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One Doll Above All

When it was revealed that Greta Gerwig – known to the world as a fresh writer of independent films (Frances Ha, American Honey) and Oscar-winning director of recent years (Lady Bird, Little Women) – was to make a live-action movie about America’s favourite doll Barbie, we didn’t know what to think… And then the first photos from the set came out recently, showing Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling skating together in full pink on the beach in Los Angeles, and we still don’t know what’s going to happen… But we’re getting more curious, that’s for sure! But who is this character that everyone in the world knows and how did he become a pop culture icon, we’ll be the first to find out!

Perfect (?) curves, an incredibly flat stomach, unrealistically thin legs, long blonde hair, huge round eyes, a charming radiant face… Yes, she’s Barbie! Who certainly needs no introduction, but let’s do it anyway! She was inspired by the German doll Bild Lilli, which she presented at the American Toy Fair on 9 March 1959 and named Barbie after her daughter Barbara. But let’s jump back a little to 1953, to the German predecessor! Bild Lilli was not a conventional doll: her figure was not the most sophisticated, one could call her ‘sexist’, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, she conquered first Germany, then the Scandinavian countries, but also Hong Kong and of course the United States, and began to produce clothes, accessories and dolls’ houses, which quickly sold out of toy shops. Bild Lilli played the role of a blonde, tall, full-bosomed, outspoken, confident woman, a character that really hit the spot at the time, because it was the time when movie stars like Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe were running. The first Barbie doll wore a black-and-white zebra-striped swimsuit and a ponytail with Ariana Grande, her clothes were made by Mattel designer Charlotte Johnson and the dolls were made in Japan. The company sold 350,000 Barbie dolls in the first year of production and, fuming at the success, Louis Marx and Company, which made the Lilli dolls, sued Mattel in March 1961. They claimed that Mattel had “infringed the patent granted by Greiner & Hausser for the hip joint of Bild Lilli” and that Barbie was a “direct copy” of Bild Lilli. The company also said that Mattel had “misleadingly portrayed itself as the original creator of the design”. Mattel counterclaimed and the case was finally settled out of court in 1963, and the following year it bought Greiner & Hausser’s copyright and patent rights to the Bild Lilli doll.

This purchase price ($21 600) was a very good ‘investment’, as Barbie went on to conquer the world and become a huge success. Mattel sold more than one billion Barbie dolls, making it by far the company’s biggest and most profitable product line. Barbie and her friend Ken are perhaps still the two most popular dolls in the world today, having transformed the toy industry worldwide over the decades. Barbie has had a significant impact on social values, conveying the characteristics of female independence and, through her many accessories, an idealised, upmarket lifestyle that little girls will aspire to throughout their lives…

Barbie, of course, quickly became a global pop icon and the darling of the fashion world. For a week in 1974, a section of Times Square in New York City was dubbed Barbie Boulevard. In 1986, artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie, which sold for $1.1 million at Christie’s auction in London. A Barbie exhibition was held at the Louvre in Paris in 2016. The exhibition featured 700 Barbie dolls on two floors, as well as works by contemporary artists and documents contextualising the doll. The Barbie film, which will be released in cinemas in exactly one year’s time, in the summer of 2023, will certainly be the next and latest in this series of cultural jolts.