The inspiration for Barbie, back in 1959, was a German doll named Lilli that was intended as a gag gift for adults … because she was based on a comic book character that was a prostitute.
Not exactly what one would call “aspirational.”
It’s 57 years later, however, and Barbie remains a globally recognized brand that brings in $1 billion annually for Mattel, according to Time, with 92 percent of American girls between the ages of three and 12 having owned one of the dolls.
Barbie has gone through some changes over the half-century-plus of her existence to date, during which Mattel has semi-regularly tweaked some of the doll’s physical elements (mostly, the face and hair — and, of course, clothing and accessories) to reflect the era she “lived” in and, much more regularly, putting out versions of Barbie that represented her in various jobs. From nurse to astronaut, cheerleader to surgeon, paleontologist to President of the United States, Barbie has held more than 150 careers.
While Barbie is clearly intended to represent a young woman of many talents and the line of supporting characters in the doll’s “universe,” as it were, has grown to be a massive one (including old standbys, boyfriend Ken and sister Skipper, of course), one thing about Barbie that has, more or less, not changed at all since her creation by Ruth Handler in 1959 is what can reasonably be described (as many people have — along with some saltier things — over the decades) as an unrealistic body type: a combination rail-thin-yet-busty blonde that one doesn’t see too much in the real world, including among the mothers that Mattel has relied upon to purchase Barbie toys and accessories for their daughters.
One might say that Barbie has the body of a cartoon German prostitute drawn in the 1950s — because, as already explained, she has exactly that.
As of yesterday (Jan. 28), however, Barbie has — for the first time in her history — three additional body types being sold alongside the original: tall, petite and curvy.
These ladies aren’t Barbie’s friends, mind you; their names are all “Barbie,” and they have been created — as Eliana Dockterman explains in a very informative (see: cartoon German prostitute thing) deep dive into Barbie’s history that is Time’s latest cover story) — largely in response to flagging sales of the Barbie brand that were first portended in the mid-2000s when Bratz dolls began threatening Barbie’s 90 percent market share of retail doll sales by “eating Barbie’s lunch in the older-girl demographic,” as Mattel President and COO Richard Dickson told Time, while “Disney Princess was chomping away at the younger-girl demographic.”
In 2012, the Time feature explains, global sales for Barbie fell 3 percent, then another 6 percent in 2013, 16 percent in 2014, and the downward trend continued last year.
Losing ground to the bug-eyed Bratz figures (called “Bratz,” perhaps, because their manufacturer, MGA Entertainment, couldn’t settle on which “s” in “Aspiring Terrible Adults” to replace with a “Z?”) and Disney’s all-powerful Elsa and Anna (and related merchandise) of “Frozen,” observes Dockterman, forced Mattel to finally confront the criticisms (including a 2006 study published in Developmental Psychology) that Barbie’s physical proportions give girls a negative perception of their own bodies.
The development of the three new Barbie body types that are meant to more accurately reflect the variances of human bodies in the real world — so cloaked in secret it was given a code name: Project Dawn (which The Mary Sue reasonably posits could double as the title of a Michael Bay film) — was guided by Evelyn Mazzocco, who became head of the Barbie brand in 2014. Regularly receiving hate mail — and even death threats — because of Barbie’s body, Mazzocco told Time that she factored that negativity into her strategy for turning around Barbie’s sales.
Although Mattel did not disclose the precise proportions of the three new body types nor the specific factors that led to those decisions, Head of Design Kim Culmone told Time that Barbie’s targeted consumers (or, at least, purchasers) — women — were kept top of mind during the process.
“It’s a personal issue because almost every woman has owned a Barbie, and every woman has some relationship with or opinion about Barbie,” she remarked.
The new line of Barbies — which is called the Fashionistas collection and includes seven new skin tones, along with the three new body types — are currently only available for purchase online, at Barbie.com (for the usual Barbie price of $9.99 apiece). As the Time story shares, Mattel is currently in negotiations with retailers about the logistics of working the additional dolls and accessories into existing Barbie shelf space.
“Some people will say we are late to the game,” Mazzocco commented to the outlet. “But changes at a huge corporation take time.”
Now, Mattel will begin to see if all that time — and money, and effort — was worth it.
The Time cover posits Barbie as asking, “Now can we stop talking about my body?” But it’s unlikely that the company behind her is at all fed up, as it would have us believe its 57-year-old star is.
She’s back in the conversation, and that’s bound to be good for business — at least for a little while.