Barbie, among the most controversial 11.5 inches of plastic ever to hit the toy market, turns 50 this year. Many women that age would consider themselves lucky to remain such objects of desire. But why, in this era of digital games, educational toys and over-involved parents, does our collective fascination with Barbie linger on?
For linger it does. Ninety percent of American girls ages three to 10 own at least one Barbie, according to the doll's maker, Mattel (nyse: MAT - news - people ), and that's just the primary market. Barbie has inspired impassioned legions of adult collectors who dote on her various iterations and costumes. She is imitated--in December, Mattel won a copyright infringement case against MGA Entertainment, maker of the Bratz dolls, who are a poutier-lipped, trashier variation. And for decades, Barbie had the distinction of being a feminist whipping girl, blamed for inspiring little girls to want to grow up to be sex objects with unrealistic physical proportions. Barbie marches on undaunted.
Barbie and Ruth by Robin Gerber, a new biography of Barbie inventor and Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, offers some clues to a societal love-hate obsession.
Yahoo! BuzzBarbie is fascinating in part because she discomforts, which she does by shining a light where we don't want to look, specifically on children's sexuality. She didn't become controversial with the rise of feminism's second wave in the 1960s; rather, she was a source of contention from the very beginning.
To bring Barbie to market, Handler, at the time executive vice president of Mattel, had to fight her own designers and salesmen, who insisted that no mother would buy such an adult-looking doll for her daughter. When Handler first launched Barbie at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York, in such initial costumes as a zebra-striped bathing suit and a bridal gown, one wholesale buyer after another walked away.
The inspiration behind Handler's invention, she repeatedly said, was her observation that "little girls just wanted to be bigger girls." They didn't want the pudgy baby dolls foisted on them throughout the 1940s and '50s, they wanted dolls they could pretend to be, with grown-up clothes, cars, and, yes, breasts. Translated into an actual woman, the original Barbie's proportions would have been about 39-21-33.
What Handler never seems to have explicitly said was that just as little girls want to be big girls, big girls want to be sexually desired. (Don't take my word for it. This long-observed female characteristic is now the subject of scientific studies; The New York Times Magazine recently ran an overview of the latest research.) Girls who play with Barbie are, among other things, playing at being desired.
The original Barbie was, in fact, modeled after a doll that started life as a sex toy. During a trip to Europe in 1956, Handler discovered Bild-Lilli, a doll based on a saucy German cartoon character who pursued rich men and wore suggestive clothes. Bild-Lilli was originally sold in "tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores," writes Gerber, and given by adults to one another as gag gifts or "suggestive keepsakes."
Handler and her designers toned down their version, for instance by relaxing Lilli's exaggerated puckered lips--a feature later to be reinstated in the Bratz dolls. An early shipment of Barbie prototypes from their Japanese manufacturer had nipples; the makers had not understood Mattel's request that the breasts be smooth.
Barbie also fascinates because she remains a lighting rod for unresolved questions swirling around culture, commerce and children. In straightforward economic models, the consumer buys that which she thinks will maximize her utility. But minors muck up this tidy equation. As a society we limit their rights to vote, drink, drive, join the military and have sex, indicating that we do not trust them to act in their own best interest. So it is paradoxical that we have, by and large, handed over to them unfettered consumer choice. I understand why some countries, like Sweden, have chosen to mitigate the effects of this underage-consumer power by banning advertising during children's television programming.
Just as child consumers disturb the logic of capitalism, so do cultural goods, which differ from food and shelter in the nature of their utility. Buying a toy, a comic book or a ticket to a movie raises a serious question. Sure, we may have chosen the thing we wanted and served our own best interest, as we have every right to do in a free society. But how much does the thing we buy in turn shape us?
Handler would have argued that she was just giving the people--the kids--what they wanted, not implanting those wants in their heads. Little girls wanted big-breasted dolls, and little boys wanted guns. In fact, under Handler Mattel was a gun-toy trailblazer. The company debuted a machine gun called the Burp Gun in 1955, and later the Fanner 50 pistol and a Winchester rifle, all accurate replicas of real guns. Handler's husband and business partner Elliot designed them. She later told an interviewer, "He felt that if children did not have toy guns they would use sticks anyway." Indeed. Barbie-less girls still admire and aspire to grown-up sexiness, and plenty of parents can tell you that boys deprived of gun toys do, in fact, pick up sticks.
Handler does not appear to have been much vexed be these questions; she was too busy selling. A driven and risk-taking executive, she was a pioneer of some of today's evil-genius marketing tactics. She hired the Freud-influenced branding guru Ernest Dichter to devise a marketing strategy for Barbie. After interviewing 191 girls who mostly loved the doll, and 45 mothers who mostly hated it, he advised Handler to make Barbie's breasts bigger--and tell mothers that Barbie would help their daughters learn how to accessorize.
Handler was also a pioneer of television advertising, buying airtime on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 to hawk the Burp Gun. She not only catered to children's basest desires, she helped put the reins of consumer power in their hands.
Today we still fret about how the newest toys, games and entertainment influence children. Do violent games promote violence, or sexy videos promote sex? Like Handler, I'm inclined to think that these products cater to existing desires more than they influence.
We should not be shocked that on some level children like sex and violence, breasts and guns. They are, after all, little humans. The more disturbing phenomenon is that we hand over so much choice and power to individuals who, as the law acknowledges, are still acquiring judgment. Maybe that's why society as a whole sometimes feels so infantile.
Elisabeth Eaves is a deputy editor at Forbes, where she also writes a weekly column.