For the past several years, Mattel has put out an ‘Ordained Episcopalian Priest’ Barbie. Bizarre, cult-like, and kind of kinky (what’s she got on under there?), she’s still got ballistic missile-like breasts. She’s still got tiny little fin-like feet, still wouldn’t be able to run if she needed to, and would fall right over in a strong breeze. She’s got tiny little inept & helpless hands. Overall, she seems pretty obscene — the distorted victim of biological design flaws, profoundly anatomically incorrect, and deeply disturbing. A grotesquerie.
She is marketed thusly: “The 11.5-inch-tall fictional graduate [Barbie] of Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., has donned a cassock and surplice and is rector at St. Barbara’s-by-the-Sea in (where else?) Malibu, Calif. She arrived at the church fully accessorized, as is Barbie’s custom. Her impeccably tailored ecclesiastical vestments include various colored chasubles (the sleeveless vestments worn at Mass) for every liturgical season, black clergy shirt with white collar, neat skirt and heels, a laptop with prepared sermon and a miniature, genuine Bible. Apparently a devotee of the “smells and bells” of High Church tradition, the Rev. Barbie even has a tiny thurible, a metal vessel used for sending clouds of incense wafting toward heaven.” Heavy stuff for for a doll designed by a weapons designer, based on a sex toy originally marketed for men in 1950s Germany.
I’ve been commenting on this particularly militarized socio-sexual cultural irony to anyone who would listen for roughly 40 years, ever since the mid-70s, when I cottoned on to Barbie’s story. It always seemed hugely significant to me. I still tell the story every chance I get.
Barbie was designed by a moonlighting guided ballistic missile systems (Sparrow and Hawk missiles) designer for Raytheon, Jack Ryan, who ended the way he began (ballistically, by putting a gun to his head) after having assisted Mattel in buying the rights to and then burying the hooker-ish German made ‘Lilli Doll,’ which had originated as an adult sex toy ‘novelty’ for men, after ripping off her design. That’s why Barbie’s tits look vaguely ballistic, her physique dominantly phallic, if not overtly masculine with breasts sort of stuck on. She has wide shoulders, narrow hips, and no discernible vulva, and her overall silhouette (with the tiny fin feet and the tiny, pointy head) is actually that of a surface-to-air missile (SAM).
Ballistic breasts, narrow hips, wide shoulders, a sultry baby-face, with bright red pouty lips and sexy bedroom eyes coyly glancing off to the side rather than right at you as you would expect a child’s doll to do… Who at the Mattel Corporation came up with this vaguely homo-eroticized, ‘She-Male’-styled, quirky, soft-porn idea for what quickly became the All-American doll, and why?
Ruth Handler, the entrepreneurial daughter of Polish immigrants, stumbled across the Barbie blueprint — the adult, almost pornographic doll called Bild Lilli — during a holiday in Europe in 1956. Handler, the 39-year-old daughter of Polish immigrants — who ‘didn’t like dolls and never played with them’ as a child — founded a toy company in California with her husband, Elliot, and a family friend called Harold ‘Matt’ Matson. They called it Mattel by melding the two men’s names. The mild-mannered Matson didn’t last long with the ambitious Handler, however, and by 1955 he had been replaced by Ryan. Ryan, as Mattel’s chief designer, modelled Barbie on that sexy German doll, which he described as ‘looking like a hooker between performances.’ He knew American Barbie couldn’t be so provocative, so when the original production mould arrived in his office, Ryan filed the nipples off.
It was Ryan who came up with the technology that allowed the doll to move so flexibly, and who settled on her size and dimensions — inventions which he patented for himself in his role as ‘independent consultant.’ But, as Pamela Starr Dewey relates in her toy history article for her blog, AmeriPics: An American Family Album (‘The Dark Side of Barbie,’ Dec. 12, 2014), the answer to the question of Barbie’s true origins “takes us back several years before 1959…and far away from America.” In fact, it takes us all the way back to the start of trashy tabloids like The National Enquirer (Trump’s favourite ‘news’ publication), and Britain’s even trashier Sun, available at supermarket check-out counters and front and centre at news stands.
Dewy describes how, “Post-World War II Germany was a pretty bleak place. So publishing entrepreneur Axel Springer decided to liven things up with a new daily newspaper, tabloid-style, that he titled Die Bild-Zeitung. (German for The Photo Newspaper.) With a heavy dose of over-hyped news, under-dressed young women, celebrity scandals and gossip, and general smut and sleaze, the publication became wildly popular. And is to this day. Currently selling four million copies a day, it is the best-selling non-Asian daily newspaper in the world.”
