John Walsh: 'Barbie was based on a cartoon prostitute who'd do anything for money'

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

Next month should be fun for the people at Mattel Corp, the global toy-maker. They're about to inaugurate a year of jolly events to celebrate the 50th birthday of Barbie, the doll whose unfeasibly long legs are matched by the unfeasibility of her huge bosom. Now a writer called Jerry Oppenheimer is all set to pee on their fireworks by publishing Toy Monster: The Big Bad World of Mattel, in which the designer who came up with Barbie, one Jack Ryan, is revealed as a bit of a perve.

Much married (once to Zsa Zsa Gabor) and voraciously omnisexual, Ryan liked to hang out with busty prostitutes and high-class call girls who reminded him of his creation. He seems to have conducted real Seventies orgies (like the ones in The Joy of Sex) at his Bel-Air home with several Barbie-alikes, and took an unsavoury interest in the woman who provided the voice of Barbie in a series of talking dolls. He didn't have the doll's voice-box adjusted to say, "Give it to me right now, big boy," but he seems to have had trouble distinguishing extruded plastic women from ones made of flesh.

Are we surprised by Ryan's obsession? Mattel has for years stressed the healthy, clean-living, elegant, professional-career-woman side of their most lucrative toy, her importance as a role-model for girls, her function as a dream of successful womanhood (Engineer Barbie, Consultant Surgeon Barbie, but not Washed-Up Single Mother On Council Estate Barbie) and her utter lack of sexual identity. Despite the vast bosom, she never possessed nipples or genitalia; despite her boyfriend Ken (based on the son of the founder of Mattel, who turned out to be gay), she was never likely to become Pregnant Barbie or Hackney Slapper Barbie. But when we read Ryan's former friend Stephen Gnass explaining how, "when Jack talked about creating Barbie, it was like listening to somebody talking about a sexual episode... It was almost like listening to a sexual pervert," we could be forgiven for wondering: what's been going on in the nursery all these years? Can it be that Barbie, instead of being for 50 years a limber, apple-cheeked, sporty tomboy with a big future in the boardroom, had always been an emblem of the female playthings Ryan so casually enjoyed for cash? And have their little-girl owners always realised?

A trawl of the internet brings the alarming news that Barbie was modelled on a German doll, a three-dimensional representation of a fictional prostitute called Lilli in the comic-strip of a German newspaper, Bild Zeitung. She serviced German businessmen and was cheeky to the cops. Platinum-haired and tarty, she would do anything with sweaty clients, provided the money was right. This was the doll Ryan encountered in 1955, and he adjusted it for the consumption of American children, by tidying up her lips and filing off her nipples. You can just see the thin smile on his leery face as he turned her into his kinda girl. Yeesh.

In the new Harlot magazine (I get it for the agony column), Tracy Quan, the author of Confessions of a Manhattan Call-Girl, claims Barbie as a role-model for her generation of prostitutes, because of the way she concealed her murky past beneath Attorney Barbie respectability. "Marketed as a harmless plaything, the all-American prom queen turns out to have been a foreign whore on the run," Quan writes. "Somehow, the kind of girl your brother couldn't take home to Mom became a role model for millions of young girls." Elsewhere in the magazine, a San Franciscan writer called Cintra Wilson shockingly recalls how she used to arrange for her Barbie doll to have sex with a gruff and violent GI Joe. "Barbie is no unconscious sexual icon to children," she writes. "Even at seven, we knew she was a wanton, submissive bimbo."

OhMiGod. What have I allowed into the children's innocent lives over the years? Has the presence of 15 or 20 Barbies in the nursery been an unconscious replaying of one of Ryan's orgies? Have the dolls been transmitting messages of sexual compliance into the children's cerebral cortices? I think, guiltily, of the party where I talked to an acquaintance who'd never been to my house before. "It's lovely," he said, "to meet your beautiful daughter." I pointed out that I have two – which did he mean? "The one that's dressed like a hooker," he replied. I thought about it. "Sorry," I said. "Could be either."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories