Slim figures (or not), pantsuits, beauty competitions, commerce, and grabbability have been in high focus during the 2016 presidential campaigns.
So maybe, in the spirit of seeing how far we’ve come and how we got here, it’s time to enjoy a video compilation of vintage Barbie and Ken commercials, plus a few more thoughts about little girls in the U.S., their dreams, their bodies, and the engines of good business.
Take hold of your favorite Barbie and begin …
If you’ve spent time in our pages or on our website, you know we love to chat about the meaning of Mattel’s biggest success story: Barbie.
In her heyday, Barbie was a revolutionary figure, a “teenage fashion model” 11.5 inches high. She came to have a lot of other careers, from artist to doctor to pilot.
She has run for president several times (it was a marketing ploy, true, but there was still a real message underneath), once wearing a red power suit.
Ruth Handler, a founding member of Mattel, brought Barbie to America in the late 1950s, after she’d seen a similar doll in German toy store windows.
Lilli, Barbie’s prototype, was modeled after a gold-digging comic-strip character and packaged for grown-up German men to laugh at.
Handler had her engineers adapt Lilli, keeping the flirty eyes and curvy figure. She named the new toy after her daughter and launched Barbie during an industry fair in 1959.
Barbie wasn’t a hit at that fair. The mostly male buyers for big toy stores couldn’t imagine why a little girl would want to play with a three-dimensional “teenager.”
The paper clothes were easy to change with a set of tabs that fit around the two-dimensional cardboard girl.
Little girls learned self-control from cutting carefully along the lines in printed books of outfits, then fitting the outfits to their cardboard dolls by means of bendable paper tabs.
Cardboard curves were okay, especially if they involved a wedding gown.
It was even fine to market a boy and a girl in their underwear, if wedding clothes were included.
But to those men, Barbie was some-thing else. And not in a good way.
The male toy industry execs had been able to relate much better to the Burp Gun, which first launched Mattel into the stratosphere.
Commercials airing on The Mickey Mouse Club showed what fun the Burp Gun was–not just “the only fully automatic cap gun in the world, you know, real safe”–it was also “swell”!
Mattel could have stayed known for the Burp and nothing else.
But savvy after-school TV commercials reached little girls too, and soon they were clamoring for Barbie and her outfits. Barbie became an industry of her own.
Barbie’s standing is somewhat diminished now.
Bratz and other dolls have taken the place of Barbie and her friends, and girls have been raised with mixed feelings about beauty pageants–and weddings–and being identified with a man.
Nonetheless, female curves have come in for more scrutiny than ever during the 2016 election.
So in the spirit of seeing how far we’ve come and how we got here, it’s time to enjoy a video compilation of Barbie and Ken commercials. Other toys are featured too.
You can also tour the Mattel factories in a mini-documentary the company put out in the 1950s. You’ll see a man make a jack-in-the-box … because it’s fun to be surprised when a brightly painted clown bursts out of a tin cube to grab at you.
Check out a few related pieces on our website:
“Making Friends with Midge,” on the complicated tale of Barbie’s bff and female friendship, by Susann Cokal
“Abby Is Tall and Blonde,” on being summed up by a few Barbie-ish qualities, by Abby Otte
“Religion, Art, and Advertising,” in which Scientology ads featuring Daniel M. Krause’s sculptures occasion reflection on mass marketing and pithy pronouncements from Mark Fenske, by Jamal Stone
Barbie for President, 2004.
Ponytail Barbie #1, released in 1959.
Bridal Party paper dolls boxed set, 1955, available on free-paper-dolls.com.
Mattel Burp Gun, c. 1955.
Alicia Machado, Miss Universe 1996.
Still shot from commercial introducing Ken, c. 1961.