Bild tabloid was risqué right from the start, and not just with the topless photos of buxom young women right on the front page. “Early in the first year of publication, Springer wanted some filler material for an issue and requested staff artist Reinhard Beuthien to draw a one- panel cartoon to do the job. The rest is history. He drew a cute baby, but his boss didn’t like it. So he kept the face [which explains the babyish proportions of the head and face on the adult figure], added a ponytail and a curvy woman’s body and called his creation “Lilli”. (Dewey)
“The Lilli cartoons were wildly popular, no doubt particularly with the male readership of Bild. So to capitalize on this popularity, as an advertising gimmick, the Bild management decided to market a 3-dimensional version of Lilli. The first attempt at this was a solid plastic figurine attached to a suction cup by a wire. In other words, like a modern “bobble-head” that you’d stick on a dashboard. This Lilli had a tight black sheath skirt, strapless top, her signature pony tail and forehead curl…and thumb stuck out in a hitch-hiking position.”
The hitch-hiking streetwalker bobble-dolls weren’t such great sellers, so Bild put out an actual doll with articulated limbs, one that you could get in various models, wearing different outfits. These were to be sold at news stands, sex shops, tobacconists, adult novelty stores and the like.
They were sold as popular gifts or party favours for “stag parties,” and were also found to be favoured “mascots” for dashboards, sports clubs, and locker rooms. Some of the Lilli Dolls were fairly modestly, though always sexily, attired — others considerably less so. A favourite outfit for Lilli consisted of sheer lingerie and or dominatrix styled corsets and fish-net stockings.
They all, like the Barbie Dolls so closely modelled on her, sported huge, broad foreheads, a tiny chin (in that the cartoon Lilli started out with the head of a baby, the infantile facial proportions are not too surprising), almost identical impossibly small noses, puckered red pouty lips, highly arched vampy eyebrows (Barbie’s are a little more bent, Morticia-style), and almond-shaped eyes with heavy shadow and eyeliner. Both sport a sultry “sidelong glance” at a roughly 72 degree angle, the feminine gaze angle thought highly seductive and sexually alluring since the Middle Ages, during the ‘Burning Times’ in Germany, when it was part of what made a ‘Daughter of Eve’ a temptress, and what made a ‘witch’ a witch.
As Dewy speculated, “…what if Mattel decided to revisit Barbie’s Roots for her sixtieth anniversary coming up in 2019? They could issue a collectible clone of the Lilli doll that started it all. And call it not ‘Superstar Barbie,’ but… Porn Star Barbie!” Barring that unlikely scenario, let us instead ponder the way in which Mattel gives the nod to diversity, religious difference and multicultural markets with their introductions of ‘Hindu Barbie,’ ‘Muslim Barbie,’ and ‘Hijab Barbie’ in addition to ‘Christian Barbie.’
Yet, somehow, in an amazing feat of consistency and stunning cultural continuity, Mattel manages to keep the Barbie creation true to her roots as a sex doll. Originally fabricated for male patrons as titillating desk and dashboard ornaments, the Lilli Doll/Barbie trademark is now sold to little girls who, obviously, don’t want to commodify women. They want, themselves, to grow up to be commodified — to be found useful and desirable and marketable to men.
Whether wearing a cassock or a hijab, a swimsuit, baby-doll nightie, or the regalia of an Old Testament queen, Barbie manages to look like a fully male-identified woman and an unmistakeable Boy Toy ‘material girl.’ Contemporary Barbie Doll design has kept the infantile head proportions, the stalk-like neck that would snap in a stiff wind, the bedroom eyes, the deformed, minuscule hands and feet, the covertly homoerotic wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped physique, and the aggressively ballistic bullet breasts.
This slavish legacy seems most offensive when used to characterize female Pagan deities. Icons of sovereignty, self-sufficiency and divine power, their demotion in the upstart, male-dominated patriarchal religions of the ancient world still grates for observant Goddess devotees. Images of Barbie Dolls masquerading as the preeminent Hestia, the pre-patriarchal Greek Fire deity and Goddess of the Hearth, or as one of Her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins — once free, mighty and supreme, now looking like pornographic blow-up dolls — are frankly obscene. This might change were the current Mattel designers to give the doll proportionate feet, hands, neck and breasts — an anatomically feasible body. It would definitely change were her sexuality to acquire more humanness, realism and dignity.
