne on a trip to Switzerland in 1957. She bought the doll, which is about 30 centimeters tall and has a blonde ponytail, and brought it to her daughter Barbara. She was enthusiastic and quickly began to give the doll a new haircut and dress it differently.
This encouraged Ruth Handler to revisit the idea of a mannequin doll that her husband already had
declined in the early 1950s. Her husband, who had been making and selling toys of all kinds since 1945, including dolls and doll houses, believed that the production would be too expensive. He also believed that girls prefer to cuddle dolls rather than dress them. Daughter Barbara proved the opposite and so Mattel planned their own mannequin doll. The daughter’s nickname was “Barbie”, which is why the project name “Barbie” came about. Everyone liked it so much that it stayed that way when the product was presented to the public for the first time in 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York. However, Mattel had not acquired any licenses, especially since neither the German manufacturer nor the Axel Springer publishing house had secured the corresponding rights in the USA.
Barbie delighted young girls
The product was not a hit at the fair. It was only in retail that it was the children – mostly young girls – who begged their parents to buy a Barbie doll. What was brilliant about this product from a marketing point of view was that you could always buy new clothes and other accessories. This created an entire Barbie world with a dynamic demand for more content. In 1961, “Barbie’s friend” Ken was added, named after Barbara Handler’s brother. Mattel was totally surprised by the enormous demand and couldn’t keep up with the production. New production capacities had to be created quickly.
Although the American Barbie no longer had much in common with the German Lilli, there were legal conflicts, the amount of which was kept secret, but which continued to grow with the world success. Only in 1964 did Mattel come to an agreement with O. & M. Hausser and thus also received the exclusive rights, so that after that there was no longer a German Lilli to buy. Regardless of the Barbie boom, “Bild” had already discontinued the comic series in the newspaper in 1961.
Long served gender clichés – now “politically correct”
In the decades that followed, Mattel expanded the portfolio to include other characters, such as Barbie’s sister “Shelly” and her African-American friend “Christie”. Barbie is now available with seven different skin tones, even with a Muslim hijab and in a wheelchair. Since 2016 there have also been different body shapes, for example with more hips and shorter legs.
Ken is now also available with different skin and hair colors, even with a bun, only the primary sexual characteristics are missing from Ken from the start. This is probably more due to American prudery than to an early form of non-binary political correctness. Because until the end there was a lot of criticism, starting with the use of traditional gender clichés. However, since the “Barbie” brand has been committed to fighting racism and promoting diversity, it has been widely regarded as “politically correct”.