Barbie’s many missteps, despite longtime pro-animal direction, mirror her society
BARBIELAND––Amid the hoopla for the live action Barbie film released on July 21, 2023, Ontario film maker and animal rights strategist Stephen Best resolutely refrains from entering his local theater.
“My personal choice,” Best posted to Facebook, “is that I will not pay Mattel or any corporation to watch their ad. Many people, clearly, are eager to pay Mattel to sell them toys. I suspect many of them were indoctrinated with Barbie products when they were children.”
Stephen Best & Barbie
Best, 72, grew up before boys played with dolls, or ever wore pink.
Best was 13 before GI Joe dolls appeared. At that, GI Joe took years longer to catch on in Canada, a nation mostly skeptical of the Vietnam War then raging, than in the U.S., where opposition to that particular war and to militarism in general took much longer to develop.
Barbie dolls rose to popularity, becoming collectables and even something of a cult, while Best focused on his work for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Care for the Wild, the Toronto Humane Society, the International Wildlife Coalition, the Animal Protection Party of Canada, and making films, most recently Saving Dinah.
PETA jumps on the Barbie bandwagon
Had Barbie been a real person, her fashion-oriented lifestyle might have intersected with Best’s only at fundraisers and, perhaps, the premier of his 2022 dog rescue film Saving Dinah.
But Mattel, makers of many animal-related accessories for Barbie as well as Barbie herself, and even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] would like the world to believe that Barbie has been an animal lover and advocate all along.
Previewed Kit Schroder for the July 20, 2023 edition of the online trade periodical Toy Insider, “With the film hitting theaters this week, PETA has released its own line of clothing and accessories for Barbie and Ken that promotes veganism,” including “a dress filled with ‘leafy greens’ as well as a sign that reads, ‘Turn over a new leaf. Go Vegan.’ The outfit was designed to look like one of PETA’s ‘Lettuce Ladies,’ women who wear attention-grabbing clothing made out of lettuce in order to spread PETA’s message.
“Another outfit Barbie can wear,” Schroder wrote, “is a T-shirt that says ‘Not a Nugget,’ featuring an image of a chick. This outfit comes with a sign for an animal sanctuary.
“Fish are friends, not food”
“But don’t forget about Ken,” Schroder mentioned of Barbie’s omni-present sometime boyfriend.
“To go along with his love of the beach — or his career of ‘beach,’” as depicted in the Barbie film, “PETA has made Ken a ‘trash fishing’ getup that will help him clean up his beloved seashore. His shirt says ‘Fish Are Friends, Not Food,’ and he can hold a grabber to pick up trash like the included water bottle.”
Explained PETA, “When Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken leave Barbieland for the real world, they’ll have a lot more to think about than just their own mortal fates. If the pair witness how wickedly humans choose to treat our fellow animals in laboratories, on factory farms, in the clothing business, and in countless other settings, they’ll get the chills.
“Enthusiastic supporters of animal rights”
“Far from plastic and fantastic, things that are made of bits and pieces of animals or tested on them come by way of their torment and suffering. Animals are used to make shoes, purses, meals, and even lifestyle accessories chosen to match an outfit,” PETA rattled on, “as if they didn’t have any feeling at all.
“We believe,” PETA said, “that if Barbie and Ken find out about the work PETA does in their adventure, they’ll be on board as enthusiastic supporters of animal rights. So we’re releasing a trio of unofficial Barbie-compatible packs so your Barbie and Ken dolls can take part in animal-saving action.”
The Ken kit, PETA added, “will get Ken all set to clean his local waterways of harmful litter that hurts and kills fish. This kind of fishing sure beats putting holes in fish’s sensitive lips and suffocating them.”
Ken in floor-length furs
PETA apparently has yet to say anything about Ken wearing a full-length faux mink coat in the Barbie film.
“The white ‘fur’ coat Gosling wears,” explained Variety writer Jazz Tangcay on July 21, 2023, “is in the scene when a glitch in the seemingly perfect world that is Barbieland causes Barbie to have human feelings and existential thoughts, which result in Ken and the army of Kens taking over and turning it into Ken-Dom, where patriarchy reigns.”
“That coat is fake,” costume designer Jacqueline Durran emphasized to Tangcay. “But, if you look closely at the inner lining, we did line it with a horse print.”
This, Tangcay said, was “nodding to Ken’s fascination for horses after he visits California” in the film.
Continued Tangcay, “Durran says when she and Gerwig were figuring out what this not-so-perfect version of Ken would look like, she had seen a photo of Sylvester Stallone modeling a fur coat and that became the main inspiration for the Ken-dom Ken look.
