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Handler was a shrewd "my-way-or-the-highway" businesswoman who had keen insights into what children enjoyed in toys, as well as what they found lacking. She observed how her own daughter loved paper dolls, but much preferred the fashion model cutouts from comic books rather than the little girl dolls intended for kids her age, as well as her daughter’s major frustration over the tabbed clothes never staying on.
While on a fortuitous family trip to Europe, Handler’s daughter (who was also nicknamed Barbie) became entranced with the Lilli doll. This hard plastic doll, with very womanly proportions and a saucy blond ponytail, was a novelty based on the German comic strip character of the same name. Readers of the Lilli comic would know the doll wasn’t intended for kids (let’s just say that generous gentlemen kept Lilli in all the Dream Houses she needed) but naïve little Barbie Handler just wanted the doll. (Another lightbulb went on in Ruth Handler’s head when she learned that, while the Lilli doll came in several outfits, additional doll clothes were not sold separately.)
Handler bought a Lilli doll and took it to Jack Ryan, with orders to improve it. Ryan smoothed out the doll’s more naturalistic details, made her limbs poseable and waist bendable, and molded the doll in a new, more flesh-like plastic called PVC. She also insisted that Barbie’s sold-separately wardrobe be made from fashion-quality fabric, with real zippers, buttons, and buckles. The original prototype, as unveiled at the 1959 Toy Fair, had some of the flinty-eyed gold-digger look of the original Lilli, but by 1967 she’d become the wide-eyed sunny blonde that catapulted Mattel into the $4.8 billion company it is today.
Meanwhile, rival toy company Hasbro was scrambling to come out with a similarly blockbuster doll, something that could also create a never-ending market for accesories like Barbie did. Hasbro executive Don Levine had a brainstorm the day he passed by an art supply store and saw a wooden ball-and-socket figure reference mannequin in the window. Hasbro executives liked the idea of a toy soldier that had the same poseable wrists, hips, shoulders, and knees as a human being, but how were they going to sell a doll to boys? That's when Hasbro invented the term "action figure".
Barbie and G.I. Joe changed the way children played with dolls. In the B.B. era (Before Barbie), most dolls were baby dolls, and the child playing with them assumed the role of a parent. Likewise, toy soldiers have also existed since the beginnings of civilization, and the child playing with them assumed the role of a military commander ordering troops all over an imaginary front. But a kid playing with Barbie or G.I. Joe wasn't their caretaker or their superior—they were the doll, and while playing they could imagine possibilities for their adult life as a man or woman. (And let's not forget all the gender-nonconforming kids, like fashion designer Billy Boy, or *ahem* yours truly, who found in these dolls a safe place to explore a different gender identity.)
There's also Mattel's lawsuit against the Europop group Aqua for their song "Barbie Girl", claiming the song defamed Barbie as a vapid bimbo (Mattel lost the case), and the uproar over the kid's book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, in which a blundering Barbie crashes her computer and can't complete her video game project until two men come do it for her. Mattel apologized and took the book out of print, but not before it inspired dozens of satirical remixes, including one from University of Colorado information science professor Casey Fiesler, who redid the book so that Barbie writes infinite loops in Python, weathers internet trolls who doubt she's the real programmer, and declares "You can't let sexism stop you from pursuing science!" The whole affair was reminiscent of a 1993 culture-jamming prank in which a group identifying itself as "The Barbie Liberation Organization" covertly switched the voiceboxes in talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls in toy stores, so that G.I. Joe giggled "Let's plan our dream wedding!" and Barbie barked out "Vengeance is mine!!!" Nowadays, in keeping with their slogan "Designed to Inspire", Mattel has made a bigger emphasis on Barbie being available in all skin colors, hair textures, body shapes, and abilities, and has even made a Stars n' Stripes military Barbie. (When G.I Joe becomes a beekeeper, that's when we’ll know the toys have reached gender parity. And as G.I. Joe always said, “Knowing is half the battle.”)
One last thing about Ruth Handler: years after creating Barbie, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a radical mastectomy, but quickly found out all the breast prostheses currently on the market were unsatisfactory—partly because no manufacturer noticed that, like shoes, they needed to come in left and right shapes. Inspired, she founded Nearly Me, a company providing prostheses, lingerie, and post-surgical garments for other breast cancer survivors.