It doesn't seem possible, because she's still so young-looking and svelte, but Barbie turned 53 years old Friday. The star of Mattel Toys made her debut on March 9, 1959, at the American Toy Fair in New York City.
The folks at Mattel gave Barbie a full name (Barbie Millicent Roberts), a fictional hometown (Willows, Wisconsin) and a boyfriend (Ken, who first appeared in 1961), but it was always Barbie herself -- along with those endless outfits -- that held American girls in such thrall.
Five decades later, some 800 million Barbies have been sold here and around the world. Anyone that popular is going to invite controversy, and Barbie has seen her share. But at a time when Rush Limbaugh and the "Uterus Wars" are roiling our election-year politics, Barbie and her friends can teach us a thing or two.
The marketeers at Mattel have understood this demographic dynamic for a good long while. A Latina version of Barbie first appeared more than 30 years ago, and Barbie spoke Spanish as early as 1968, the year after her African-American friend, Francie, hit the toy shelves.
Barbie's WASP-ish ethnicity was never really the primary concern. The source of consternation among adults of a certain political persuasion centered on others facets of the doll, mainly her provocative little body and the rampant materialism implied by all those outfits and dream houses.
One didn't have to be a "bra-burning feminist," in the parlance of the day, to worry that Barbie's dimensions (it was estimated that, if she were life-sized, her measurements would be 36-18-38) might give young girls unrealistic expectations about how their bodies should look as they got older. Also, what was with all the designer clothes -- who could afford those?
There were effective rebuttals to both critiques, and they relate directly to American politics in 2012.
For starters, the idea for Barbie came to Ruth Handler, a co-founder of Mattel Inc. with her husband Elliot, by watching their daughter Barbara play with dolls. The girl and her friends gravitated toward adult paper dolls -- not baby dolls -- and Ruth theorized that little girls wanted to play with dolls that depicted kids older than themselves, not younger.
On a trip to Europe in the mid-1950s, Ruth saw just such a doll and bought three of them -- one for Barbara and two for her toy designers at Mattel.
Although Ruth didn't know it, this doll was named Bild-Lilly, and she originated from a racy cartoon character in the German newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilly was a saucy, post-war secretary who didn't mind using her feminine wiles -- and her figure -- to get what she wanted in strapped post-war Germany. And what she wanted, mostly, was a good time, and good clothes. Various feminist writers have called Lilly "slutty," a term I would not use -- and I'll bet Rush Limbaugh wouldn't either. But you could say that Lilly was the original Material Girl.
A German toy company licensed a Lilly doll, which was originally sold as kind of a gag gift in tobacco shops for German men. But German husbands had German little girls at home, and it soon became apparent -- as Ruth Handler had noticed in Southern California -- that girls preferred this kind of doll. And so the Handlers and their engineers, along with a tall and attractive fashion designer named Charlotte Johnson, schlepped to Japan to see about getting their vision of the doll mass produced.
The Japanese manufacturers must have been taken with the statuesque American woman in their midst because the finished product looked more like Charlotte Johnson than Bild-Lilly. In any event the rest is toy-making -- and advertising -- history.
The answer to angst about Barbie's killer body was in the marketing: Mattel sponsored a new TV show, "The Mickey Mouse Club." What could be more wholesome -- and less like Bild-Lilly -- than Disney? Besides, kids loved the doll, clamored for the doll, and as American parents were learning in post-war America, child consumers were becoming as relentless as Patton's Third Army.
As for the materialistic aspect of Barbie, here the critics were also outflanked. Yes, she started as a teenage fashion model in a bathing suit and was once programmed to say, "Math class is tough." And yes she was marketed in any manner of settings, from stewardess to nurse, that required new clothes and new dolls.
But among those models was a Miss Astronaut Barbie (in 1965, when Sally Ride was 14 years old), Barbie the Olympic Athlete (1975, before Title IX regulations were adopted by the federal government), Barbie, Ambassador for Peace (1986, exactly 10 years before Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state), Marine Corp Officer Barbie (in 1991, a year before Gunnery Sergeant Melody Naatz became the first female to don the flat brimmed "Smokey Bear" as a Marine drill instructor), and a Barbie for President (in 1992 when Hillary Clinton was seeking the position as first lady).
In other words, Barbie was never a baby, but she's come a long way -- and so have the kids who grew up with her.