August 1, 2023

The Backstory of Barbie


I am not going to take all the credit for Barbiemania, but I did share the backstory of Barbie a couple of years ago in my book Magnetic Stories.

Do you know the backstory of Barbie?

I didn’t and I was never a fan of Barbie. While I was researching information for Magnetic Stories, I came across Barbie’s backstory and it changed my mind. Previously I felt strongly that Barbie was not a good role model for girls.

The Backstory

Ruth Handler was the wife of Elliot Handler who was the co-founder of Mattel. During the 1950’s, she noticed that when her daughter Barbara was playing with her dolls, that were paper, she was pretending they were adults. Ruth noticed a few things. In this play pretending to be adults, her two children (Ken was the son) would act out future events, rather than the present. She also noticed that while her daughter Barbara only had dolls that had her playing out as a caregiver, her son Ken had dolls that he could imagine himself being a doctor, firefighter, astronaut and so much more.

There were also limitations to the paper dolls, including how the paper clothing failed to attach well. She wanted to produce a three-dimensional plastic doll with an adult body and a wardrobe of fabric clothing.

Her husband and other executives at Mattel did not think it was a good idea at all. They assumed parents would not buy their children a doll with a voluptuous adult figure. Basically, a doll that had breasts.

While holidaying in Europe, Ruth saw the German Bild Lilli doll and bought one as it was similar to what she was thinking. She redesigned the doll and named her Barbie after her daughter and convinced her husband and the other all male executives to produce a prototype.

On March 9th 1959, which ironically is my birthday (not the 1959 bit just the March 9th bit!), Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair and as they say in the classics, ‘the rest is history’.

Career Barbies

When you look at some of the Career Barbies, they were very progressive for their time. For example, 1961 Executive Barbie, 1965 Astronaut Barbie, 1973 Surgeon Barbie, 1985 CEO barbie and 1989 Pilot Barbie.

Ruth Handler is quoted as saying:

‘My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that women had choices.’

What a Brilliant Creation Story

Now that is one brilliant Creation Story about how a product started. It also had such an impact that it changed my opinion about Barbie. Consequently, I’m now a fan of Barbie. So much so I turned myself into one as you can see from the photo.

In my previous blog I shared another great example of a Creation Story from a pub in Cambridge. That example demonstrated why the company started as opposed to a product but both are great examples of the power of Creation Stories.

If you come across another great example of a Creation Story (company, product or service) I would love to hear it.