“That image is in the movie,” Durran told Tangcay, “and it was such a fantastic image of exuberance and fashion of someone like him wearing a huge mink coat in the ’80s that it just had to become part of the Ken look.”
Mattel does not put Barbie in fur, but others do
Barbie herself has apparently never worn real fur from Mattel, though knock-off accessory makers have sold fur garments in her sizes for almost as long as Barbie has existed.
Ken, however, just a year after his Mattel debut, in 1963-1964 sported a “Going Hunting” outfit.
Ken, now 61, has yet to sprout either a beard or visible gonads, and has been cited as an early example of how endocrine-disrupting chemicals interfere with normal gonadal development and the emergence of secondary sexual characteristics.
Perhaps belatedly considering the possible causes of Ken’s evident sexual dysfunctionality, which may have contributed to Barbie purportedly “breaking up” with him on Valentine’s Day 2004, only to reunite with him in 2011, Mattel is reportedly “seeking to shift all of its products and packaging to recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic materials” by the end of 2023.
“Jane Goodall” Barbie
This corporate goal was announced in July 2022 with the release of a “Jane Goodall doll made of recycled plastic,” as “part of Barbie’s ‘Inspiring Women’ series.”
Mattel at the same time introduced a “2022 Career of the Year Eco-Leadership” doll set, including “a chief sustainability officer, conservation scientist, renewable energy engineer and an environmental advocate,” all “made from recycled ocean-bound plastic” and “certified as carbon neutral” by Climate Impact Partners.
The latter, incidentally, looks from here like a greenwashing gimmick.
ANIMALS 24-7 can, however, express some appreciation for who Barbie really is, as distinct from her Mattel-manufactured image, and especially of how far she has come from her beginnings.
Cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien, recounts Koriander Bullard in The Stolen Legacy of Bild Lilli, was hired in 1952 by the Germany company Axel Springer SE “to draw a one-panel comic for their brand new tabloid Bild. The heavily nationalist and conservative tabloid needed a cartoon.
“So he drew a nasty, unruly baby girl.”
The baby girl “flopped with his editor,” Bullard wrote, “So he grew her up, added a ponytail, gave her a buxom figure, and drew a gag where she was asking a fortune teller for the address and telephone number of the tall, dark, and handsome men most fortune tellers tell young ladies they see in their crystal balls.
“On June 24, 1952, much of Germany fell in love with this mysterious blonde. It wouldn’t be long before the country would know her by one name, Bild Lilli.”
“Saw men as objects and never as people”
Had Bild Lilli been a real person of about the 18 years of age she appeared to be, she would have been born at about the same time Adolph Hitler came to power. She would have grown up in Nazi Germany. She might have been a member of Hitler Youth, endured World War II in her childhood, apparently losing her parents, who never appeared in Beuthien’s drawings, and would have learned in her teens that every ideal earlier inculcated by her schooling was either a Nazi lie or intertwined with lies too unbearable to contemplate.
Amid the deprivations of post-World War II Germany, Bild Lilli might well have grown into the hyper-materialistic character of the Beuthien cartoons, exploiting her sexuality to survive.
“Lilli’s character saw men as objects and never as people,” assessed Bullard. “She was always more interested in their money and in their looks than in anything else, and she never had the same boyfriend twice.
“Never-ending challenge to the status quo”
“It was her never-ending challenge to the status quo that eventually drew in female readers,” Bullard suggested. “In one famous strip, a police officer threatened to arrest her because it was still highly illegal in most places outside of a beach to be caught in public in a bikini. Lilli’s response? ‘Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?’
“Lilli’s popularity grew so fast,” Bullard wrote, “that Bild decided to merchandise their new star.”
Toy designer Max Weissbrodt of the O&M Haußer produced a recognizable semblance of Barbie as she exists today.
“By 1953, less than a year since her comic debut,” Bullard mentioned, Bild Lilli dolls were sold “at tobacconists and newspaper kiosks in plastic tubes with tiny doll-sized copies of recent issues of Bild.
“Lilli wasn’t only the world’s first mass-marketed plastic fashion doll; she was the first to come in different sizes.
“Another trend Bild Lilli popularized was offering the same doll, but in new outfits. These fashionable, daring, and gorgeous costumes were so well designed that it wasn’t long before they were sold separately.”
Favored mascot of Cold War pilots
The plastic girl who, if real, might have been shaking off a Nazi childhood, became a favored mascot of U.S., British, and French flyers during the Cold War.
