This effort to remake Barbie as a progressive icon appears to be a calculated business decision on Mattel’s part to win over today’s millennial parents. While Barbie is still a powerful force in the toy market, generating $971 million in sales in 2016, younger parents have been less keen on buying the doll for their daughters than those in generations past. Mattel has seen sales of Barbie spiral downward since 2009.
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In other words, Barbie is caught in a bind: Mattel needs to sell parents on more progressive versions of the doll, but it might take years of marketing for this new version of Barbie to become familiar and exciting enough for kids to want them. “You have to do more than offer one of these curvy or career dolls in the corner,” Brown says. “It’s a chicken and egg problem: If you offer enough of these dolls, over time, once kids get used to them, eventually they will start asking for them. Then the dolls will become profitable and it would be worth stocking them.”
+Commentary: On this blog, we love Barbies, unrepentantly. Yet is the brand still relevant? That is a heady question for a nearly billion dollar zeitgeist, and the above article does a good job of highlighting histrionics and the changing landscape for manufacturers of toys in the current political climate.
While disentangling or unpacking all the many legacy issues of Barbie and her sexist back-story is something it tries to do, and even accomplishes on some level. Intersecting both sexism and racism, body issues, sexuality and classism, is a heady mix. It would be hard to ‘re-boot’ Barbie into something else, without also understanding the changes within and without the culture it is embedded so deeply into.
Most people refer to all dolls as Barbie, and that kind of is the strength of their hold on the American cultural psyche. In changing with the times, to accommodate parents who are perhaps more circumspect about their child’s toys possessing markers of diversity as signals towards their compassionate consumerism. It is simply or always about representation.
This is a flattening of a rather large and ubiquitous behemoth into simply representational or symbolic markers. What is her job, how is her body shaped, and can my child see themselves or their world within them? Things that necessarily entangle the long legacy of this icon, but also in some ways will make a way forward. Albeit, very slowly and conservatively. Fashioning Instagram tableaux and adjusting messaging, alongside an expanded offering, which the article seems to show, is at its best is still outperformed by the standard versions of a fashion model Barbie.
The above post was a runaway hit for this blog, and highlighted that an afrofuturist Barbie could be a big hit. An icon as Uhura is, and groundbreaking in her representation on broadcast TV fifty years ago, reminds us to take a longer view of their impact, not just their impressions or sales. So when looked at today in the present landscape of toys and changing attitudes, or even technology, there is a rather steep hill. Yet, if we framed it as not whether their sales will slide, or they will lose brand relevance, maybe even lose a market share the answer would seem clearer.
At the risk of dilution of the core brand, maybe they shouldn’t be such a large force in the discussion of dolls. They were the standard bearer since forever, and now even older, dare I say middle-aged people, are still buying dolls. Maybe they call them ‘action figures’ or a tie-in to their favorite comic book franchise blockbuster, and when you have that kind of choice in the marketplace, new ideas and perhaps something will supplant the once undisputed apex.
The thought of a world without Barbie, except as a footnote to a ‘simpler and gentler’ time, (a female retrosexual as it were) seems unlikely. That what might matters as much as her size, politics, and other qualifiers is the imagination of the people who are playing with her. Of course, having that be representational is important. In an ironic-laden interpretation there could be a maxxing out of the camp factor proportionately. (pun intended)
In many ways Barbie almost serves as an embodiment of ‘How Far You’ve Come’ in latex. While progress has been made materially, in the cultural imagination she is as still seen as a benchmark, or milestone. Even in a culture that is struggling with #MeToo and believing women, it is easy to see that any progress will be marked quickly by a stringent backlash.
Is Barbie’s woke status, simply a limited edition version? Or is she trying to both bridge ‘traditional’ with a more progressive future? It feels on so many levels to me like we are using her for bellwether status, when actually brands, including the largest have obviously been challenging the norm around what is a remarkable year. In fact many have taken stances that are clearly political. It is a trend. Controversy as a sales delineator and branding opportunity.
Obviously we’ve seen that even on Social Media platforms these brands are even using snark (as a way to more engagement) and even going viral for it. Netflix’s recent ones are a template really, no matter how uncomfortable they made people, it was easy for them to stand behind the message in them. As if 53 people represented “overall viewing trends” wasn’t the most disingenuous thing you’ve ever read.
Will Barbie be able to keep up in this atmosphere or morph quickly enough for the buying public doesn’t seem like a good way to measure success. Those buying the unorthodox ones are able to finally embrace fully who they are and have it reflected back to them. This will unfurl in the impact not in sales (or social media) impressions in a non-hegemonic way. It is an investment in the future of the brand, and seeing it expand to a more fluid radical envisioning of the feminine.
Let’s hope they succeed, and not monetarily alone, but in the imaginations of its young minds.