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Jewesses with Attitude

Happy 50th birthday, Barbie

I have to admit that I didn't grow up with Barbies. Born to a feminist mom in the 1970s, I only had Skipper, Barbie's flat-chested cousin. But as much as Barbie's boobs kind of frightened me (and still do), Skipper just didn't have her charisma.

The feminist critiques of Barbie are pretty obvious: her body measurements promote an unrealistic ideal for girls, and despite her varied career options, being pretty and sexy still seems to be her highest achievement (remember the Barbie that said "Math is hard"?). But like most women who are dismissed as bimbos, Barbie has a story more interesting than the image she presents.

When Ruth Mosko Handler, the self-made businesswoman who founded Mattel with her husband, designed Barbie (named for her daughter) in the 1950s, she was determined to create a doll that depicted an adult woman, not a baby. Baby dolls were boring, she felt, and only allowed girls to play mother. She wanted to give girls a doll that would instill a positive identification with grown women.

Those torpedo breasts were an obstacle at first. Adults perceived Barbie as inappropriately sexual for kids (her design, after all, was based on a German sex toy). The initial marketing campaign emphasized Barbie's wardrobe, telling mothers the "fashion model" doll and its many outfits would encourage good grooming in their daughters. But Barbie was an overnight success, and still sells more than 100 million each year. Her career as fashion model has expanded to include just about every professional option - Doctor! Pilot! Business woman! Astronaut! She's even been known to learn a little Talmud.

Skinny as she is, Barbie bears incredible cultural weight.She has become a metaphor for American Jewish identity. She has served as an emblem  -- albeit an ambivalent one -- for immigrants striving to fit into Western culture. She represents American consumerism the world over. She is a belief structure.

Ruth Handler took Barbie seriously, not only because she made her fortune. Handler, it turned out, really believed in the importance of breasts. When she lost a breast to cancer in 1970, she could not find a prosthesis that fit well and felt real. So she created Nearly Me, a breast prosthesis that felt so natural she challenged reporters to feel her breasts and tell her which one was real. She explained to a reporter in the early 1980s, "When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl's self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs." Though she was driven from Mattel in 1975, she created a meaningful second career running her breast prosthesis company and serving as an advocate for early detection of breast cancer.

We girls can do anything! Right, Barbie?

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Happy 50th birthday, Barbie." 10 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 28, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/Barbie>.

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