Margot Robbie's Barbie gives a big smile while sitting in a pink Corvette

Where Did Barbie Come From?

She’s a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world! But where did she come from? Well, Barbie—whose full “official” name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, by the way—has quite the fascinating origin story.

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Her creator was a woman named Ruth Handler, a toymaker and the co-founder of Mattel. Handler passed away in 2002, but in the decade prior to that she gave plenty of interviews about where exactly Barbie came from. And maybe knowing Ruth’s daughter was named Barbara will give you a hint?

There were two inspirations for Barbie

Yep, Barbie is named after Barbara “Barbie” Handler. And really the very genesis of the Barbie doll came from Barbara, as well. Ruth Handler said in a 1994 interview with Lilith magazine:

“Barbie used to love to play with paper dolls. We went to the dime store together each Saturday, and I noticed that she always chose teenage dolls, never baby dolls or children dolls, and she and her friends used to play for hours with the teenage dolls. I listened to how they would project their future with their dolls.”

As for Barbie’s body shape and overall design, that’s a different matter. Handler got the inspiration for that from a different doll. Here’s how she told it:

“Finally, when Barbara was too old to play with dolls—12 or 13—we took the children to Europe. We were walking down a street in Lucerne and in the window of a toy store was a display of grown-up dolls with women’s bodies. They were called ‘Lilly’ from a European cartoon, and were wearing ski outfits. There were 4 or 5 different styles of ski outfits. I asked Barbara, ‘Would you like one for your room—decoratively?’ She had a hard time choosing which one she wanted. I asked if we could buy the costumes separately and I got a ‘crazy American’ reaction.”

The “Lilly” doll Handler describes is better known as Bild Lilli, a German doll that was apparently considered very risqué by the standards of the 1950s. She was based on a cartoon character of the same name, a woman who was presented in the pages of Bild newspaper as “a golddigger, exhibitionist, and floozy,” according to Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. That doesn’t sound like Barbie at all! (Unless you want your own Barbie to be all those things, and hey, who’s stopping you?)

Barbie was a very different character, but Handler was nervous about introducing an adult woman doll to the American market. She told Lilith magazine:

“The idea of a doll with breasts was not received well. Most of the buyers [for stores] were men, and some didn’t think women would want their daughters to have a doll with breasts! And they themselves didn’t want their daughters to have such a doll! But when we first shipped the doll it just walked off the shelves.”

She debuted Barbie at the annual New York Toy Fair on 9 March 1959—a date that has become Barbie’s official birthday. Two years later, Mattel released the first Ken doll, likewise named after one of Handler’s children—her son, Kenneth.

The rights to the Bild Lilli doll were sold to Mattel in 1964, so be prepared to spend a whole lot of money if you’d prefer a Lilli to a Barbie; they’re collector’s items now.

Where are the Handlers now?

Kenneth Handler, who went on to be a screenwriter, passed away in 1994, while his mother Ruth died in 2002 at the age of 85. Barbara is still alive, and she seemingly actually has a role in the Barbie movie! According to HuffPost, the elderly woman who speaks to Margot Robbie’s Barbie and tells her “Humans only get one ending. Ideas live forever,” is Barbara Handler herself! And she definitely knows a thing or two about iconography.

(featured image: Warner Bros.)

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Sarah Barrett
Sarah Barrett (she/her) is a freelance writer with The Mary Sue who has been working in journalism since 2014. She loves to write about movies, even the bad ones. (Especially the bad ones.) The Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and the Star Wars prequels changed her life in many interesting ways. She lives in one of the very, very few good parts of England.