The German Sex Doll That Inspired Americas Most Beloved Toy

Little girls all over the world have been playing with a character that got in trouble with the police for public nudity. Do you know the real history of Barbie doll?

One of my favorite things to do is learn about where things come from. We truly understand something when we discover its origins and, let's be honest, the past is a horrible place. Yet from my current safe spot, I like to look back and find that most things that are popular now had dark origins: from the iconic Disney characters that took inspiration from racist minstrel shows to your favorite actor's history of sexual assault.

One example of this is the origin of the Barbie doll. The whole story is pretty cringe-worthy. In the 1950s, a man was told to create something to fill the empty space in a German newspaper. His first idea was to draw a cute little baby, but it was rejected. So he decided to erase the baby's body, and replace it with the body of an adult female with big breasts and curvy hips, leaving the face the same.

I feel ambivalent about it because I kind of enjoy the next part. The man created a comic-strip character named Lilli. A sassy woman with witty comebacks who made dirty jokes and showed some skin. Of course, all those things can become problematic, if we analyze them closely. But I'll always appreciate the representation of a loud woman, especially one that came to life at a time when women were taught to be quiet and proper.

Soon after the comic-strip gained popularity, Lilli became a plastic doll for adults. Her popularity kept rising, and later she was sold around the globe. Ruth Handler, the founder of Mattel, discovered Lilli and immediately recognized the appeal she had with children. Lilli became Barbie (named after Ruth Handler's daughter) after a subtle transformation: lighter skin and less makeup but keeping the breasts and the curves.

Little girls all over the world have been playing with a doll that had problems with the police for public nudity. In a way, Lilli was a badass and a trailblazer, but she was turned into an ultra-feminine doll that has been linked to young women having body dysmorphia. From these limited options, I choose Lilli. I choose dirty jokes instead of a huge wardrobe. I choose defiance in the face of authority instead of a plastic boyfriend without a penis.

Lilli was silly and superficial, but I think we have to abandon the idea that every female figure has to represent all women. The notion that famous female voices speak for the rest of us is limiting and reduces the complexity of an entire gender to one person, so there is room for a character like Lilli. Hopefully, the next one won't be created by a man.

As Ruth Handler said in an interview in 1977, every little girl needs a doll on which to project herself and her dreams for the future, and what Ruth Handler considered important at the time was the "beautiful breasts" Barbie had. Nothing wrong with that, but I'm excited to see Barbie's radical transformation in the future after society forgets about her and the only thing that remains is pictures of her in the history books.


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