The Skinny on Barbie

Essential facts about her checkered past.


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Lori LeibovichSuzette Lalime
November 27, 1997 12:11AM (UTC)

HER SORDID PAST: The original Barbie, based on a German doll
named Lilli, was sold as a collector's item for adults only. When Mattel
purchased patent rights to Lilli, the company instructed its designer to
make her look less like a "German street walker."

HER SOCIAL VALUE IS IMMEASURABLE --BUT WHAT ABOUT HER MONETARY VALUE? When Barbie debuted in 1959, she sold for a mere three bucks.
Today, an original doll is worth up to $4,500.

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LIKE MY MISSILE?: Before he designed the very first Barbie, Jack
Ryan worked at the Pentagon as an engineer designing Sparrow and Hawk
missiles. Mattel hired him for his "space-aged savvy" and knowledge of
materials. Thankfully, Ryan also had a good handle on the female form -- he
was briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY BARBIE: Barbie has had one black friend,
Christie, since 1968! But it wasn't until 1980 that Mattel introduced the
first Black Barbie and the first Hispanic Barbie. Both dolls have modified
skin tones, hair colors and facial features, but their bodies are
identical to that of their bodacious blonde bosom buddy.

EAT LEAD, KEN: In 1993, a group called the Barbie Liberation
Organization sneaked into toy stores and switched the microchips in hundreds
of Hasbro's "Talking Duke" GI Joes and Talking Barbies. In 43 states, the
Talking Barbie said, "Eat lead, Cobra. Vengeance is mine!" while G.I. Joe
said, "Let's go shopping. Will we ever have enough clothes?" The mission was
intended as "a critique of gender stereotypes" in toys.

WHAT COLOR IS HER PARACHUTE?: Over the years, Barbie has
undergone more than 500 professional makeovers. Her official careers have
included fashion designer, flight attendant, rock star, astronaut, police
officer, gymnast, veterinarian, nurse, doctor, ballerina, dentist and
aerobics instructor. Her underground (aka not approved by the Mattel
corporation) identities include Postal Worker Barbie, complete with machine
gun; Trailer Trash Barbie; Drag Queen Barbie and Hooker Barbie.

KEN A GO GO: Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, has had some intriguing
incarnations himself, including the 1967 wig-wearing "Ken a Go Go" and
the 1964 "Cheerful Chef," complete with a plastic barbecue fork and
weenie. In 1993, "Earring Magic Ken" burst onto the scene wearing a
lavender vest and a ring pendant.

Sources: All Things Barbie;
"Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll" by M.G. Lord,
Avon Books, 1995; "Kid's Stuff: Great Toys From Our Childhood" by David
Hoffman, Chronicle Books, 1996


Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Suzette Lalime

MORE FROM Suzette Lalime

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