It came as a surprise to many when Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was given a PG 13 rating by the American Motion Picture Association – for “suggestive references” and “brief language”. After all, the film is the first-ever live-action portrayal of one of the world’s most famous dolls, doted upon by children across the world.
Others, however, turned to history, pointing out that Barbie’s origins, too, were not so child friendly. While Mattel’s Barbie was always marketed to young girls, its inspiration was a German adult gag-gift doll named Bild Lilli, tracing its origins from a sultry figure called Lilli in Germany’s most popular tabloid Bild.
Today, we look at Bild Lilli’s journey, tracing how the oft-provocative German doll became a staple toy for young girls, worldwide.
Lilli and its creator
Created by artist Reinhard Beuthien for Bild, Lilli was quick-witted and assertive, often scantily dressed and never shy of being seductive and bold. According to the German daily Der Spiegel, she made her first appearance as a filler cartoon in Bild in 1952 as a young woman asking a fortune teller for the address of a “tall, beautiful and rich man.”
A Time magazine article from 2015 quotes another cartoon script where she is being warned by a policeman for illegally wearing a bikini on the sidewalk. She responds with panache, “Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?”
In an interview with The Washington Post, MG Lord, the author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll” described Lilli as a “pornographic caricature… gold digger, exhibitionist and floozy.”
Becoming a doll
Lilli’s popularity catapulted her from being just a comic character to a doll in 1953. Initially sold as an adult novelty toy, she was marketed in bars, tobacco kiosks and adult toy stores. Produced in two sizes, gradually a range of accessories and outfits were introduced for her, reflecting prevalent fashion trends.
While young girls often wanted her as a play doll, given her backstory and imagery, parents were reluctant to get Lilli for children.
Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie and one of the founders of Mattel, had been contemplating a play doll for young girls, when on a trip to Europe, she came across Lilli.
Lilli was exactly the kind of doll she was looking for, sleek and modern. Consequently, Handler decided to purchase some Bild Lilli dolls, including a few for her daughter Barbara, the eventual inspiration for the name Barbie.
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Along with the designers at Mattel Ruth Handler gave Lilli a makeover – altering her lips, eyebrows and chest. She also gave the doll an arched foot with tiny toes that now wear the much-recognised Barbie heels. Most importantly, she marketed the doll as a girl-next-door: while Barbie was still ‘sexy’ she was not ‘vulgar’ anymore.
Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, wearing a zebra swimsuit and her hair tied in a ponytail. Criticised by feminists for her unrealistic body dimensions, the doll was nevertheless an instant hit with young girls.
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Thus, in 1964 Mattel bought all patents and copyrights to Bild Lilli, after which its manufacturing ceased in Germany.