Barbie's sales are booming. Has the doll shed her controversial past?

·16 min read
Some of Barbie's earliest dolls. (Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
Some of Barbie's earliest dolls. (Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Barbie, though you’d never guess it by looking at her, turns 62 this month. First introduced to the world on March 9, 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City, the plastic icon stands only 11.5 inches tall but her celebrity is about as big as it gets. According to her parent company, Mattel, Barbie has over 99 percent brand awareness globally, and more than 100 Barbie dolls are sold worldwide every minute. Her popularity is also, after a noted downturn, growing; sales numbers show that 2020 was Barbie’s best year in over two decades and, according to a Mattel spokesperson, over 76 million Barbies were sold globally.

But Barbie comes with significant baggage. Most famously, a perceived history of promoting unrealistic body image in young girls, upholding anti-feminist gender stereotypes, and propagating a particular standard of beauty. It’s a reputation Mattel is reckoning with, and if their sales numbers are any indicator, their reinvention is working.

“When you say ‘Barbie’ to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll comes to mind,” Barbie’s vice president of design, Kim Culmone, told The Telegraph in 2016. “In a few years, this will no longer be the case.”

If Mattel is to keep Barbie’s numbers trending in the right direction and to keep Barbie around for another 62 years, Culmone’s prediction needs to come true.

Since her beginning, Barbie has been a lightning rod for criticism; a canvas on which to wage debates about modern womanhood; what it means, what it entails and (most significantly) what it looks like. In her 1994 book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, critic M.G. Lord writes that Barbie is “a toy designed by women for women to teach women what — for better or for worse — is expected of them by society.” And while that is not Mattel’s slogan by any stretch (Barbie’s current tagline is “You Can Be Anything”) the idea that a Barbie doll was meant to represent what society expected of women, is one that has always been wrapped around her plastic shoulders.

Barbie's beginnings

Barbie was dreamt up by Ruth Handler, who along with her husband co-founded the toy company Mattel. As the story goes, Handler was hit with the idea for Barbie while watching her daughter Barbara (Barbie, for short) act out aspirational storylines and fashions with her paper dolls. 3D dolls up until that point had mostly been baby dolls, but Handler understood, as she explained in her autobiography Dream Doll, that little girls don’t want to just pretend to be “mommies” they “want to pretend to be bigger girls.”

When Barbie first hit shelves, she debuted as a “a shapely teenage fashion model” in a strapless zebra-striped bathing suit. “She’s grown up!” Mattel’s early description of her read. The doll’s shape had critics from the beginning — “for the most part, the doll was hated,” one sales rep reportedly said of Barbie’s launch. “The male buyers thought we were out of our minds because of the breasts, and it was a male dominated business.” But as Handler confirmed to the New York Times in 1977, Barbie’s body was made with a purpose. “If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts,” Handler said of the little girls who played with Barbie.

Critics come for Barbie

While Barbie had grown up critics, kids loved her. She was a runaway hit, selling an unexpected 300,000 dolls in her first year and the doll's success increased steadily throughout the 1960s. Still, parents had questions. There were worries that Barbie was too sexy and that her chest in particular was inappropriate for young girls.

In a 1963 article about the introduction of Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, the New York Times described Barbie as being “a little beauty with an unmistakable bust, a tiny waist, and long, idealized legs.” On the same page, the paper published a complaint from a parent about the perfection of this new doll Ken. “What line of reasoning,” the parent wrote, “underlies this decision to make Ken a sort of department store dummy…who is obviously never going to be bothered with 5 o’clock shadow?” Mattel’s response was one that articulates the debate that still rages on about Barbie and her world decades later: “Our dolls are not primarily designed to be educational or scale models. Rather, they are play things…we do not feel that it is necessary to actually have these dolls true to life in every detail.”

'Some day I’m gonna be exactly like you'

But the idea that Barbie was meant to be true to life was internalized by many. And the song in the very first Barbie commercial (reportedly the first television commercial marketed toward children rather than parents), which aired in 1959, underscored that thought, “Some day I’m gonna be exactly like you, ‘til then I know just what I’ll do. Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.” By 1961, being like Barbie meant being a registered nurse, by 1965 it meant being an astronaut; and it was revolutionary for girls toys to show them excelling in different professions and not just as mothers. But Barbie also had a pin-up body (she was, after all, modeled on a risqué German novelty doll called ‘Bild Lilli’ that was marketed toward men, not children). A 2006 study published in Developmental Psychology showed that young girls who play with Barbie dolls consider her to be a role model, and because she’s a role model they aspire to look like her too. Since her body type is far from the norm, this in turn leads to body shame and an increased risk in disordered eating. The antidote to this, the study determined, was dolls with more realistic body ideals.

At times the Barbie thin-spiration problem wasn’t just subliminal. A now-infamous 1965 “Slumber Party Barbie” was sold with accessories including a scale permanently set to 110 lbs. and a diet book titled How To Lose Weight which came with one piece of advice: “Don’t Eat!”

