When I was a little girl, my mother videotaped me playing with Barbie dolls and other toys. It was my short-lived acting career but it was a prelude to my real career: it was research.
My mother is a psychology professor at Tel-Aviv University and she ran studies all over the world showing me having fun with girl toys and boy toys. She then asked participants questions about my intellect, popularity, abilities and found that without exception — whether she ran the study in Israel or Europe or Asia or North America, the result was the same. When I was shown playing with the boy toys I was perceived as more intelligent and more likely to be a leader in my social group. When I was playing with Barbies and other girly toys the subjects of her studies thought less of me.
Needless to say, a side-effect of her research was inadvertently turning her daughter into a critic of the toy industry and our gendered culture from a very early age. Years passed and I became a military commander in the IDF, a lawyer, a law professor, an author and a mother, and the insights I learned from those early psychology experiments persisted: how we play matters. Toys are a serious business.
When I set out to write about the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of the “doll wars”, at the centre of it was the doll that has dominated the pink toy shelves for three generations — Barbie. I wanted to uncover her secret history and how she has battled to keep her image and her near-monopoly market power for over five decades. The story of Barbie begins with Ruth Handler, born Ruth Moskowicz, the youngest of ten children, born in 1916 to a Jewish-Polish family in Colorado.
Her father, a blacksmith, emigrated from Poland, finding work in Denver and sending for his wife and children two years later. The Moskowiczs were extremely poor and, when Ruth’s mother became ill, Ruth’s sister turned surrogate mother, which some people misinterpreted: “It has been suggested to me once or twice that this supposed ‘rejection’ by my mother may have been what spurred me to become the kind of person who always has to prove herself. This seems like utter nonsense.” Nonsense or not, the doll she claims to have invented would never become a mother. Rather, Barbie was destined to live the early dreams of Hertopia: a self-realised woman on her own. Ruth founded Mattel with her husband Elliot Handler, whom she had met at a Jewish youth dance in 1929. They married and had a daughter and a son, Barbara and Kenneth — the dolls Barbie and Ken were born later. In 1956, during a family trip to Switzerland, Handler came across a German doll called Bild Lilli. Lilli was a popular doll in post-war Germany but she was not a child’s plaything, she was an adult toy based on a cartoon. Bluntly, Lilli dolls were designed for sex-hungry German men who bought her for girlfriends and mistresses in lieu of flowers, or as a suggestive gift. Her promotional brochures had such phrases as “Gentlemen prefer Lilli. Whether more or less naked, Lilli is always discreet.”
In Switzerland, Handler tucked Lilli in her suitcase, brought her back to the Mattel headquarters in California and launched Barbie based on her image. The story of Barbie’s success is inextricably tied to her secret past. A multimillion-dollar campaign began, led by another controversial Jewish immigrant, Ernst Ditcher, an Austrian psychologist turned American marketing guru. Dr Dichter used Freudian psychology to convince mothers to bring a hyper-sexualised adult doll into the hearts and minds of little girls.
The Barbie campaign, along with many other consumer marketing campaigns he led, made him the nemesis of mid-century feminists. Dichter’s notorious reputation was based on his manipulation of human desire. He applied psychoanalysis to selling, forever shaping America’s consumption fetishism: a desire to own stuff — which has yet to subside.
As Barbie’s sales soared, Lilli’s owners sued unsuccessfully for patent infringement. Until the early 2000s, Barbie reigned supreme. The challenge, when it came, was from a different doll, and another Jewish entrepreneur.
When I first tried to interview Isaac Larian, the man who introduced Bratz to the world, I hit a wall. His company, MGA’s communications department told me that it had no obligation to talk about its affairs.
I continued trying to contact him when, one day, out of the blue, I received the following e-mail: “Dear Orly, I understand that you are writing a book about [Mattel/MGA] and have talked to some of the lawyers and jurors in this case. Mattel’s stated goal (since they aren’t able to compete and innovate) was to ‘litigate MGA to death.’ Mattel has a history of using litigation to stifle innovation. . . . This time they faced a persistent Iranian Jewish immigrant who stood up to them and prevailed. I would be happy to discuss further detail as I was personally involved from day 1 in this case. Thanks & Best Regards, Isaac Larian CEO MGA Entertainment”.
Larian was positioning himself in the battle against Mattel, now the largest toy-maker in the world, and in his correspondence with me, as the underdog Jewish immigrant entrepreneur.
His email signature ended with the mantra “Fortune Favors the Bold”. This is his favourite maxim, which he has also placed in strategic spots on MGA’s walls, such as the corporate boardroom where I interviewed him.
Boldness is at the heart of Larian’s personality. Nevertheless, along with his loudly defiant nature, Larian has a soft side, which he is confident enough to display. He weeps in public, writes poetry, enjoys fashion and, well, loves his dolls. Mattel’s early days parallel MGA’s — Ruth Handler’s immigrant rags-to-riches story and her statements about being bold shows that she had far more in common with Isaac Larian than with Robert Eckert, the CEO of Mattel during the Barbie-Bratz battles, which ended, after eight years, in a bitter and costly stalemate.
In 1995, Islamic fundamentalists in Kuwait issued a fatwa against Barbie, a ruling under Islamic law prohibiting the buying or selling of this she-devil.
In 2003, when Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced that the “Jewish Barbie” is the symbol of decadence to the perverted West.
The Saudis warned everyone to “beware of her dangers and be careful.” Years later, amid heated legal battles, the press would connect the dots like this: Barbie and Bratz were both the blockbusters of two, successful, immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs in California: Handler in the late 1950s and Larian in beginning of the 21st century.
Is Barbie Jewish then? She is and she isn’t. She is a symbol, a cultural icon, a doll, a multibillion empire, and the heroine of an astounding number of tragic-comic courtroom battles. Her story is unique but universal.
It is about how we battle over creativity, innovation and images of gender and race in highly concentrated markets and how the paths of leaders, in industry and in court, is shaped by their past.
It’s a modern-day David vs Goliath story dressed up in pink glitter with robust busts and the tiniest waists.
‘You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side’ by Orly Lobel is published by W W Norton