Two women, almost 150 years apart, made six-week-long tours of Europe. Mary Shelley, as she was to become, was travelling with her lover Percy in 1814. They passed through Switzerland, where, it is thought, they saw some renowned mechanical dolls. Two years later, she produced Frankenstein, the world's most famous novel about the making of artificial life. Ruth Handler, co-founder and chief executive of the American toy manufacturer Mattel, was travelling in 1956 with her husband Elliot, their daughter Barbara and their son Ken. They, too, saw some dolls in Switzerland and, three years later, Handler produced Barbie. The two tours are a coin-cidence, no doubt, but also, perhaps, a clue - because the life story of this "dream doll", as Handler called her creation, reads at times more like Shelley's nightmare.
The doll that Handler saw in a shop window in Lucerne was 11.5 inches tall. She did not like the face much, but the doll's body, Handler reported in her memoirs, "was another story": she had breasts, a tiny waist and long, tapering legs. It was not surprising that Lilli, as this doll was called, had such a figure: she was based on a German comic-strip character - and it was not the kind of comic strip that was generally read by children. But she fitted in with a fantasy that Handler already had: she wanted girls to have a doll they could aspire to be like, not aspire to look after. The baby dolls that existed were not satisfying; girls liked to dress up, and dress their dolls up, but, Handler said, the idea of putting a prom dress on the squat, big-bellied dolls that were then available was "ludicrous".
The idea met a good deal of opposition. One woman told Handler that little girls wanted to "pretend to be mommies", and Handler retorted that, on the contrary, little girls wanted to pretend to be bigger girls. It was certainly revolutionary; all play, as Handler knew, is projection of one kind or another, but she was suggesting that child's play had an aspirational application. (Handler herself was the tenth child of Polish Jewish immigrants, and had made her own way in the world, becoming a typist at Paramount Studios at the age of 20. Elliot Handler was her childhood sweetheart.) Watching her daughter and her friends playing with paper dolls, she found that they were "using these dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women". The whole "philosophy of Barbie", as Handler put it, was that, "through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be".
It was 1950s America. By the time Handler started designing her doll, her daughter - the real Barbie - was 15, and it was a decade in which teenagers began to come into their own. Hence Handler's huffiness about prom dresses: before the 1950s, what doll manufacturer would have thought prom dresses a priority? Barbie wasn't just a doll; she was, from the very beginning, a cultural artefact or allegory. She was a doll with a "philosophy".
When the first Barbie prototypes came back from the factory in Japan, there were a few problems. First of all, they had oriental eyes - "a real crisis", Handler recalls. Second, they came with nipples. It seems Mattel couldn't just instruct the Japanese manufacturers to get rid of the nipples, but had to show them exactly what was wanted. So one (male) executive got out a nail file and sanded down Barbie's breasts.
The nipple episode perfectly reflects a problem that the men at Mattel had with Barbie all along. Even Elliot Handler insisted to his wife that no one - no mother, specifically - would buy a doll with breasts. When Barbie was first shown at the American Toy Fair in New York in 1959, there was a lukewarm response, which Handler attributed largely to the boob factor, and Mattel's colleagues in Japan had to be told to cut production to a minimum. It is possible that people were just being prudish. It is also possible, however, that they were associating Barbie, not inappropriately, with a sex doll. After all, she was modelled on a smutty cartoon; she was the first child's doll to have breasts; she was constructed on fantasy proportions - the human equivalent of 39ins-18ins-33ins.
And although Barbie soon became wildly popular as a child's toy (90 per cent of all American girls in the past 40 years have owned at least one), there was a certain fetishistic aspect to her that never went away. In fact, it has only increased: Barbie now has a billion pairs of shoes. She started out being fetishised (Handler details, for example, the search for the perfect rubber with which to mould her) and went on, you could say, to become a fetishist herself.
There are rumours that Barbie is to be remodelled to more realistic proportions. (It is an irony not lost on Handler that she developed breast cancer later in life, and had a mastectomy. She went into business making breast prostheses, with a little help from the designers at Mattel. The names of the prostheses may be thought to echo those of the various Barbie models - one is called "Nearly Me".) But is Barbie necessarily a bugbear for feminists? Many certainly thought so, as evidenced most graphically by the actions of the Barbie Liberation Organisation, which once swapped the voice boxes of all the Barbies and Kens in a toyshop. And yet, one cannot ignore that Barbie was created by a woman. Ruth Handler may not be regarded as a feminist exactly, and it is easy to see the ways in which the aspirations she imagined for the girls who would play with her toy were traced over a male ideal of what a woman should be. But she was, nevertheless, a working mother, a successful businesswoman. Somewhat controversially, the year Barbie was launched, Handler told a journalist: "If I had to stay at home, I would be the most dreadful, mixed-up, unhappy woman in the world." Barbie, according to her creator, "has always represented the fact that a woman has choices".
When Barbie and Ken were put on the market, and took America by storm, the real Barbie and Ken found the experience rather troubling. It was odd enough that the couple (Ken was introduced as Barbie's boyfriend) were modelled on a brother and sister, dragging sexual significance back into the Barbie equation. But once people realised who the "real" Barbie and Ken were, some started following them around. When Ken Handler went to visit his future wife's relatives in Wyoming, he found a long line of pre-pubescent girls on the doorstep. Barbara Handler was hounded like a movie star and was constantly asked for her autograph. Her parents used to call her Barbie; as soon as the doll went on the market, she insisted that no one ever call her that again.
To an extent, however, Barbara Handler was "the real Barbie", because it was while watching her playing that her mother developed the idea for the toy. She interpreted her daughter's dreams, or perhaps imposed her own, and so turned Barbie Handler into a doll. Barbie does now have a life, and a biography, of her own, but they are indivisible from those of the pair who made her. That doll - who has since become a symbol of many kinds to many people, once banned in Iran, controversial in Puerto Rico, muse to haute-couture designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent, Christian Dior and Hubert Givenchy - was the progeny of a relationship, not a relationship between a woman and a man, but between a mother and a daughter, designed between generations and projected into an imagined future. Barbara Handler was embarrassed about her mother then - hated the fact that she had a job, unlike her friends' mothers, and said she thought her mum "talked like a man and was unattractive". Many years later, as politics changed and Barbie came to be held up as an emblem of the wrong or the right kind of womanhood, Barbara announced that, looking back, she saw her mother as "really a beautiful woman", and the pair became much closer.
Whatever the broader cultural significance of the doll, the story of her creation was itself a story about sexual politics. Perhaps Barbie, or the debates that surrounded her, had something to do with Barbara Handler's change of heart. Perhaps there is a brain behind Barbie after all.
Gaby Wood is the author of Living Dolls: a magical history of the quest for mechanical life (Faber and Faber, £12.99)