March 17, 2009 Turning 50 is said to be a time when people evaluate their life and think about how differently things turned out to how they'd imagined. But unlike we humans who have to deal with the signs of ageing that accompany each new decade, and wonder about what might have been, Barbie doesn’t look a day older than at her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. Sure, she’s copped some flak along the way for being empty-headed and ‘tarty’ and reinventing herself to conform to current fashions, but essentially she’s as glamorous as ever, not to mention technologically savvy.

Whether you think of her as a glossy bimbo and feminist antihero, or a woman who gets what she wants, she’s still hugely popular, flying off the shelves at the rate of 3 per second according to maker Mattel. The Barbie franchise, which includes everything from books, movies and DVDs to make-up, clothes and accessories, is big business and was expected to bring in about $1.2b in revenue in 2008, about a fifth of Mattel’s total sales.

The 'birth' of Barbie

Co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler, saw her daughter Barbara giving adult roles to paper dolls. As most dolls available at the time took the form of infants she wondered if there was a market for a more adult-looking version that would allow girls to dream and role-play their future.

Mattel executives were unenthusiastic – or perhaps nervous – about the idea of a doll with a bosom. Mrs. Handler shelved the idea until on a trip to Europe in 1956 she saw a German doll, Bild Lilli, based on a sassy and ambitious cartoon character that encompassed just what she was looking for. She had Mattel’s designers create a new doll and Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model was ‘born’, wearing a zebra striped one-piece swimsuit, open-toed high heels and with either blonde or brunette hair.

Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year, helped along no doubt by extensive TV advertising – a novel way of selling toys at the time. There was only room at the top for one busty blonde however and in 1964 Mattel acquired the rights to Bild Lilli and production stopped.

New versions of Barbie have been produced each year, along with a never-ending stream of outfits for her and her friends (nearly one billion over the years), including special high fashion designs by Versace, Gucci and Givenchy (much-prized by collectors; after all, who can afford a life-size version?).

Controversial Barbie

Over the years Barbie has come under fire for many things, mainly for being a poor role model. In response to feminists who considered her a vacuous bimbo, Barbie evolved from being ‘just’ a fashion model and has been given a range of occupations from surgeon to lawyer, pilot and stewardess, rock star, Olympic skier, firefighter, United States' President and McDonalds cashier, causing some critics to quip that Barbie is unable to hold down a job.

Middle Eastern countries and Christian groups have at times slammed Barbie, calling her postures shameful and her clothes “filth”.

In 1997 a promotion for Oreo Fun Barbie with Nabisco and Oreo cookies caused a furor. Critics argued that in the African American community Oreo is a derogatory term meaning that the person is "black on the outside and white on the inside," like the chocolate sandwich cookie itself. The doll had to be recalled.

It clearly wasn’t a good year for Mattel: they also introduced Share a Smile Becky, a doll in a pink wheelchair but were informed by a 17-year-old high school student with cerebral palsy that the doll would not fit into the elevator of Barbie's $100 Dream House. Mattel announced that it would redesign the house in the future to accommodate the doll.

Other than the aforementioned unfortunate friend, Mattel created a range of friends and family for Barbie, many of whom were discontinued (or perhaps cast aside by the meteorically rising star). They included siblings Skipper, Tutti/Stacie, Todd, Kelly and Krissy, two cousins and a coterie of friends such as Hispanic Teresa, African American Christie, on-off boyfriend Ken (who, like Barbie, shared his name with Mrs. Handler's children Barbara and Ken - scary, huh?) and P.J.

Probably the main criticism leveled at Barbie (in the West, at least) has been that she presents an unattainable body image to young girls, and that if she was 5 foot 6 instead of 11 1/2 inches tall, her measurements, would be 39-21-33. An academic expert once calculated that a woman's likelihood of being shaped like Barbie was less than 1 in 100,000. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate.

In 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight that advised: "Don't eat". The doll also came with pink bathroom scales reading 110lb, which would be around 35lbs underweight for a woman of Barbie’s height if translated to human proportions.

Evolving Barbie

Barbie continued to evolve with the times and joined the digital age in 1996 with her first website.

In 1997 (clearly a busy year for the company) Mattel remolded Barbie to give their flagship icon a flatter chest, slimmer hips and a wider waist for a more 'realistic' look. But apparently, her previously unrealistic proportions were nothing to do with the change. The intention, according to Mattel, was to give her a more teenage physique so that she could wear the fashions of the time and that fashion was dictating the change.

In 1999, the year Barbie celebrated her 40th birthday, it seemed Mattel was at last trying to address some of the criticism by becoming involved with a project called Ambassadors of Dreams which honored accomplished, trail-blazing women and promoted the message that "girls can be anything". Mattel donated around one million dollars to support programs that teach girls about technology, finance, math and science, career planning, and sports.

Further forays into the digital world have included video games, the Barbie Girls website and the Barbie Girl Device - a portable MP3 player with a range of customizable fashions and accessories. You can also become a fan of Barbie on facebook and follow her on Twitter.

Barbie's 'mom' an early feminist

Whatever anti-feminist criticisms were made about Barbie, Handler herself embodied the spirit of the movement before the term had even been coined, successfully juggling family and a high-powered career; two careers in fact. After being diagnosed with breast cancer she underwent a mastectomy. A few years later she and her husband were ousted from Mattel as a result of company diversification away from toys, so she started a new company with a team of middle-aged women, many breast cancer survivors themselves, fitting and selling liquid silicone prosthetic breasts around America. The artificial breast was designed by Handler herself, after discovering the only options available at the time were uncomfortable and ugly and did nothing for breast cancer survivors' already lowered self esteem. Her aim was to create something so that "a woman could wear a regular brassiere and blouse, stick her chest out and be proud".

Having brought about the world’s first best-selling doll with a bosom then helping women feel feminine again after breast surgery she was known to say: "I've lived my life from breast to breast."

Mrs Handler (who passed away in 2002) never agreed with the feminists' take on Barbie. Her whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, young girls could be anything they wanted to be. Barbie, she said, “represented the fact that a woman has choices."

Tell us what you think about Barbie. Has playing with her as a child had an affect on how you view the world? Have you bought Barbie dolls for your children?

...and Happy Birthday Barbie.

Karen Sprey

View gallery - 31 images