I find the commodification of feminine sacrality, from any era or roots religion, deeply reprehensible, which is why I’ve always told this story. The evidence of Mattel’s callous disregard for feminine values has only increased with time and the additions to their repertoire of multicultural, multi-faith-sex-doll Barbies. The idea that young girls are so hungry for the second-hand self-esteem purveyed by Mattel is extremely saddening, and says much about the sexual politics of our demonstrably violent Rape Culture.
But, somehow, the commodification/sexualization of racial female stereotypes by the American toy company is most offensive of all. Though Barbie originated in ‘the funnies,’ geared to a ‘boys will be boys’ buoying up of German males’ feelings of Post-WWII depression, impotence and failure, it’s really only perpetuating the social mayhem. In contemporary America, becoming more and more White Male Dominant, more stridently White Nationalist and misogynistic in its leanings at the very highest levels, the conditioning of girl children of any race, colour or creed to unceasingly strive to please men, male gaze, male power structures, and male lusts, at their own expense and to their own peril, is just not funny anymore (if it ever was).
I remember seeing a Mattel toy in a shop window near the office where I worked in Miami in the early 70s. I was rooted to the sidewalk outside that shop window for many minutes, pondering, in shock at the sexual violence of the toy kit. It was one of those toys marketed for 8–12 year olds, a diorama made up of discrete parts, consisting of a stage setting, a dungeon, the central two figures, and some props. The riveting drama being played out was one of torture: a beautiful scantily-clad woman in a cage, her face a mask of terror, mouth wide open, her torn dress and lips the same scarlet red as the painted wounds upon her body; a bent and twisted, hideously deformed man or ogre, perhaps a demon, hulking outside the cage menacingly, holding a red-tipped poker in his painted hand; a brazier bristling with more red hot pokers, their points resting within the glowering red coals painted inside it. The entire scene was realistically painted, with the pigments supplied as part of the kit along with the instructions booklet, with lavishly detailed images of how the completed kit should look.
I was stunned that a toy company would knowingly purvey a ‘toy’ for young boys featuring the torturing of a caged, nearly naked, sexy but terrified female victim. Were they meant to identify with the obviously sexually twisted torturer, a deviant and predator? What must this ‘toy’ have meant to boy consumers at such a formative, pre-pubescent age. I wondered if Mattel meant to pander to the worst in Rape Culture, and to the dark, victimizing shadow in every child’s worst nightmares and bullying-avenging revenge fantasy? Was it really their explicit intention to elicit from boys the very worst of serial-killer styled male violence against women — to appeal to the worst of predatory impulses? Because, even if it wasn’t, they could hardly have been doing a more efficient job of it. I conceived of a deep revulsion for the Mattel company in that moment, and learned more of the sources of that feeling when, a few years later in San Francisco, I began to discover Barbie’s true heritage.
I have since learned even more about Jack Ryan. “By the spring of 1960, Mattel could not keep up with demand and shopkeepers were having to limit the number they sold to their most treasured clients. The Japanese factory was producing 100,000 dolls a week, but couldn’t keep up with the orders. Barbie fan clubs were launched, and one Hollywood columnist reported that the doll was getting more fan mail than Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn combined. And with huge royalty cheques flooding into his bank account, Ryan soon began to indulge his ferocious passion for sex in all its forms, including orgies.” (Geoffrey Wansell, ‘The curse of Barbie: How the world’s most famous toy destroyed the sordid lives of her two creators,’ The Daily Mail, March 10, 2009.)
Ryan married Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was his neighbour in Bel-Air, in 1975. They were divorced by the following year due to his alcoholism, lithium and sex addictions. “A close friend of Ryan’s said he became Gabor’s sixth husband because ‘marrying a celebrity got him excited and out of his depression for a minute’. The union was a disaster, not least because Ryan refused to give up his promiscuous lifestyle. ‘I just couldn’t cope,’ Gabor was to say later. ‘There was also the matter of Jack’s dungeon, a torture chamber painted a sinister black and decorated with black fox fur.” (Wansell)
I do think that design is destiny, and I cannot see the Barbie saga ultimately ending in any kind of socially redeeming way. Added to the deep sordidness of the principals’ private lives, their multiple scandals and legal difficulties, and Barbie’s soft porn origins as a mercenary prostitute and literal joke is the fact that I have not known one single child who, owning a Barbie and Ken doll, have not intuitively subjected the manikins to the most sordid scenarios of sexual license. This applies to girls so young they literally had no real idea of how the sex act was generated or performed. Nevertheless, ‘playing Barbie’ invariably involved placing the figures into the identical positions the original Bild Lilli was designed to assume in the febrile imaginations of the post-war German men who were her patrons.