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How A Sex Doll Inspired The Biggest Film Of The Summer

Until the 21st century, sex dolls had a somewhat clandestine history and seemed destined to be consistently misunderstood. 

Thankfully, thanks to more realistic dolls, sympathetic explorations of the people who find comfort and companionship through them and films such as Lars and the Real Girl, the story of the development and evolution of love dolls has started to be uncovered and told.

Incidentally, the star of Lars and the Real Girl, Ryan Gosling, also starred in another film based on another footnote in this history, which also happens to be one of the biggest and most successful films ever made.

Whilst Barbie is perhaps the most successful line of dolls ever made, its inspiration was a novelty girlfriend toy targeted at adults described as a “sex doll” by Ariel Levy, a journalist for The New Yorker.

This is the story of Bild-Lilli and how it inspired not only the future of love dolls but also one of the biggest toy brands there has ever been.


Girl From The Big City

In the early 1950s, as the newly divided Germany took shape, a new news publication highly inspired by the red-top tabloid Daily Mirror would be released by the name of Bild, a play on words as it means both “picture” and “to form (an opinion)”.

As part of its first edition, published on 24th June 1952, cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien was tasked to draw a filler cartoon, and after his initial plan of a messy baby was rejected, he instead drew a statuesque blonde woman sitting in the tent of a fortune-teller asking for the address of a “tall, handsome, rich man”.

This was Lilli, a post-war sassy social climbing woman who became the star of Bild during its early days, with her somewhat risqué adventures, penchant for double entendres and being caught in states of undress appealed greatly to a German audience to the point that it quickly became a daily feature of the newspaper.

The Bild-Lilli empire would establish itself quickly and fall almost as fast. Lilli had a feature film in 1958, 65 years before Barbie would do the same, but by far its biggest legacy would come in its tie-in doll.

As Lilli was a comic strip in a tabloid later infamous for featuring Page 3 models on the front page, the Bild Lilli doll was somewhat unusually a fashion doll targeted initially at adult men.

It was sold in sex shops, bars and tobacconists, bought either for companionship or a joke gift similar to how inflatable dolls would later be bought as joke presents. It would later be marketed as a present for men to give their girlfriends.

However, the doll took off not only throughout Germany but internationally, where they did not get the Bild newspaper and therefore lacked the context that Lilli was a surprisingly raunchy character.

Both in and out of Germany Lilli became increasingly popular as a children’s toy, and many companies cashed in with accessories and bootlegs. 

Eventually, Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel, bought some of the dolls and redesigned them to create the earliest Barbie dolls. By 1964, Mattel had bought the rights to Lilli and discontinued the doll in favour of Barbie. The rest, as they say, is history.

September 02, 2023


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