What is Barbie?
She is blonde and busty and blue-eyed and beautiful. Her knees cannot bend, her feet cannot wear flats, her waist just cannot be. She is anatomically impossible.
That is, she was: Inclusivity and accessibility are the order of the day for the 2016 Barbie Fashionistas collection. As of Thursday, dolls now come in four body types. Last year, Mattel introduced seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles and textures. The mix-and-match hair and eyes are alluring for the young girl who wants, as God wanted man, a doll in her own image. But the headline here is the body.
The body has been blamed for everything from lousy self-esteem to full-blown eating disorders; the body, if brought to life, would be incapable of supporting its own weight and so would have to crawl on all fours to go from her pink Corvette convertible to her Malibu Dreamhouse. The body will now come in three varieties — curvy, tall, and petite — in addition to the standard, and the body will have adjustable ankles, so Barbie can kick off her four-inch heels.
Mattel is, literally, messing with the mold that made Barbie iconic in the first place. But that mold is more out of touch than ever. Most American girls never looked like Barbie, it’s true, but it’s also true that most American girls have never looked less like Barbie than they do right now. For today’s children, ethnic minorities will be the majority by 2020. If Barbie were real, she would be clinically underweight, so slender she wouldn’t even have space in her body for more than a few inches of intestines. About one in three American children is overweight or obese.
Barbie joins a fleet of once-unimpeachable brands having identity crises. Is Cookie Monster still Cookie Monster if he eats veggies and calls his namesake treat a “sometime food”? Is Abercrombie & Fitch still Abercrombie & Fitch without logos on the clothes? Is Playboy still Playboy without photographs of naked women? Is television still television if it never airs on television? Is Barbie still a Barbie if she doesn’t look like Barbie?
Mattel had no choice but to find out. Barbie, who once reigned, Regina George-style, over the doll cafeteria, has been edged out of her lunch table. Over the past decade, older girls have gravitated toward Bratz Dolls (aggressively made-up, objectively terrifying) as younger girls have coveted the Disney Princesses. The educational, bank-breaking American Girl Dolls are a major competitor, too, especially the “Truly Me” dolls, which allow girls to design doll-versions of themselves.
Even these foes could have been thwarted, maybe; Barbie might not have emerged without some bruises, but Mattel had a licensing deal to produce Disney Princess dolls. But Mattel lost the Disney Princess business to Hasbro just as Frozen‘s Elsa ascended to her throne. Perhaps you’ve heard of Frozen? From TIME:
Barbie sales plummeted 20 percent from 2012 to 2014 and continued to fall last year. A line of toys designed to teach girls to build, Lego Friends, helped boost Lego above Mattel as the biggest toy company in the world in 2014. Then Hasbro won the Disney Princess business away from Mattel, just as Elsa from the film Frozen dethroned Barbie as the most popular girl’s toy. The estimated revenue loss to Mattel from Elsa and the other Disney Princesses is $500 million.
Conveniently for Mattel, the economically-savvy and the socially-conscious moves are one. We seem to be in a moment when progressive interests and pop cultural trends are aligning. The biggest star of this Oscar season is diversity, or lack thereof; all the cool girls and the guys who like them are talking about feminism; Kardashian curves, while arguably as unattainable for the average mortal as Taylor Swift’s legs, are what women want.
Moms from across the socioeconomic spectrum have been pushing Mattel to produce an alternative to the super-skinny original doll. “All were supportive of Barbie’s new direction,” TIME reports, “though some thought the curvy doll should be even curvier.”
But girls as young as four have already absorbed what Barbie is. As TIME observed, focus groups of girls, while “attracted to the dolls who looked most like them in terms of skin color and hair texture” were also drawn to “the blonde, straight-haired dolls.”
The kicker: “When the kids were asked, ‘Which doll is Barbie?’ they invariably pointed to a blonde.” A moment for that feat of branding: The blonde is still a Barbie among Barbies. (When this reporter’s mother was a child, her mom did not allow her to play with Barbie dolls because she believed they promoted an unhealthy body image. My grandmother: So ahead of her time, I’ll probably meet her in the future.)
CREDIT: AP Photo
Some Barbie backstory: Barbie made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. She was modeled after Lilli, an adult-novelty toy based on a comic-strip character in a German newspaper. Like the doll she would go on to inspire, Lilli had cartoonishly large breasts and platinum blonde hair. (But hey, if you thought Barbie’s heels-only-feet were bad, consider this: Lilli’s leg just ended in “a stiletto-heeled pump.”) Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, discovered Lilli when her daughter, Barbara, became taken with the toy while on vacation in Switzerland.
Handler, seeing a vacuum in the American marketplace, created her own version of Lilli and named the toy after her daughter. Barbie was the first mass-marketed doll for children that looked like a grown-up woman. Within two years, demand was so high that Mattel decided to give Barbie a boyfriend. (Handler named the boyfriend Ken, after her son. It’s all very Flowers in the Attic.) Then came Midge, Barbie’s best friend, and kid sister Skipper. The first black Barbie, “Colored Francie,” came out during the civil rights movement. By 1993, Barbie was raking in over $1 billion a year.
The Mattel mission statement will have you know “With Barbie, You Can Be Anything!” Though initially created as a teenage fashion model — “Friday Night Date” and “Sorority Meeting” were outfit names from the early years — Barbie, in response to criticism from feminist groups, started trying out more intellectually stimulating jobs in the 1970s. She has embarked on over 100 careers to date, with the kind of job titles so legit they’d get you disqualified from competing on The Bachelor: Surgeon, architect, computer engineer. Barbie goes not only where girls have gone before — the cockpit, the Olympics, the moon — but also where girls aspire to be: Barbie has run for president no less than five times.
But if you call a woman a “Barbie,” it is unlikely you are doing so to acknowledge a presidential quality about her. Because Barbie has, in the way of most women famous for their looks, become a shorthand for a flighty, shallow (to invoke a Trump-ism) bimbo. No self-respecting woman, really, wants to be referred to as a Barbie. Today, Barbie stands for nothing if not Stepford-sameness. To fill an airplane hangar with every Barbie ever sold would be, one imagines, like a fever dream of Sweet Valley High populated exclusively by a billion Jessicas and Elizabeths.
Can Barbie shake the very branding that made it successful in the first place? A brand so powerful, even preschool girls can recognize it on sight? And, more to the point, should it? Mattel, obviously, is hoping they are nimble enough to ride out changing tastes. But maybe Barbie has outlived her usefulness. Maybe girls are more interested in, and better off with, the myriad of other toys available to them: Action figures and American Girls, Legos and GoldieBlox, My Little Pony and her filly friends.
Then again, there is the case to be made that by creating more variety among the dolls, Mattel is bringing Barbie back to its roots as much as it services modern sensibilities. In Handler’s 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, she wrote: ”My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”