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Bans, feminist backlash and more: The many controversies of Barbie through the years

More than 64 years after the first Barbie doll hit the market, she remains popular as ever with over a 100 Barbie dolls reportedly sold (worldwide) every minute. Now, Barbie will make her big screen debut in a live-action film on Friday (July 21).

In the run up to the film, a stunning marketing campaign has doused all sorts of products in Barbie pink – from burgers in Brazil, to Impala Skates, to an Xbox console which doubles up as a dollhouse. We take a look at Barbie’s humble origins, her controversial past and ever-changing present.

The Barbie movie and its making

Barbie has appeared in more than 40 computer-animated films over the years, beginning with Barbie in the Nutcracker (2001), and a live-action movie has been under consideration for over two decades now. However, Mattel, the company that manufactures the Barbie doll, has reportedly been cautious about associating a particular actor with the doll, lest their personalities become synonymous (think of Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Potter).

The upcoming movie, which was first announced in 2009, has seen multiple changes in its writers, directors, as well as the actor who would play Barbie. The likes of Amy Schumer and Anne Hathaway were considered before Margot Robbie finally bagged the role. The film is directed by Greta Gerwig, who also takes a writing credit alongside Noah Baumbach. We will see Ryan Gosling as Ken and Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel. The film is expected to collect more than $70-80 million in its opening weekend.

While the details of the storyline have been kept under wraps, what we do know for sure is that the movie will show Barbie going through an existential crisis, leaving the utopian Barbie Land and taking a trip to the real world with her boyfriend Ken.

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Thus far, the film has already garnered attention for a number of reasons, from its ambitious set-design, to a scene featuring a map reflecting China’s claim over the whole of the South China Sea – something which got the film banned in Vietnam.

The origins of the Barbie doll

Dressed in black-and-white one-piece swimsuit, heels and red lip-stick, when Barbie made its debut at New York’s Toy Fair in 1959, the market was dominated by baby dolls, based on the presumption that most young girls wanted to play mothers.

Unlike most dolls of its time, Barbie had breasts and boasted an hour-glass figure. It was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, and an outcome of her own interactions with her daughter, whom she often saw playing with paper dolls with her friends. Still contemplating how to fill this market gap, on a trip to Switzerland she came across Bild Lilli, a glamorous adult woman doll based on a comic strip and once sold as an adult novelty.

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Handler bought some of them and worked to a similar model for Barbie, named after her own daughter Barbara Millicent Roberts. Based in the fictional town of Willows in the US state of Wisconsin, the doll targeted at young girls made her television debut on ABC network in the series The Mickey Mouse Club in 1959.

The controversies

Though over 300,000 Barbies were reportedly sold in its very first year of production, the doll has found itself in the midst of controversies since its very birth. While several mothers found the doll too sexual when it launched, as early as 1963 there was severe criticism of the ‘Barbie Baby-Sits’ series, where the doll came with a book on ‘How to Lose Weight’ that came with the advice, ‘Don’t Eat’.

Feminist groups in the 1970s pointed out that its super-thin frame would set the wrong precedent for young girls, and advocacy groups such as the South Shore Eating Disorders Collaborative have said that if Barbie was a real woman she would not have enough body fat to menstruate.

Additionally, particular models have received specific criticisms. If in 1997, the ‘Oreo Fun Barbie’ was recalled after it was found to be derogatory by the African-American communities, the ‘Share a Smile Becky’ that sat on a wheelchair was also reviewed, after it was found that the doll’s vehicle was not designed to navigate the Barbie Dream House and her hair was too long and often got caught in the wheels.

In 1992, a ‘Teen Talk Barbie’ came with pre-programmed phrases such as “Math class is tough!”, which invited disapproval for setting wrong perceptions. With the wide range of fashion accessories that it carries and promotes, though Barbie was also criticised for being overtly materialistic, in her memoir Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, Ruth noted, “Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices. Even in her early years Barbie did not have to settle for being only Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer.”

The doll has also been banned multiple times in different countries — from a ban in Iran in 2012 because it espoused western culture, to it being declared offensive to Islam by Saudi Arabia in 2003. In 2002, the Russian Ministry of Education included Barbie in a list of toys and games that had “harmful effects” on young minds, “thought to awaken sexual impulses… and encourage consumerism.”

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Barbie in popular culture

Standing around 11.5 inch tall, while the doll itself has over 200 careers and counting, from contesting for presidency to playing doctor and inspirational women, including the likes of American activist Rosa Parks and poet and civil right activist Maya Angelou, Barbie is known to be a fashionista.

Outfitted by over 70 well-known designers, including Yves Saint Laurent and Dior, in 2009 she celebrated her 50th birthday with a ramp show at the New York Fashion Week that had models such as Jourdan Dunn paying tribute to the doll in special creations designed by the likes of Vera Wang, Badgley Mischka and Alexander Wang.

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While Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group Aqua’s 1997 number ‘Barbie Girl’ topped the music charts, in 1985 American artist Andy Warhol painted her portrait on his canvas. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, meanwhile, shot an entire photo series dedicated to Barbie in 2009.

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