by Randal Hill
“It is very strange to have a doll named after you,” Barbara Handler
Segal has admitted. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the
doll; I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”
Californians Ruth and Elliot Handler manufactured dollhouse furniture, which they sold under their company name of Mattel. While successful, the Handlers were always casting about for one special item that would make Mattel an iconic name in the toy world.
In the early 1950s, the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara (b. 1941), had enjoyed playing with dolls. Not the run-of-themill, cherub-faced, infant
variety, but shapely teenage paper dolls that came with fashionable
cutout wardrobes. Ruth opined
that Mattel should offer a three-dimensional doll, designed as a young woman and with an appeal to older girls.
On a 1956 trip to Switzerland the Handlers serendipitously found a doll much like the one Ruth had envisioned. “Lilli” was a German adult novelty toy that, unbeknownst to the Handlers, was based on a cartoon character who was a
Back home the couple spent three years developing a clean-cut counterpart
to naughty Lilli that would proudly bear their daughter’s name. On Barbie’s “official” birthdate—March 9, 1959—the doll debuted at a New York toy convention. On that day, Barbie’s real-life namesake was a shy 17-year-old attending Los Angeles’s Hamilton High School.
First-version Barbie earned mixed reviews, with some critics grumbling
that the voluptuous toy was too expensive ($3 at a time when the hourly minimum wage was $1) and, at 11.5 inches, too small in comparison to traditional dolls.
The main problem, though, was Barbie’s overt sexiness. Sears quickly declared
her unfit for their store. However, Barbie quickly flew off everyone else’s
shelves and eventually became the bestselling doll in history, with worldwide
sales of 1 billion units.
Feminists often railed against Barbie, labeling her a vacuous bimbo and
crying out that her proportional measurements (36-18-33) were unrealistic
and potentially unhealthy for impressionable young girls who wanted to emulate
her. In 1997, Barbie’s body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist;
in 2016, Mattel introduced several new body types.
At age 18, Barbara Handler married Allen Segal. They had two children,
including a daughter named Cheryl. There’s no doubt that Cheryl Segal was
raised with the usual delights of any typically well-off southern California girl.
Except for one.
She never owned a Barbie doll.
Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.