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Barbie's Surprising Comeback Has Everything To Do With Race

How diversity saved Mattel’s iconic doll.

02/03/2017 8:02 PM AEDT | Updated 04/03/2017 8:00 AM AEDT
Damon Dahlen/Huffington Post
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 20: Mattel unveils its new Barbie doll line that shows diversity in New York on Feb. 20, 2017. (Photo by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post) *** Local Caption ***

Totally Hair Barbie, which debuted in 1990, is the best-selling Barbie doll of all time. She looks exactly like you’d think: cascades of crimped blonde hair hang to high-heel ready feet, flowing over her stilt legs and vanishing waistline.

Meanwhile in 2016 the best-selling doll in Barbie’s Fashionista line was a brunette Latina with a “curvy,” build and brown eyes, Mattel told The Huffington Post.

Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post

 

She looks like this:

Mattel

Though the Fashionista line is just one piece of the Barbie product universe ― other dolls still look as blonde as ever ― the success of this doll is a clear victory for the toymaking giant.

For the past two years, facing rapidly declining Barbie sales, Mattel pushed to diversify its iconic doll away from its classic look. The goal: win back parents turned off by the impossible and widely-criticized beauty standard (skinny, white) Barbie set for girls since the brand debuted in 1959.

“The brand was losing relevance,” said Lisa McKnight, a senior vice president at Mattel who manages the Barbie line. “We knew we had to change the conversation.”

It’s worked. Barbie sales rose 7 percent to $971.8 million in 2016, putting an end to four consecutive years of steep declines. 

The turnaround comes two years after Mattel unveiled the revamped Fashionista line, with Barbies in a range of skin colors and hair colors plus flat feet (previously the feet were shaped like high heels) and less than 12 months after the company introduced “body diversity,” selling curvy, tall and petite Barbies, kicking off a major conversation in a culture that’s long been overly obsessed with a doll.

This year the company is introducing an even more diverse range of Barbies, including a tall African-American doll with an Afro, a red-headed petite Barbie with a girl power T-shirt, and a mini-skirted blue-haired Barbie. In all there will be 10 skin tones, 4 body types and 15 hairstyles for Barbie.

Mattel’s also worked to diversify its American Girls line, last year rolling out a doll with a civil-rights background named Melody Ellison. 

Scroll down to see all the new Barbie dolls.

Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post

Little girls are fickle, for sure, but Barbie’s fall from grace and return to coolness was about parents’ complicated feelings about the doll. Winning adults back was key to her resurgence.

McKnight says that millennial parents are more particular about what kinds of toys their kids play with. They’re bigger “gatekeepers,” she said. “They want to not just buy, they want to buy-in,” McKnight said.

Barbie’s re-brand included several commercials aimed not at girls, but at their parents: like a recent spot that showed fathers playing with their daughters and dolls.

Mattel’s rebranding efforts are clearly paying off. “I have definitely bought more Barbies for my daughter since these new ones came out,” Lynnette Oursier, a mother in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, told The Huffington Post via Facebook message. She shared a photo of five of her 7-year-old’s Barbie dolls in a range of skin tones: “For me it was less about how my daughter would reflect on herself in relation to Barbie (my daughter already is caucasian, blond hair, blue eyes). It was about how she will come to view others.”

Sixty-six percent of Americans surveyed by HuffPost/YouGov said they were aware that Mattel is selling a more diverse line of dolls. And an overwhelming majority were on board with the development: Only 8 percent said the diverse dolls comprised a negative change.

Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post

Perversely enough, diversifying the brand has helped keep the classic version of Barbie alive: Little girls are still playing with the wasp-waisted original version. And they’re watching her on-screen, as well. A 2014 Netflix show called Life In the Dreamhouse, centered around a very blonde doll with many materialistic concerns is popular with girls of a certain age. (A representative from Mattel said it’s giving that show a makeover to bring it more in line with Barbie’s revamped image.)

And you can still see Barbie’s look in the style of so many white women, the Taylor Swifts and Kelly Ripas of the world. You see it, in particular, in the conservative women that surround and champion President Donald Trump: Ivanka Trump, her sister Tiffany, Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, Tomi Lahren all have that flash of white teeth and impossibly blonde hair that girls learn at a very young age is a marker of true (white) “beauty.” In these circles Barbie still represents the ideal white woman.

That’s always been the heart of the Barbie critique: The doll offered girls a single, impossible beauty standard (literally impossible, as some analysis has showed) and women kill themselves trying to meet it.

It’s hard to name a children’s toy that engenders more passion and feeling in adults than a Barbie doll. Over the years, she’s been the subject of myriad academic papers and subversive art pieces. And, though sales are off from the highs of the previous decade, Barbie still far-and-away has the biggest share of the doll market.

Damon Dahlen/The Huffington Post

Of course, a doll isn’t the singular cause of anyone’s eating disorder or obsession with juice cleanses or extremely high hair salon bill. Barbie is part of a larger system that enforces a message about what women are supposed to look like, according to Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender research at Stanford University.

“Not every girl who plays with Barbie is going to come out thinking she’s too fat,” said Cooper, who’s best known for contributing the research to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller Lean In. “But it’s one cog in a massive cultural system.”

And the message of the system is that a woman’s value comes down to her looks. Cooper was positive about the recent changes to Barbie. “The hope is it expands what girls’ possibilities are,” she said. But she lamented the fact that we are still talking about the way Barbie looks.

“We can expand the definition of what’s beautiful but we’re still not moving far from the general point,” Cooper said.

Mattel says that Barbie is hardly just about looks, pointing to new dolls that focus on what women do: A game developer Barbie debuted last year that was designed with input from female engineers. There are role model Barbies that look like African-American ballerina Misty Copeland and “Selma” director Ava DuVernay.

Besides, little girls are just playing. “Girls don’t see the line like parents do,” McKnight said.

She’s inadvertently hit on the big question: What will these girls think about beauty when they grow up? Mattel can change Barbie, but it can’t shift a whole culture. What happens next is bigger than a toy doll. 

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