“Other toy companies noticed how children also enjoyed this doll,” Bullard continued, “so they began to make unofficial dollhouses, furniture, clothes, and accessories to accommodate Lilli, while O&M Haußer released Lilli in new hair colors.
“Soon, Lilli was being sold in Italy, Scandinavia, and England, and shockingly, she was in fact sold in the United States as just ‘Lilli’ or as ‘Lilli Marleen/Marlene.’
“In Hong Kong, bootleg Lilli dolls were sold in pink boxes where Lilli was smoking a cigarette. In Spain, Lilli had a darker-skinned ‘friend’ with dark brown and black hair.”
Lilli made her film debut,” Bullard recalled, “in the 1958 black-and-white murder comedy Lilli – ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt, or Lilli, A Girl From The Big City. The live-action film starring Danish actress Ann Smyrner featured Lilli in a race against time to help the police stop a pastor-turned-gangster-and-murderer who was smuggling counterfeit bills.
“In the film, Lilli uses her charms and seductive good looks to deal with sleazy and suspicious men at a hotel while also holding down her job at a newspaper.”
Like many young German women at the time, including actress turned animal philanthropist Erika Brunson, Lilli used her success to emigrate to the U.S., shedding problematic history including her old given name to take advantage of a much wider range of economic opportunities, and to become a star in a whole new context.
Emigrating to the U.S. as a doll took the intervention of Ruth Handler, who re-invented Barbie as she is now known.
“In 1956, Ruth Handler took a vacation with her husband and children Barbara (Barbie) and Kenneth (Ken) Handler to Germany,” Bullard summarized. “There, she purchased a few Bild Lilli dolls,” and began the Barbie remake, including obtaining the copyright and trademark for the name “Barbie” in 1958.
The Barbie doll “debuted in a black and white striped one-piece,” Bullard said, at the New York toy fair on March 9, 1959.
“Around this time, the rights to Bild Lilli’s dolls were usurped by Louis Marx & Company, while Mattel began a hostile takeover of the Bild Lilli copyrights, ousting Bild, O&M Haußer, and Reinhard Beuthien from the world they had created. By 1961, Lilli no longer appeared in any new comics, and most of her cartoons and her film were largely suppressed,” Bullard wrapped up.
“O&M Haußer and Marx would close doors in the 1980s, while Bild continues today as a conservative tabloid in Germany,” Bullard noted.
Over 200 occupations in 64 years
Since then, the peripatetic Barbie might be described as either multi-talented and hyper-ambitious, or as someone who cannot keep a job, having had well over 200 occupations in her 64-year U.S. working career without ever appearing to age.
Animals have all the while been a big part of Barbie’s life, including riding horses and ponies for herself and Ken almost from their respective beginnings.
None have ever been “Big Lick” show horses, race horses, or used for fox hunting.
Western Barbie and Ken, introduced in 1980, appeared to be country-western singers. They were definitely not rodeo performers. Having never been able to stand up unassisted, Ken had little chance of remaining on a bucking horse or bull for even eight seconds, even if Barbie could ride side-saddle through a barrel-racing course.
“A plethora of pets”
“Over the years, Barbie has had a plethora of pets, from dogs and cats to horses and even a zebra,” observed Josie Messeter for the news aggregating web site Animals Around the Globe.
“However, the Barbie movie didn’t feature many animals,” Messeter lamented, “and those who did appear were plastic.”
Barbie was still associated with animals chiefly as plastic pets when the “Barbie Animal Lovin’” play set series was released in 1988. The series included Barbie herself in two ethnicities, Ken, a female character named Nikki, plush dogs and cats, and of course many “Animal Lovin’” costumes.
But among Barbie’s first careers, and the career to which she has returned most often, was veterinarian, also described as “Animal Doctor” and “Pet Vet.”
Decades ago, at a time when more than 90% of the veterinarians in the U.S. were men, Barbie wore “a cute career dress with a pet-inspired print, a white, mid-length vet coat, and trendy purple shoes,” with a “little kitty patient ready for an exam.”
Today women dominate small animal veterinary practice by a ratio of more than two-to-one.
Ken meanwhile became a wildlife vet, in a play set sold with a “veterinary care station, baby cheetah and monkey figures, and accessories to care for the animals.”
Ken was later demoted to dog trainer, coming with “two adorable dog figures,” a large white dog and a small black dog, plus “a hoop ring, balance bar, jumping bar, trophy and two winner ribbons.”
Lured to the beach
Perhaps because Ken was demoted, Barbie and Ken were lured away to the beach.
Though Ken certainly could not ride a wave on his wobbly feet, he was sold with a surf board accessory, plus a pit bull puppy, who may have terrorized other beach-goers while Ken struggled to keep his head above water and Barbie used a “puppy squirt toy” to tease a “dolphin with sounds,” in a “color-change top.”
