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These Facts About Popular Toys Will Make You Say "Wait, What?"

Bet you didn't know that doll couple Barbie and Ken were actually named after siblings.

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In the book You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed
Barbie’s Dark Side
, Orly Lobel goes behind the scenes of the toy industry to understand how toys and games are shaped by legal battles over ownership, consumer psychology, racism, and cultural factors. Here are 10 of the most surprising things she discovered.

1. Barbie and Ken are named after siblings.


The founders of Mattel, Ruth and Elliot Handler, had two kids Barbara and Kenneth, and that’s how Barbie and Ken — the world’s most famous doll couple — got their names.

(The CEO of MGA, the toy company that developed Barbie’s competitor Bratz – the first doll in decades that managed to knock Barbie off the top of the toy charts — also named the first Bratz Doll after his daughter Jasmin.)

2. People physically fought over buying the popular Tickle Me Elmo in stores, and some were hospitalized for injuries or even arrested.

PBS / Via

At the peak of Elmomania, the period in the early 1990s when crazed consumers were paying thousands of dollars on the secondary market for Tickle Me Elmo, consumers fought in stores over the doll to the point of injury and police intervention. Several customers were hospitalized and others were arrested.

The idea actually started as "Tickle the Chimp." At the time, Tyco did not have rights to make Sesame Street licensed dolls, so the company developed the toy as a Looney Tunes Tickle Me Tasmanian Devil, or “Taz.” When Tyco acquired Sesame Street rights, Taz was swapped for Elmo.

3. Mattel once made a diet-obsessed Barbie.

One of the first Barbies ever made by Mattel was called Slumber Party Barbie. She came equipped with a scale — stuck at 110 pounds — and a book called “How to Lose Weight.” The book’s first rule: “Don’t eat!” That paired with Barbie’s completely unrealistic body proportions led feminists over the decades to decry the body image messages that Barbie sent to girls and women.


4. Sponsored slumber parties were used to market toys to girls.

Cartoon Network

Toy companies contract with market intelligence firms such as the Girls Intelligence Agency (GIA), a Los Angeles market research firm to detect and shape the tastes of young children. GIA became infamous for orchestrating girls’ slumber parties. The agency recruits girls, popular and cute, as young as eight years old. The girls get free products, have a sponsored slumber party, and report back to the agency about how the toys were received. The idea is to get the endorsement “cool girls” (also named in the industry “alpha pups”) as guerrilla buzz. According to these agencies, five hundred sponsored slumber parties can eventually reach six hundred thousand girls nationwide. In other words, predating social media and YouTube, which are now the most important way to sell toys to kids and create a viral buzz, slumber parties were the original viral marketing.

5. Chimps and orangutans also play with "dolls" just like humans do.

Dolls existed in ancient Egypt and ancient Rome to enhance fertility, to assume worry, to unload sin, and to teach kids about caring for others. But humans are not the only ones who play with dolls. Primatologists have found wonderful examples of young chimps and orangutans playing with sticks and leaves as dolls, nurturing the stick, rocking the leaf, and even putting their organically made dolls to bed. One study by Harvard researchers shows that female primates carry the sticks like dolls until they have offspring of their own, and that young males do this as well, though less frequently. These young male primates prefer playing with the sticks as toy weapons.

6. Playmobil created an airport security checkpoint toy that was discontinued after criticisms from parents.


Playmobil designed a Security Checkpoint set, made from 2003 to 2007, and described the product this way: “The woman traveler stops by the security checkpoint. After placing her luggage on the screening machine, the airport employee checks her baggage. The traveler hands her spare change and watch to the security guard and proceeds through the metal detector. With no time to spare, she picks up her luggage and hurries to board her flight!”

Parents were not happy, reviewing the toy with statements about teaching kids the realities of living in a high-surveillance state and complaining about huge delays, TSA incompetence, and missing luggage. Playmobil discontinued the set.

7. Some Barbie products have been criticized for promoting stereotypes that girls struggle with math or science.

Random House, Mattel

Talking Barbie dolls came out on the markets saying, among other things, “Math class is tough!” The phrase was so heavily criticized by the American Association of University Women and other feminist groups that soon after, Mattel announced that the doll would no longer say such a line. Still, in a 2014 Mattel-licensed book called Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, published by Random House, Barbie designs a game but needs a boy to come program it. Next, Barbie inadvertently infects her computer with a virus, and has her friend fix that too. “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”


8. A judge ruled that all bulky masculine action figures look basically the same when dismissing a copyright infringement lawsuit against Mattel.


Before Mattel developed its series Masters of the Universe, it passed on a line that would license the rights to Conan the Barbarian. The Conan rights holders sued Mattel for copyright infringement. The court dismissed the case saying that all bulky masculine action figures were basically the same anyway — no one deserves a copyright over the idea of male hunks. The judge said she read comics starring characters named "Atlas," "Beowulf, Dragon Slayer," "Hercules," "John Carter, Warlord of Mars," "Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle," and "Tor, the Caveman." The judge then finds that “all of the protagonists are square-jawed and broad- shouldered. All are inordinately strong, and all wear scraps of cloth that reveal every distended muscle. In the vernacular, they are all "hunks."

9. Barbie has been banned by some countries in the Middle East.

Angela Weiss / AFP / Getty Images

In 1995, Islamic fundamentalists in Kuwait issued a fatwa against Barbie, a ruling under Islamic law prohibiting the buying or selling of the toy. 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.”

In 2018, a new Barbie modeled after Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad that comes with a hijab will be introduced, which will be the first Muslim Barbie wearing a hijab.

10. Research studies in psychology have shown that boys who play with toys branded for girls are viewed negatively, but the opposite isn't true.

Huff Post

When I was little, my mother, a psychology professor, had me star in experiments to compare society’s perceptions of “boy toys” and “girl toys.” Overwhelmingly the research showed that, at every age and around the world, kids think highly of girls who play with boy toys but denigrate boys who “cross over.”

The best toys transcend gender and even age. Think Yo-Yos, Play-Doh, Slinky, spinners, Legos (until the blocks were separated out into traditional and Lego’s pink Friends line), blocks, and board games like Scrabble and Monopoly.