Early Barbie in a bathing suit. (Photo: Getty Images)
Early Barbie in a bathing suit. (Photo: Getty Images)

“I loved my Barbies when I was young,” women’s empowerment speaker Sheila Hageman tells Yahoo Life, noting that at the time she didn’t think much about Barbie’s body and was more interested in having Barbie go to work and school. “Of course, looking, back, I can’t help but wonder if Barbie had an influence on my disordered eating that began when I was 13. There were much bigger issues at work in my life, but how can I really know how much my idealized Barbies influenced me? I’m sure they didn’t help.”

Hageman adds, “Barbie might make young girls internalize a silhouette — an accepted shape that they wish to mold themselves into unconsciously, somehow knowing, with the pile-on of other media imagery that they are subjected to daily, that this is how I am supposed to look.”

As second-wave feminism took off throughout the ‘60s, feminist scholars raised issue with Barbie saying she represented the media’s sexualized and idealized version of womanhood. As feminist icon Gloria Steinem succinctly states in Tiny Shoulders, a 2018 documentary about Barbie and her legacy, “Barbie was pretty much everything the feminist movement was trying to escape from.” Popular chants at the 1970 Women’s March for Equality in New York City included “I am not a Barbie doll!” Meanwhile, women’s groups protested Barbie and similar fashion dolls saying they promoted gendered, sexist ideals. According to reporting in Glamour, in 1972 sales of Barbie dolls declined for the first time, likely as a result of the feminist fallout. A subtle but important change to Barbie occurred in that time as well, and though Mattel didn’t comment on it historians have certainly taken note. “It’s rather telling that when Barbie was first made her eyes were cast down and then in 1971 they redesigned her and her eyes were looking straight ahead,” says historian and journalist Amanda Foreman, Ph.D in Tiny Shoulders. “If that doesn’t tell you something about the changes taking place toward women simply as human beings. It’s just extraordinary.”

Barbie and brains

In addition to Barbie’s looks, there has also always been the issue of the messaging around Barbie’s intellect and her primary interest being the accumulation of stuff — the Barbie Dream House, the Barbie Convertible. Though Barbie has taken on over 200 careers, including everything from doctor to president, there has long been an idea that brains and Barbie don’t mix. For instance, in 1992, Teen Talk Barbie came programmed to say the phrase, “Math class is tough.” The talking Barbie led to the American Association of University Women putting forth a statement saying that the dolls should be recalled. Even though the phrase was only one of 270 phrases Teen Talk Barbie uttered, negative response was so great that Mattel issued a statement that they “in no way meant to discourage girls from pursuing education in the math and science fields.” Mattel also reprogrammed the doll removing the phrase. Barbie incited rage again in 2014 when a picture book called I Can Be a Computer Engineer showed Barbie and her little sister Skipper having to ask boys for help with their computer programming. When the book was dragged online for its sexist message, Mattel issued a Facebook apology. “The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for,” they wrote.

But while the list of Barbie’s missteps is long, the truth of the matter is she has been a beloved toy for decades. “No toy has changed with the times quite the way Barbie has,” says psychotherapist Jennifer L. Hartstein, who focuses on children, adolescents and their families. “She has demonstrated that women can be anything, which is a great message for all children.”

Barbie holding an electoral poster. (Photo: Getty Images)
Barbie holding an electoral poster. (Photo: Getty Images)

And there is also the reality that Barbie can’t be blamed entirely for the way society sees and treats women. “A lot of these are iterative,” says Rebecca Hains, a professor of media and communication at Salem State University and the lead editor of the forthcoming book The Marketing of Children’s Toys: Critical Perspectives on Children’s Consumer Culture. “There’s the idea that’s out there in the culture and then somehow the brand reinforces it and then the culture reinforces it and it just goes on and on. It can be hard for brands to break those cycles if they’re not being really intentional.”

Jess Weiner, a cultural expert and CEO of consulting firm Talk to Jess who has worked with the Barbie team to diversify the dolls, calls Barbie the ultimate “'Yes, and’ girl.” As Weiner says, “Yes, she likes pink and sparky and she’s also into science and soccer. She can be both. Kids can be both.”

But by the early 2000s sales numbers were starting to change for Mattel and were dropping at a fairly steady pace. There were many factors at work including changing demographics in the U.S., the launch and popularity of the more racially diverse Bratz dolls, and the launch of Disney Princess dolls at Hasbro rather than Mattel.

Between 2012 and 2014, Barbie sales dropped an alarming 20 percent. To turn the Barbie trajectory around, Mattel had to figure out a way for her to pivot. “It really took the Mattel team figuring out what their unique selling proposition could be for Barbie without (and this is the tricky part) making Barbie unrecognizable,” Hains, the media and communication professor, says. “Brands want to be recognizable and consistent.”

