Barbie Has A Disturbing Origin And People Are Just Learning About It

Barbie has a disturbing origin and people are only just realising.
Credit: Alamy

People are only just finding out about the disturbing origin of the Barbie doll.

According to Time, the Barbie doll is only behind LEGO as the most influential toy of all time and it’s easy to see why.

Since launching in 1959, the toy has been an inspiration for girls all over the world, with it having had multiple careers – including being a doctor, lawyer and even the President of the United States – as well as embracing cultural diversity by there being dolls from different ethnicities.

Barbie’s popularity is arguably at an all-time high due to the billion-dollar success of the Barbie film.

While the Margot Robbie-led movie does a good job of exploring how Ruth Handler came up with the doll, it leaves out a disturbing detail.

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When you think of a Barbie doll, you probably associate it with having blonde hair and maybe red lipstick.

Well, that look is actually inspired by the German character Bild Lilli – who first debuted in 1952, as per the German daily Der Spiegel.

She was introduced as a comic-strip character in the Hamburg newspaper Bild-Zeitung, but her popularity saw her created as an adult novelty toy, as per Time – which was released in 1955 by the manufacturer Greiner & Hausser.

Prior to making the Lilli doll, the manufacturer was actually known for mass-producing German soldier figurines, and later, Wehrmacht soldiers – which was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany – as well as members of the Nazi SA and SS, as per Euronews.

However, in post-war Germany, toy soldiers and military vehicles became less popular, so they then transitioned to producing toy cowboys and Native Americans.

Lilli doll
German doll Bild Lilli was the inspiration behind Barbie. Credit: Alamy

Robin Gerber, the author of ‘Barbie and Ruth’, explained: “Lilli dolls could be bought in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores.

“Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.”

According to Handler, as reported by Business Insider, the creator was apparently inspired by the Lilli dolls during a family trip to Europe.

She explained that she and her daughter Barbara (whom Barbie is named after) walked past a toy shop in the Swiss Alps and they were ‘transfixed’ by the toy, as per PBS.

Handler reportedly took three of the dolls back with her to California and showed them to the toy manufacturer Mattel – which ultimately led to Barbie being created.

While they share similar looks, Handler did make some alterations.

For instance, Lilli’s curved eyebrows were adjusted to look like arches and Barbie’s lips were softened too. Handler also gave Barbie toes – which is different to Lilli whose shoes were already a part of her legs.

Their personalities are polar opposites too, as Lilli was often cheeky and a little flirty in her comic appearances.

In one strip, she is shown covering her naked body with a newspaper and explaining to a friend: “We had a fight and he took back all the presents he gave me.”

Another panel shows Lilli in a bikini and when a policeman tells her that two-piece swimsuits are illegal, she responds: “Oh, and in your opinion, which part should I take off?”

Mattel did however get into a legal battle with Lilli’s manufacturers Greiner & Hausser – who noticed the similarities between their doll and Barbie.

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Author Orly Lobel explained in her book ‘You Don’t Own Me: The Court Battles That Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side’, that Mattel didn’t offer any loyalties to Greiner & Hausser, nor did they seek permission to use Lilli’s likeness for the Barbie doll.

They would go on to sue the American manufacturers – who denied the allegations – and the suit was settled.

But in 1964, Mattel bought Greiner & Hausser’s copyrights and patent rights to Lillie and took the doll out of production.

A lawsuit re-emerged in the early 2000s – with the now-bankrupt Greiner & Hausser accusing Mattel of fraud, as per Lobel (via Business Insider).

However, this claim was dismissed by the court.

Barbie dolls
Barbie’s popularity is arguably at an all-time high due to the billion-dollar success of the Barbie film. Credit: Alamy

People are only just finding out about Barbie’s origin and have taken to social media to react to it.

One person writes: “So, the origin of Barbie was based on a German comic strip character featured as a post-war, sassy, ambitious golddigger, exhibitionist, and floozy.

“Seriously, as a young girl, I always felt that something was off about that doll.”

“I Google Barbie’s origin and Barbie is a German s** doll named Lilli please explain,” says someone else. 

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Written by Rosario Monachino

Rosario is a content editor at IGV who specialises in film, TV and entertainment news. He has a degree in English and Film from the University of Salford and a masters in Journalism from Liverpool John Moores University.