The Rise of Barbie and Rambo

With the introduction of artificial contraception, women became sterile sex objects and men became their emasculated fashion accessories.

Far be it from me to be curmudgeonly about a child’s toy, but on the other hand, what exactly is child-like about the Barbie doll? With her pneumatic chest and pouting expression, if she is a teenager her name is Lolita. In fact, Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll, borrowed the idea from a German doll named Bild Lilli. The Lilli doll was based on a comic strip character drawn for the Bild newspaper. Bild Lilli was “a blonde bombshell, a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it.” In other words, she was a German Marilyn Monroe.

 

Signs within the developing culture from the 1950s indicated, even then, a new confusion about sexual identity. From the dawn of time a man was defined as a father, or potential father. A woman was a mother, or potential mother. The whole delicate dance of courtship and sexual relationships circled around the undeniable link between sex and procreation. But if a woman was not a mother, and if a man was not a father, what were they?

I have been doing some research for a play I want to write dramatizing the meeting between the English poet Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe. Thinking further about the impact of Monroe on popular culture brought me to the realization that she was even more of an icon and goddess than the popular clichés might suggest. My essay on the subject is here.

Marilyn Monroe epitomizes a major cultural shift in the objectification of women as sex objects. Women have always been the object of male desire, but down through history, sex was linked with fertility. While there have always been prostitutes, in Monroe (and before her Mae West, Jean Harlow, and a street full of other Hollywood vamps) the screen siren went mainstream. In my previous essay I observed how it was Monroe’s nude calendar shots that propelled Hugh Hefner’s 1956 publication of Playboy magazine.

At the same time, the early 1950s, eugenicist Margaret Sanger raised money for the development of the contraceptive pill, which was legalized in 1960. As the sexual act was separated from procreation, women were separated from motherhood. In 1959, at the American International Toy Fair, the Mattel company launched the Barbie doll. It was an instant success. Marketed as a “teen aged fashion model” Mattel sold over 350,000 units in the first year alone.

Far be it from me to be curmudgeonly about a child’s toy, but on the other hand, what exactly is child-like about the Barbie doll? With her pneumatic chest and pouting expression, if she is a teenager her name is Lolita. In fact, Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll, borrowed the idea from a German doll named Bild Lilli. The Lilli doll was based on a comic strip character drawn for the Bild newspaper. Bild Lilli was “a blonde bombshell, a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it.” In other words, she was a German Marilyn Monroe.

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