Fashionistas save the day

Cue 2016, when Mattel launched a new Barbie line, the Fashionistas line. "We made the decision to overhaul several aspects of the brand, as we weren't getting the message playback from parents we wanted, which is that Barbie is reminding girls they can be anything," a Mattel spokesperson tells Yahoo Life. "We looked at a variety of components driven by our need to ground ourselves in the brand purpose and show more than physical attributes of the brand. We evolved Barbie and the doll's physical appearance began celebrating more female role models, and communicating the benefit of the brand to parents." The most diverse line of dolls, the Fashionistas, come in three new body types: tall, curvy, and petite. And Mattel now says Barbie is the most diverse doll line on the market; Barbies come in five body types today, with 22 skin tones, 76 hairstyles, 94 hair colors and 13 eye colors.

Barbie's Fashionista changed the brand. (Photo: Courtesy of Mattel)
Barbie's Fashionista changed the brand. (Photo: Courtesy of Mattel)

“This is our commitment to the next generation of girls, this isn’t a stunt, this is a new day of Barbie,” Mattel’s then VP of Global Bran Communications Michelle Chidoni says in Tiny Shoulders about the launch of the Fashionistas. “This type of commitment to change is really important for a Generation-Z mom.”

The Fashionista Barbies were not Barbie’s first attempt at diversity (the first Black Barbie came to market in 1979 and Barbies of different ethnicities have long been on shelves but have also been accused of promoting stereotypes), but the wholesale reimagining of what Barbie could look like, especially what Barbie’s body could look like, had never happened before. “I think they did it in a very savvy way,” Hains says. “They maybe got more attention for it than they deserved, but it’s still meaningful.”

“The changes to Barbie, including new body types, are a step in the right direction,” says Hageman, the women’s empowerment speaker. “I find it hard to believe that anyone would disagree with that. Is it too little too late? Sometimes it takes some people longer to make change, but change is change, and it is a good thing.”

More where that came from

Since the Fashionistas launch in 2016, other diverse Barbies have hit shelves. “I think this is the best thing that could happen for children,” Stella Pavlides, president and chief executive of the American Vitiligo Research Foundation told the New York Times after Barbie launched a doll with vitiligo in January. In the U.K. Barbie in a wheelchair was the most popular selling Barbie of 2019. Mattel also told the BBC that 55 percent of Barbies sold worldwide are now diverse in body type, hair color or skin tone.

“Just recently I saw a dark-skinned Barbie with an afro at Target,” shares Dr. Carlene O. Fider a professor of human development who consulted with Mattel on the future of the Barbie Dream House with a lens toward equality and inclusion. “When one thinks about Barbie in a wheelchair, or with a prosthetic limb, or having vitiligo, we may miss how significant this is for children for whom this is a reality. Representation in toys is so important for children as their early experiences shape what they imagine could be possible, and opens up a world of ‘different than me’ that has the potential to foster a more inclusive way of thinking.”

“I’m hardly a cheerleader for Mattel, but the company now is so different from the one on which I originally reported,” Lord says referring to her 1994 book Forever Barbie. “Yes the Barbie team can be considered ‘corporate feminists.’ But corporate feminism is still feminism — albeit diluted, and void of any critique of capitalism.”

Barbie's woke transition

Barbie’s online presence has also taken a turn for the woke, and Mattel has in some ways transitioned Barbie from a blank slate to a vessel for change. In October on Barbie’s vlog, Barbie spoke with her friend Nikki (who is Black) about racial justice, racism and Black Lives Matter. On the popular Instagram account @BarbieStyle, run by Mattel, Barbie shares more ‘candid’ images that often showcase her thoughts on social justice issues. On the account, she has stood with the Black community during the BLM protests and shown her support for marriage equality.

Of course, this being Barbie her evolution has not been without bumps. In the film Tiny Shoulders Gloria Steinem called these changes a force of hand made by dollars.

"The best new Barbies, I think, reference historical figures,” Lord shares. “Yes, the brand new Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie is more glamorous than the late first lady. But there is a picture of the real woman on the box and synopsis of her ideas and achievements.”

Of course this being Barbie, there will always be backlash. The Inspiring Women line, which the Eleanor Roosevelt doll is a part, also includes Frida Kahlo; or did until she was taken off the shelves. Frida Khalo Barbie was removed because the Kahlo family said the likeness was used without permission, but there was also additional criticism that Mattel made Kahlo too thin, that she was white-washed, removed her signature unibrow, and made her able-bodied.

But if the past is any evidence, Barbie will just keep iterating. "I hope Barbie continues to think of how age, religion, and even socioeconomic status might be addressed,” Dr. Fider adds. “Selfishly, I would like to see a PhD/Doctoral Barbie; regalia and all.”

On the horizon is also a Barbie movie, paired with indie writing and directing icons Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach as well as being produced by actress Margot Robbie who will also star in the film. Early press indicates the film will be completely outside the realm of what Barbie fans might expect.

“Barbie both reflects and shapes the marketplace,” Lord who wrote Forever Barbie, tells Yahoo Life. “The Mattel designers just theme and miniaturize the world they see around them. To comment on Barbie is usually just to comment on the contemporary world — or this world as interpreted through a filter of corporate mainstream values. Mainstream America is apparently more inclusive than it was in the last century. Mattel would not make products it cannot sell. And the movement toward greater diversity and inclusivity — however small — is, I think, a good thing."

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