Doll Wars: When Barbie Dragged Sindy Into Court
The two women stood stark naked in court, men wrapping measuring tapes around their hips, busts, and shoulders. Normally sporting long, flowing locks, the two had been stripped of every strand so their bald heads could be compared. Absent any apparel or accessories, it would be up to a Dutch judge to determine whether or not the two looked so much alike that one would have to be destroyed.
On one side of the courtroom was Sindy, a vivacious UK fashion plate that had just been exported by Hasbro; on the other stood Barbie, Mattel’s flagship blonde. Reconfigured for international distribution, Sindy bore a striking resemblance to Barbie—so much so that Mattel felt compelled to haul her into court on accusations of counterfeiting, copyright infringement, and whatever else they could use to challenge her existence. Sindy, their lawyers charged, was nothing more than Barbie’s “unwanted sister.”
At stake was a majority share in the billion-dollar fashion doll market. Despite her congenial personality, Barbie couldn’t afford to play nice.
Ever since Barbie made her toy aisle debut in 1959, Hasbro has looked on with envy. Accessorized with hundreds of outfits, cars, homes, and boyfriends, she helped catapult Mattel to record revenue in the 1960s and beyond, swatting down challengers with ease.
Eager to mimic her success, Hasbro tried a doll based on The Flying Nun television series; a model named Leggy came later. In the 1980s, they thought Jem and the Holograms would finally topple Barbie from her perch. None produced a single bead of sweat on her tiny, perfect brow.
Having failed to produce a contender themselves, Hasbro decided to look at existing licenses. In the UK, they noticed a doll named Sindy, a demure toy with a sideways glance who sped around on a moped (or pony) and embodied the kind of high-fashion couture originating out of London in the 1960s. By 1985, Sindy was so popular she had captured 80 percent of the doll market in Britain.
Hasbro approached her owner, Pedigree Toys, offering to manufacture and distribute the dolls all over the world. (Notably, Pedigree had once turned down an offer by Mattel to license Barbie for the UK.) The company agreed, and Hasbro executive Stephen Hassenfeld believed they finally had a product that would successfully compete against Barbie.
Sindy’s proportions, however, would have to be reconsidered. Almost cherubic in Britain, her figure would be enhanced for worldwide appeal. Her legs grew longer and slimmer, and her chest began to protrude in a way that recalled Barbie’s sculpted curves. No longer confined to overcast London, she even got a tan—all the better to replicate her California-loving competition.
During a 1988 European toy exhibition, Mattel CEO John Amerman caught wind of Hasbro’s Hassenfeld showing off a Barbie clone to buyers. While Mattel typically laughed off attempts to cut into Barbie’s market share, Sindy was different by virtue of not appearing to be very different. There was a real possibility that consumers, especially young ones, would confuse the two. Sindy even sported an all-pink packaging that had become synonymous with Barbie.
Agitated, Amerman confronted Hassenfeld and told him that pursuing Sindy would never be in his best interests.
Hassenfeld’s reply was chilly. “No one,” he said, “tells me what to do.”
In March of that year, Mattel’s lawyers dispatched a terse letter demanding Hasbro destroy or turn over everything related to Sindy by April 7: sculpts, stock, and plans. But Hasbro had already spent millions in development and advertising and wasn’t about to be cowed. They ignored the deadline, and began shipping Sindy across the globe.
Everywhere she went, Mattel’s lawyers followed. Sindy was impounded in France, where courts were persuaded by Mattel’s argument of a counterfeit Barbie. Other countries allowed her to be sold without reservation.
In a series of court cases, lawyers for both sides presented their respective dolls for the court’s examination. In one bit of testimony, the size and depth of Sindy’s nostrils became a point of contention. It was argued that Sindy’s nose was more pointed, with deeper nasal passages. Crucially, Hasbro’s sculptors had not altered her chest to the point where her breasts were as disproportionately large as Barbie’s, and the company asserted that was enough to make the two distinct.
By 1992, millions of dollars in legal fees had been spent arguing over the size and shape of doll breasts, with no end in sight.
That year, a representative for Hasbro named Barry Alperin requested a meeting with two of Mattel’s top executives, including newly installed CEO Jill Barad. Opening a suitcase, Alperin revealed five distinct, disembodied Sindy heads. He requested that Barad choose one that she felt was a comfortable enough distance from Barbie’s features.
Barad chose a Sindy head Mattel could live with. The legal battle was over.
Hasbro never had great success in the U.S. with Sindy, which went through several iterations before being dropped in 1998. Pedigree re-launched her in 2006 and again via a licensing agreement with the Tesco store chain in late 2016, taking care to present a doll and personality far removed from Barbie’s. At 18 inches, she towers over her former rival and sticks with sneakers or sandals. No heels, and no dream house.