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'LA Made: The Barbie Tapes' is giving the Barbie deep dive we didn't know we needed

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

She's a pilot. She's an astronaut. She's a doctor. She's Barbie. Since the 1950s, Mattel's iconic Barbie doll has been and done almost everything. What started as one doll turned into a universe of characters, movies, TV shows and lunchboxes. And after all of that, Barbie seems to be having a distinct cultural moment right now with the much-anticipated Greta Gerwig movie. To join us now to talk about all things Barbie, including a frank discussion about the sexualized origins of the doll, we have M.G. Lord, who wrote the book "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography Of A Real Doll," and Antonia Cereijido, a host at LAist Studios. Together, they host the new podcast miniseries "LA Made: The Barbie Tapes." Welcome to you both.

ANTONIA CEREIJIDO: Thanks so much for having us.

M G LORD: Yeah. Hi, Scott.

DETROW: The podcast is called "The Barbie Tapes," and the tapes in question are, M.G., the archival tapes of interviews you did with seemingly all of the major players at the creation of Barbie. You had this trove of tapes for a long time. And in the very beginning of the first episode, Antonia, you describe coming in and kind of, you know, digging them out of a safe like it was gold bullion or something.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah, exactly.

LORD: Well, it was also because, you know, I hadn't touched them since 1993 or -4, and I lost the key to the fireproof lockbox.

DETROW: Oh, man.

LORD: So it presented more of a challenge.

CEREIJIDO: And I like this idea of, like, introducing Barbie as, like, an ancient artifact that we're sort of gathering material around 'cause even though Barbie has only been around for a little over 60 years, she's sort of been coded into our DNA and does feel like if an archaeologist a hundred years from now were to unearth items from today, Barbie would help explain a lot of U.S. culture.

LORD: Yeah, I think it's not just her trendy clothes, though. I mean, I've always thought of Barbie as a Space Age recasting of a Stone Age fertility goddess, you know, a Neolithic fertility totem. I think these dolls have incredibly trendy clothes, but an underlying mythic resonance.

DETROW: Can you tell me about, though, the actual origin story of Barbie, though? Because I knew none of the details until I listened to this podcast and especially the connection to this - I don't even know how to describe it - this German doll Lilli, which comes from a very different background and had a very different target audience than Barbie did.

LORD: Well, as pieces of sculpture, the Barbie doll and the Lilli doll are almost indistinguishable, but they have very different invented personalities. Lilli was based on a comic character in the Bild-Zeitung, kind of a downscale German tabloid newspaper like the National Enquirer. And in every one of the single panel comics, it's kind of - it's an ongoing joke, and it all takes this form of, like, Lilli taking money from jowly fat cats for sexual favors.

CEREIJIDO: And just to clarify, the Lilli doll was a doll that Ruth Handler, who was one of the co-founders of Mattel, had seen when she was traveling on vacation in the late '50s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH HANDLER: We went to Lucerne. We saw - passed a toy store window. And there were a bunch of these dolls dressed in these very European costumes, these European ski costumes, you know? And when we saw them, we just loved the way - this doll in these windows. So I went in and bought Barbara - one for her and one for me.

DETROW: So what is the streamlined path from that and that context to beloved children's doll in America?

LORD: It was kind of bumpy, but it began when she took this doll she had found in Germany and planted it in the briefcase of another major player, Jack Ryan, a Yale-educated engineer who worked on the Sparrow and Hawk missiles and whom Mattel had hired to do engineering work. Anyway, he took it to Japan, where he was to find someone to make a copy of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK RYAN: And each time I would get a half a dozen back, there were nipples on the breasts.

LORD: (Laughter).

RYAN: And our marketing people were scared to put out a doll with nipples on the breasts. So every time the masters came from Japan, it was my duty to take my little fine Swiss file, which they used for working on watches...

LORD: (Laughter).

RYAN: Swiss files are for watch work. And I very daintily filed the nipples off and returned them. And they kept coming back with nipples. So finally, after I'd filed them off several times, they got the idea that they were supposed to make it without nipples.

CEREIJIDO: And just hearing someone actually tell that story, you're like, wow, somebody did that. And now Barbie is so part of, like, all of our lives. It's incredible. Yeah.

LORD: Yeah, it was really extraordinary.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Antonia, what was the most interesting thing that you learned about these early days of Barbie doing this podcast?

CEREIJIDO: There are so many interesting things. I mean, one thing that just really fascinates me - the sheer amount of market research that went into the doll. So I think - everything was really thought out. And when you're looking at the doll and all the different iterations, like, it really is sort of a composite of, like, a lot of different children's desires at the time. So it's very reflective of whatever moment it's in, and that's because so much research went into making these dolls and figuring out what actually spoke to little girls.

DETROW: Well, did you see some long-lasting marks from that initial framing and marketing in terms of Barbie over the years? Because, you know, on one hand, you have the career-type outfits and things like that, but there has been a persistent criticism over the year that, you know, in the end, Barbie is teaching young girls to be homemakers.

CEREIJIDO: Well, we have an amazing quote from Derek Gable, who was a Barbie designer, where he talks about how every time they did the testing consistently, little girls wanted more hair play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEREK GABLE: So it really wasn't that Barbie was forcing that on the public. It was basically that that's what little girls wanted to play with. And you can - you know, you're in this business to make money, and there's no point...

LORD: Right.

GABLE: ...In having an office girl there or a doctor if the girl - the kids want to play with boutique.

CEREIJIDO: They wanted to play boutique. That actually is so funny. In the third episode, you'll learn - and we can give this little tidbit away - that the most - the highest-selling Barbie of all time, still to this day, is Totally Hair Barbie (laughter) from the early '90s. It just - all kids really wanted was to cut more hair.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: You know.

CEREIJIDO: You're like, OK, what if she's a pilot? They're like, no, hair. Like, what if she's a teacher? No, actually, we just really want more hair.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: M.G., we mentioned at the beginning of this segment that it seems like there's a big cultural moment happening here. And I wonder if you've given any thought to what the people you were interviewing in the 1990s who were present at the creation would have thought about the idea of people still talking about Barbie and buying Barbies in 2023 and then going to the movie theater to see the big, buzzy movie of the summer all about Barbie.

LORD: Well, I called my book "Forever Barbie" because I knew that this thing was not going to go away if only because plastic's not going to degrade in the landfill. But...

DETROW: We have these Barbies for millennium.

LORD: Exactly. It's really interesting to me to look at what I've seen in the movie and see outfits I recognize. I think it's going to awaken buried memories for audiences in addition to being something that they can savor as a piece of high camp.

DETROW: That is M.G. Lord and Antonia Cereijido, and their new podcast is "LA Made: The Barbie Tapes." Thank you so much for joining us.

LORD: Thank you for having us.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE WORLD")

AQUA: (Singing) I'm a Barbie girl in the Barbie world. Life in plastic, it's fantastic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.