The Observer

Celebrating 60 Years of the Barbie Doll in France

Launched in the U.S. in 1959, Barbie made her overseas debut at an international toy fair in Lyon on February 17, 1963. Sixty years later, the French are still of two minds about this all-American icon.
© Mathilde Aubier

Among the historical milestones being marked this year in France – the first public session of the Académie Française, Molière’s death, the launch of the Ariane space program – there’s one that may seem slightly frivolous. That’s right: 2023 is also the sixtieth anniversary of the arrival of the Barbie doll in Europe. Launched in the U.S. by Mattel in 1959, Barbie made her overseas debut at an international toy fair in Lyon on February 17-23, 1963. Mattel’s early attempts to sell directly to French stores and distributors had been met with Gallic disdain. First, the doll was “too American” (shorthand for “brash and vulgar”). Second, and more important, she was seen as too adult. And disreputably adult at that: “No parent would want to buy a doll that looks like a trollop,” was the general sentiment.

Undeterred, Mattel’s reps approached a man named Philippe Mayer, who had built a successful business importing toys from Sweden and the U.K. He showed the doll to his wife, who pooh-poohed its clothes. But their young daughter was immediately besotted, so Mayer decided to take a risk and sign a distribution deal with the U.S. company. Barbie’s career in France had begun, albeit timidly, and would go steadily from strength to strength, despite drawing flak from feminists, psychologists, educationalists, and a host of other ists.

Half a century later, she was the star of a major exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Where once Barbie was viewed by the French as the epitome of l’American way of life, in all its splendor and superfluity, by the late 2010s she had come to personify a universal dimension made up of social, political, and cultural changes. How did a diminutive doll become an outsize – and controversial – symbol, not only in her home country but around the world? And why have the French always been of two minds about this all-American icon?

One of the answers may lie in the history and importance of fashion in France, and the role played by dolls. As far back as the 18th century, the noun une poupée referred not only to a child’s plaything but also to a miniature tailor’s dummy used by dressmakers and seamstresses to display their creations. Whatever its purpose, the doll’s most important aspect was its apparel. Les poupées de mode – fashion dolls – were dispatched far and wide to the palaces and salons of Europe in order to show off the latest Parisian styles and designs.

According to the American historian Joan DeJean, the importance of fashion, both economic and aesthetic, in France can be traced to King Louis XIV, who saw himself as the ultimate arbiter of style. During his reign, royal tastes and preferences swept across the country and beyond, becoming synonymous with elegance and sophistication. (The king’s financial comptroller, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, also played a part by mandating the use of French-made textiles and banning Asian imports – a policy with a strangely contemporary echo.) Fashion became cool and the bourgeoisie were its subservient followers, as attested by a term coined at that time: esclave de la mode, or fashion slave.

It is fashion that links la poupée de mode to the 20th-century Barbie doll, though with one crucial difference. Whereas the 18th-century figurine was merely a shell for showing off a designer’s handiwork, Barbie was portrayed as a “real” person, while her clothes and accessories were costumes and props for a whole roster of roles, from astronaut to zoologist. Crucially, if previous generations of children played with baby versions of themselves, Barbie was an adult in miniature. There lies the difference.

Mattel’s co-founder, Ruth Handler, had noticed that her daughter was treating dolls as though they were grown-ups, not babies. She was also aware that the toy market mirrored the gender binary: Boys had toys which allowed them to imagine their professional future while girls’ play was focused on maternity. So Handler decided to design a grown-up doll that would break that time-honored mold. She found a prototype that was adult in more ways than one – a German doll based on a cartoon courtesan called Lili – and redesigned it as an exaggeratedly curvy young woman, whom she named after her daughter. Thus was born Barbara Millicent Roberts, aka Barbie.

The initial response from industry professionals was highly skeptical. Mattel executives, all of them male and unused to the idea of a businesswoman, were unimpressed: “Little girls want baby dolls; they want to pretend to be mommies,” they mansplained. Others were clearly embarrassed by a toy with (relatively) life-like breasts. But Ruth Handler was convinced that girls would understand Barbie as soon as they saw her. She was right. From the moment the doll went on sale, it was a runaway success. A record-breaking 351,000 Barbies flew off the shelves in her market debut year – a sales record for Mattel, which had to triple production to keep pace with demand. So much for mansplaining.

© Mathilde Aubier

Barbie’s initial success in the U.S. was boosted by the new medium of television advertising. Mattel, a pioneer in TV commercials for children, ran a campaign playing on the aspirational aspect of its doll – “Beautiful Barbie, one day I’ll be like you” – and brought her directly into the homes of young customers. Consequently, kids flocked to toy stores and consumer demand soared. As Ruth Handler said: “The minute that doll hit the counter, she walked right off!”

Four years later she walked right into France, a conservative toy market where advertising was still confined to the press and billboards (the first commercials for consumer goods did not air until 1968). However, after that lukewarm debut in Lyon, a Paris daily newspaper ran a glowing article headlined “The Doll Who’s a Real Woman.” And of course, French children, just like young Americans, rushed out to buy a Barbie, or pestered their parents into retail submission. Philippe Mayer’s bet had paid off.

Barbie was to prove almost as popular in France as in the U.S. And almost as controversial. For despite Ruth Handler’s assertion that her aim was to empower young girls, her creation came to be seen as a conformist clotheshorse, a frilly fashionista. That Barbara Millicent Roberts also had a career – actually, more than 150 careers – and was considered by her fans as an inspiration went seemingly unnoticed. As did the fact that her progenitor was a woman. One Parisian child psychiatrist wrote sniffily: “Of course, the man who designed Barbie had not an ounce of feminism: He projected the image of a sexual object, based on a Jayne Mansfield-type American prototype.”

Yet the doll made her mark in other, more symbolic ways. Her arrival in the 1960s coincided with a decade of radical change in French society, culminating in the epoch-defining civil unrest that erupted in May 1968. The pediatric psychoanalyst Claude Halmos remarked that “Barbie was not a mere adult fantasy but a herald of the sexual revolution, contraception, and women’s emancipation. She resonated with an implicit expectation of children, who later became the teenagers of the 1960s.”

Of course, Barbie was always more than just a toy. Ruth Handler had imagined her as a role model for young girls – an excitingly new concept in France for pre-teen girls, and their parents. Although French toymakers quickly brought out competing dolls, many with English-sounding names like Tressy, Dolly, or Milly, it was Barbie l’Américaine that stayed the course and, with time, reflected shifting patterns of social and professional identities.

The launch of gender-neutral versions of the doll in 2019 may have been one of the inspirations for a French industry-wide pact, signed that same year, to rid toys of gendered stereotypes and encourage more young girls to pursue science and math careers. On co-signing the agreement with various trade bodies, the then junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said: “A young girl might want to be a doctor, not a princess. She might want to be a knight in armor and go into battle, not live locked up in a castle and invite her friends over for tea.” Then she tweeted pictures of Barbie dolls dressed as astronauts, firefighters, and robotics engineers.

So, Barbie Bimbo or Barbie Brainbox? The debate is bound to rumble on, but one thing is certain. As Ruth Handler once explained, the doll has always represented the fact that little girls can be anything they wanted to be. Joyeux anniversaire, Barbie.

Article published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.