The Barbie Doll was created by Ruth Handler in 1959 with the thought of showing young girls (first of all her own daughter) what they can become when they grow up. Ever since then many variants of Barbie looks have been developed, manufactured and marketed by the company originally founded by her husband Elliott with a business partner — Mattel, a leading American toy company. Barbie has grown into much more than a doll — a Barbie brand that is a symbol of American culture. Barbie gained great popularity, but she also attracted a sizable dose of criticism.

Mattel has aimed through Barbie to reveal new career and status possibilities for women in which girls would be encouraged to believe, already from their pre-adulthood years. But the image of Barbie developed in favourable as well as unfavourable directions. The perfected body shape of Barbie was more than ideal, it fostered an idealistic body image (’90-60-90′ measures). On top of that, Barbie is most familiar as a blonde doll. The body look distracted the attention of consumers from the career ideals Barbie inspired to promote. So much emphasis was also put on the fashion of her clothing outfits, this may have made her being perceived as a ‘fashion girl’ rather than a ‘career woman’. With the body and fashion associations came also some less favourable associations of personality traits of Barbie (e.g., silly, superficial, party-girl for fun).

Perhaps one of the most noticeable challenges faced by Barbie and Mattel was a pop song and music video clip named ‘Barbie Girl’ (“Hello Barbie, let’s go party”) from 1997 by Danish group Aqua. The song and video ridiculed Barbie, portraying her as living an empty life (‘Life in plastic, it’s fantastic’), and so on. Mattel did not appreciate the ‘gesture’ to Barbie a little bit; it filed a lawsuit against MCA Records for infringement of copyrights and damaging Barbie’s image, however they eventually lost in court (the judge ruled that Mattel created a cultural icon and therefore it must also accept that Barbie can be criticised and parodied). Nonetheless, the same court also threw out a lawsuit for defamation brought by MCA Records against Mattel (BBC Newsround, 9 March 2019).

Let us look at three dimensions in which Mattel has made Barbie evolve with time: 

Career — Over the years Mattel has introduced outfits and accessories for more professions that Barbie may undertake; Mattel tried to identify and surface professions and careers that women were little involved in (e.g., due to receiving too few opportunities). For example, in 1973 Mattel introduced a figure of Surgeon Barbie, in 1989 appeared Pilot Barbie, and in 2011 girls were acquainted with Architect Barbie. Barbie as CEO showed up as early as in 1985. More recently yet Mattel took the welcome initiative of encouraging girls to see themselves in areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). It apparently started with the introduction of Computer Engineer Barbie in 2010. In 2018 Mattel increased its focus on computer programming in collaboration with Tynker, an award-winning platform for teaching children to construct software code. Mattel further added Robotic Engineer Barbie.

A weakness of the ‘career line’ of Barbie seems to be that it always sufficed in presenting Barbie in the clothing outfit representative of the designated profession and not beyond that. This may have also enhanced the perception that Mattel is only interested in appearances, in the fashion fitting the profession or career. With Tynker, Mattel has made a leap outside the circle of its dressed-up doll. It could be an opportunity to expand this way of thinking to other professions. If a girl shows her interest in a certain career prospect by playing with the respective Barbie, then why not let Mattel help expose her to that profession beyond the Barbie and its toy accessories (e.g., meeting with an architect, watch videos of architecture, make drawings of Dreamhouse). That might be a real application of Mattel’s tagline ‘You Can Be Anything’.

Diversity — The Barbie original is a Caucasian blonde doll, and her image for many children and adults remains as such. It took a few decades for Mattel to allow Barbie to be more diverse. In 1968 Mattel created Christie, a black doll, in the midst of the protests fighting for the rights of African-Americans; however, Christie was introduced as a friend of Barbie and not a different a version of Barbie. It took another twelve years (i.e., 1980) for Mattel to introduce Barbie in a different skin tone (black) and ethnicity (Hispanic). Since the late 1990s more diverse models of Barbie came in (e.g., skin tone, hair colour, eye colour). However, the greater variability in appearance of dolls named Barbie poses also a problem for brand identity, that is, how children and adults get to recognise a Barbie. This conflict seems to not have been tackled properly over the years.

Body — When looking at various Barbie dolls over the years, as pictured on the website, it is almost immediately noticed how they are all in a thin-waist form. In the early years the perfected measures of her body form were more pronounced. Barbie’s body triggered protest and resentment for inappropriately introducing little girls to the body of a young adult women as well as for the specifics of her ‘model’ body outlines. Later on the body curves of Barbie were moderated to correct her image. Still, the body of Barbie continued to cause some discomfort to girls and their parents. The problem can be described as two sides of the coin: on one side, Barbie has the body structure and form many girls may aspire to have (i.e., like a fashion model, a suggestion Mattel was not shy to make), yet on the other side, it was likely to cause frustration and unhappiness to girls who realised they could not be like that and it hurt their self-esteem.

In more recent years, however, a different attitude has emerged: not only that many girls may not be able physically to adopt the body shape of Barbie, more girls do not want to change their body and they wish to feel happy with the way they are. In 2016 Mattel made a bold move and introduced three different body forms unlike the ‘classic’ Barbie: curvy, petite, and tall. The curvy Barbie in particular is meant to be somewhat rounder, with a little thicker thighs. It was a bold move for the company but it came very late as well. It should nonetheless be noted that not everyone likes the new curvy body.  Some girls feel that curvy Barbie can be perceived as ‘fat’ though they are reluctant to say it aloud, especially not in front of adults. The body image of ‘classic’ Barbie has probably become so ingrained in consumers’ minds that not every child and adult easily accepts the new body forms, mostly in regard to the curvy Barbie [Time, Feb. 2016].

Mattel has been making efforts for more than a decade to correct and improve the balance between the different aspects in the identity and image of Barbie, such as the balance between looks and careers. But it is still a hard challenge because the company has to ‘walk between the drops’ of sensitive social issues (e.g., image vs. substance, tolerance to different skin tones and ethnicities, the tension between being under-weight and over-weight). The effort to make changes to brand image may remain hard and last longer, moreover because they have started relatively late.

Happy Birthday, Barbie, and good luck with the challenges waiting ahead.

 

Sources:

[1] “How Well Really Do You Know Fantastic Plastic Doll?“, BBC Newsround, 9 March 2019 — interesting facts about Barbie

[2] The History of Barbie (Timeline)  —

http://stage.onestore.barbie.com/en-us/about/history.html

[3] “Barbie’s Got a New Body” (cover story), Eliana Dockterman, Time Magazine, February 2016

 

 

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