Barbie turns 60 on March 9. The Mattel fashion icon isn’t nearing retirement, however: She’s being strategically reinvented to reflect today’s increasingly diverse world.
Thin, blonde, white Barbie is on her way out. Physically and racially diverse Barbie dolls are in. And, accompanied by messaging that promotes progressive values, the diverse dolls are poised to become central to the brand’s image.
“When you say ‘Barbie’ to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll comes to mind,” said Barbie’s vice president of design, Kim Culmone, in a 2016 interview with The Telegraph. “In a few years, this will no longer be the case.”
As those who frequent the toy aisle should have noticed, this change is already underway, and recent changes to the brand tell us about its future.
“Mattel has always presented a Barbie with an idealized body type and look, but the world is different now,” explains Americus Reed, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “This is not your mother’s Barbie.”
Nor is it your mother’s world. Given changes to the U.S. population, a Barbie who is white and exceptionally thin is a Barbie who has lost much cultural relevance.
In 1960, a year after Barbie’s debut, approximately 89 percent of the U.S. population was white. But by 2017, only 49.6 percent of children under 10 were white, according to the Census Bureau — positioning the population to become “minority white” by 2045.
The average American’s physique has also changed. According to the Center for Disease Control, the average U.S. woman in 1960 was about 5-foot-2 and 140.2 pounds, but today’s average is nearly 30 pounds heavier, at 5-foot-3 and 168.5 pounds. These factors make the iconic Barbie a more problematic idealized fantasy figure for many girls and women, increasing long-standing concerns that Barbie play damages girls’ self-esteem.
Barbie has also lost some of her cultural relevance due to generational politics.
The millennial parents (ages 23 to 38) of Barbie’s target audience are, overall, more politically liberal than the generations that preceded them. Millennials apply their progressive ethos to their purchasing decisions, tending to be socially conscious shoppers who support businesses that share their values But Barbie long tended to eschew politics.
Finally, parental nostalgia for Barbie has been waning — also likely affecting interest in the brand, as consumers (including parents) tend to spend more when feeling nostalgic. When today’s young parents were children in the early 2000s, Disney Princess dolls and MGA Entertainment’s fashion-forward and racially diverse Bratz dolls debuted, quickly capturing girls’ loyalty.
In 2005, at the height of Bratz’s popularity, I interviewed several young African American girls for my book “Growing Up With Girl Power.” Madison, then 9, told me, “I buy Bratz dolls because all of them — all the Bratz dolls are treated right.” And Rhea (also 9) observed, “For the black Barbie dolls, they give ‘em, like, orange [outfits] and everything before the white, and [for the white] one, they give her, like, pink and blue or something,” she observed. “A lot of black people hate orange!” MGA’s Bratz cast Barbie in such a negative light that they upended Mattel’s long-standing 90 percent share of the doll market.
Unable to stem the tide through competitive offerings, Mattel sued MGA for intellectual property infringement, suppressing Bratz’s production. When Mattel finally lost its protracted battle in 2010 and was ordered to pay the rival $300 million, “that was a wake-up call,” said Angharad Valdivia, professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s Institute of Communications Research.
As Barbie sales declined from 2012 to 2014, missteps dogged the brand’s reputation. In 2014, a Barbie designer made headlines by blaming moms for girls’ body image issues, and an “I Can Be a Computer Engineer!” picture book went viral for featuring Barbie as a computer science student who was incompetent and less intelligent than the boys in her class.
Could Barbie have possibly been more out of touch?
So Mattel changed leadership and reimagined the Barbie doll and the brand. Through Mattel’s @BarbieStyle Instagram, which debuted in 2014, Barbie embraced progressive politics — a calculated appeal to parents who use the photo site.
Television commercials like “Imagine the Possibilities” (2015) and “The Dream Gap Project” (2018) positioned Barbie as pro-girl empowerment and supportive of girls’ aspirations — addressing, among other things, concerns regarding Barbie’s messages about girls’ intelligence and capabilities.
Most significantly, Mattel launched a “Fashionista” Barbie line in 2016 that offered three new body types — “tall,” “curvy” and “petite” — and an expanded range of skin tones, hair textures and colors and face molds.
This meant that black and brown Barbies were no longer merely “dye-dipped” versions of white Barbie, as famously criticized by Ann DuCille in her 1996 book, “Skin Trade.” Though the Fashionistas are racially ambiguous, they offer more nuanced representation than did their predecessors.
The changes appear to be helping. Since 2016, Barbie sales have been uneven, rising, falling and rising again. But as senior vice president Lisa McKnight told Adweek, “Focusing our efforts on diversity and inclusivity is resonating, as 55 percent of all the dolls sold in 2018 were diverse dolls.”
Despite Barbie’s changes and the diverse dolls’ commercial success, criticisms of Barbie’s physical appearance will continue — and for good reason: Over the years, peer-reviewed research has suggested that Barbie dolls could harm young girls’ body images, food intake and career aspirations, among other issues.
While Mattel may point to curvy Barbie as a marker of progress in this area, it is not a solution. Only a small subset of Barbies are curvy, and although Time characterized curvy Barbie as having “meat on her thighs and a protruding tummy and behind,” calculations provided by the BBC indicate they are still quite thin. Curvy Barbie would scale up to a woman who is about 5-foot-6 and wears a U.S. size 4. While this is an improvement over the traditional Barbie, who would scale to 5-foot-9 and wear a size 2, it is still unattainable for most girls and women.
Valdivia observes that curvy Barbie is only curvy compared with the other Barbie dolls. “If you look at curvy Barbie alone, she’s still a pretty thin Barbie,” she said. “The curvy doll next to the tall Barbie dolls looks chunky, but only because that Barbie is spindle-thin.”
This is because of constraints that the iconic brand faces. “All the criticisms of Barbie have been criticisms of what Barbie stands for,” says Valdivia. “How can Mattel do a Barbie doll that’s not a Barbie doll? They still have to work within a rough Barbie template to keep the doll recognizable.”
It’s a good question, but Reed said it’s entirely possible that accumulating changes will allow Mattel to gradually redefine what makes a Barbie recognizable. “At some point, the white, blonde, thin Barbie will no longer be needed,” Reed said, “and the institutional memory of Barbie will be dead.”
Reed noted that his 8-year-old daughter, who is African American and Latina, was excited to pick out a Barbie that looks like her, a positive experience that, if replicated on a broader scale, should pay off for Mattel in the long term.
“It’s creating context for when my daughter is older and has her own children,” Reed said. “A connection is going to be there, and Barbie will still be in the conversation.”
At 60, Barbie’s place in the conversation is one of the brand’s most remarkable aspects. Her ongoing history reflects changes to our political and social environments — a touchstone for our evolving cultural norms, values and ideals.
Rebecca Hains is a professor of media and communication at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years and many other works. She currently the lead editor of a new book, Critical Studies of LEGO: More Than Just Bricks, to be released by Palgrave early next year.