By 1996 Barbie had become a SeaWorld trainer, complete with orca, dolphin, and sea lion.
The SeaWorld trainer gig ended in April 2015. The SeaWorld “licensing deal expired and we’ve elected not to renew it,” Mattel spokesperson Alex Clark told Ben Popkin of NBC News.
Recalled Popkin, “In 2010, a SeaWorld trainer [Dawn Brancheau] was drowned by an orca in front of watching park guests. The company was fined and a 2013 documentary Blackfish fueled public outcry over the death and over captive killer whales.”
A Barbie companion doll, Chelsea, is still in the performing animal business, riding an elephant.
Poultry & pig farmers
Barbie and Ken meanwhile pursued also problematic careers in animal agriculture.
Barbie was a red-haired “Chicken Farmer” sold with “Henhouse, three chickens, and two chicks, plus eggs and a basket.”
Ken raised a plastic piglet on the improbably named Sweet Orchard Farm.
Of course these scenarios, with only metaphorical manure in sight, were much closer to the realities of petting zoos than those of industrial-scale animal agriculture.
Barbie later became a “wilderness guide,” in an “outdoor environment” playset “featuring a tree, bridge path, a cave and a lovely rainbow overhead,” along with a “fox, baby deer, two baby bears, a skunk, two birds, two bunnies and a squirrel.”
This sounds more like a suburban back yard than “wilderness,” but why quibble.
Mattel’s most serious and most obvious misstep with the Barbie animal-loving image may have been “Spanish Barbie,” introduced in 2000 as part of a “Dolls of the World” series.
“This doll, dressed as a matador, glorified the despicable murder of bulls, to young children no less!” raged Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] founder Steve Hindi.
Hindi had just videotaped multiple bullfights in Mexico in connection with a campaign against U.S. sponsors of Mexican bullfighting. Barbie images juxtaposed with images from the bullfighting videos became the basis of the SHARK campaign to get Mattel to withdraw the doll.
“After a public campaign by SHARK that took the harsh reality of bullfighting to the streets,” Hindi recounted, “Mattel heeded the public outcry. The makers of the Bullfighting Barbie assured SHARK there would be no more.”
So-called Spanish Barbie reappeared briefly in 2002, but was again withdrawn after renewed protest.
Greenpeace clashed with Mattel in 2011 for allegedly using paper from Indonesian rain forests to package Barbie dolls, to the possible detriment of orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and other species jeopardized by rain forest logging.
Ten Greenpeace protesters were arrested on June 7, 2011 for hanging a banner on the Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, California.
After a Greenpeace U.K. image of Barbie with a chainsaw, cutting down an old growth tree, went viral on social media, Mattel adopted new packaging and adopted a policy against using materials from companies “that are known to be involved in deforestation,” Greenpeace announced on October 5, 2011.
“Dog Breeder Barbie”
PETA in 2017 asked supporters to “Tell Mattel That Barbie Shouldn’t Be a Dog Breeder!” in a campaign posting renewed as recently as 2022, responding to the “Barbie Newborn Pups” playset.
“Barbie has long been fur-free and an animal advocate,” PETA began, “but Mattel has taken a turn for the worse and is now selling a breeder Barbie. This doll, which comes with a pregnant toy dog and three pups, sends the damaging message that bringing more dogs into the world is something to be excited about and celebrate, when in reality, breeding contributes to the overwhelming companion-animal overpopulation crisis.”
Whether Mattel has responded positively to PETA on that score is unclear.
Not the real Barbie
Meanwhile, Barbie and Mattel are not to blame for knock-offs such as the many fur-wearing Barbies.
Certainly the real Barbie has nothing to do with the “Barbie & Ken hunting outfits” sold by WhosThatDoll in Macon, Georgia, nor with the “Adventure Girlz Hunting Play Set” sold by Bass Pro Shops, featuring a similar doll named Haley “in a full pink camo outfit, pink hunting vest, and cap; camo tent; binoculars; two walkie-talkies; buck; deer rattles; rifle; boar and turkey paper targets with stands; and tree stand with ladder.”
Neither can Barbie and Mattel be fairly blamed for such travesties as a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre Barbie Playset,” variants of Barbie, Ken, and playmates as a dominatrix, and so forth.
The real Barbie, despite inconsistencies which mirror the inconsistencies of her audience, tries to be a nice girl who loves animals and tries to encourage others to follow her lead, perhaps even more successfully during her long working lifetime than any real-life animal advocate.