You may have expected me to devote today’s Friday Five to Martin Shkreli’s new dis track, but though bad businessman Pharma Bro Shkreli continues to be a source of endless entertainment, something much more interesting happened this week. New Barbies.
Like most women who were once girls in North America, I grew up playing with Barbies. Every year at Christmas I surreptitiously glance down the pink pink and more pink Barbie section of the toy aisle, scoping out the new holiday Barbie. Look, I may have my issues with Barbie’s doll body – unrealistic! – and her marketing – exclusionary! – but those dresses are gorgeous.
But yesterday Mattel announced that their longtime secret project, codenamed Dawn, was ready to be known by the world. Project Dawn, it turns out, was a new line of Barbies with markedly different figures: now Barbie comes in petite, tall, curvy and regular Barbie form. And even better – all of the new line Barbies come in different skin tones and hair types.
Miraculous! Barbie was a long time hold out to a increasingly influential trend in the toy world: representing the diversity of the kids who play with toys and the parents who buy them. The reasons for Mattel’s reticence to changing up its premiere fashion doll are variously explored in the stories I’ve picked for you today, but chief among them is Barbie’s now much less secure position in the market. Once comfortably ruling over girl’s toys, Barbie has been taking deep hits from Disney, Bratz and other competitors. Diversifying Barbie is a stab at taking back some of that marketshare.
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In an extensive TIME cover story, Eliana Dockterman, takes a look behind the scenes of Project Dawn and Barbie history. Barbie’s creation story is well known: the doll was based on a sexy gag gift for men and named after its creator’s daughter. It was never expected to be a hit, and yet it was. Interestingly, pushback against Barbie’s body type came early on and never went away. Mattel is no stranger to controversy or complaints. So why change now, after all this time? Barbie, it turns out, is in more trouble than we might have previously thought, and has been undergoing a radical, though, quiet restructuring and rethink. Project Dawn is just part of the bigger changes moving Mattel in a new direction.
Just how much trouble was Barbie in before the Project Dawn relaunch? Well, a lot. WSJ looks back at the years of plummeting sales and depreciating worth of Mattel’s brands that spurred Mattel to dump its CEO, overhaul its management team, and wholly rethink several of its top lines – including Barbie.
Project Dawn isn’t the first time Barbie has changed. Over the years her face and body have changed, and she’s gained friends, sisters and a boyfriend. The New York Times looks at Mattel’s more recent efforts to liven up the brand by adding new skin tones and hair types. The new body types combined with the new face shapes, skin tones and hair types means that Barbie may be, for the first time, offering truly diverse dolls. Will this improve sales or diminish the strength of Barbie’s core brand? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
This latest move, says Laura Entis, is just one in a series of gradual changes to the Barbie line that are designed to make the doll relatable, rather than aspirational. But Barbie is still beautiful with beautiful clothes and exciting careers. While the diversification of the Barbie line hopefully mitigates some of the harmful messages that classic Barbie reinforced in children, has the core message of the Barbie line really changed? Barbie is still a fashion doll, after all, an aspirational image of upper middle class beauty and success – but now one that welcomes all girls and encourages them to imagine themselves in her place.
It’s not about responding to a diverse consumer base, says Erika Nicole Kendall. It’s about saving Mattel from those plummeting sales.
CEO Richard Dickson stated that they made the additions because “Barbie reflects the world girls see around them.”
Is that right? Have curvy women only appeared in the past five years? Petite women? What about – dare I say it – women who are both short and curvy? The buying public has been diverse in size and stature for decades, and Mattel playing catch-up seems more like a sales strategy than a genuine attempt to represent their customers.
Kendall says that the Barbie brand will stay firmly in the realm of aspirational fashion dolls, albeit with a more diverse offering of doll types – perhaps because that brand allows for sales of so many accessories. Can’t have a Barbie without a Barbie Dream House!
What’s interesting to me about the new Barbie body types is the evolution of a brand and the marketplace will respond to this. The Barbie story is as much about girlhood as it is about fashion, and about women in the workplace as much as it is about dream homes – it’s more than a brand, it’s an iconic brand. In the days and weeks to come I think we’ll see some interesting reflections on the slow transformation of a doll that has been so ubiquitous in North American homes and imaginations.