by Natalie Finn | Thu., Jan. 28, 2016 12:33 PM
Barbie has finally entered the 21st century. Just about.
Not that she hasn't had her modern, empowered moments. The career gal with the devoted boyfriend, cute little sisters, cousins and a tight-knit group of friends has been a doctor, a businesswoman, a rock star, a veterinarian, a dentist, a soldier, an athlete and an astronaut. She has a garage full of cars, a variety of homes and a private plane and is the face of a multimedia empire. Heck, she's even run for president three times.
But up until today it was nearly always the same blond with the impossibly tiny waist, perky boobs and perennially arched feet wearing the lab coat and the spacesuit.
Mattel on Thursday introduced three new Barbie body types, a do-or-die endeavor to make the 57-year-old toy relevant—and relatable—again after four consecutive years of declining sales.
"We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty," Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice president and global general manager of Barbie, said in a company statement released today. She also told Time, which first reported on the launch, "I wanted to remind myself every time I came to work about the reality of what is going on with the brand."
Whether the evolution of Barbie's body type—which now comes in petite, tall and curvy alongside the "regular" version—saves the day (and the stock) remains to be seen, but it was high time Mattel got with the program. Girls haven't abandoned dolls for apps entirely, but they do have an infinitely wider array of dolls to choose from—and they've been flocking to Disney princesses, like Elsa from Frozen and, more recently, Rey and Captain Phasma from Star Wars.
It's not that Barbie ever went that wrong, exactly. It's more like she was never exactly right. Barbie may have been a fashion icon from day one, and the "we girls can do anything" slogan certainly comprises words to live by, but she was never close to emulating a "real person." Instead, she always represented a societal ideal, and while that eventually evolved into the ideal that a woman can have it all, "all" still included anatomically impossible proportions. (A scientific study once determined that, when converted on a human scale, her frame lacked the body fat necessary for a woman to menstruate. There's a reason why "Human Barbie" isn't a good concept.)
Barbie made her debut on March 9, 1959, in a now legendary black and white zebra-stripe swimsuit and on-point cat-eye liner, was available as a blond or a brunette, and sold for $3. Additional clothing and accessories would set your allowance back an additional $1 to $3. Creator Ruth Handler, inspired by Bild Lili fashion dolls she saw in Germany, had modeled the doll after her own daughter, Barbara.
Though deemed a little risqué at the American International Toy Fair in NYC, she was flying off the shelves by summertime. But at the turn of the decade, she was still only a starlet, an 11 1/2-inch replica of the golden-age bathing beauties.
Soon though, Barbie was a Hitchcockian ice-blond fantasy, a gal who worked in the fashion industry and wore the most amazing tweed suits to work, lived in a Dream House and tooled around in a pink convertible. A little strange that she was single though, right? So along came Ken in 1961. In true Mary Tyler Moore or That Girl style, Barbie was in no rush to get married, though of course the dresses were produced should she find herself at the altar.
Up until 1968, the only diversity to be found regarded Barbie's hair color, so Mattel introduced Barbie's friend Christie—who tends to be referred to vaguely as the "first black Barbie" (we won't get started on "colored Francie," but suffice it to say she didn't last), but Barbie herself remained a white girl. It wasn't until 1980 that Mattel released black and Hispanic versions of Barbie.
But even when Mad Men was a way of life rather than a retro blast from the past, there was Barbie backlash.
The National Organization for Women demonized Mattel and the company's stock tumbled in 1973. However, the sheer variety of options, from the clothes to the careers (Barbie has had upward of 150 fairly awesome jobs), kept Barbie at the top of the toy heap. She even survived the Bratz invasion of 2001, though at one point the rounder-headed, super-trendy toys had as much as 40 percent of the fashion doll market, to Barbie's 60 percent—a strong indicator that it was time for Barbie to start moving with the times that ended up buried under litigation.
By the 1990s, she really had it all—including, in 1992, crimped hair down to her feet. Yes, Totally Hair Barbie became the best-selling Barbie of all time, with over 10 million sold.
So long as Barbie didn't want kids.
Pal Midge got pregnant (as seen in the set "Pregnant Midge and Baby," part of the Barbie Happy Family collection), but Barbie has always been the girl on the go, too busy to settle down. She even broke up with Ken in 2004 after 43 years together. (They got back together on Valentine's Day, 2011, though.)
With all the success she's had along the way, isn't it kind of ironic that Barbie's been body-shamed her whole life? Throughout Mattel's ups and downs, the criticism of Barbie's shape has always been there, even though her parent company never felt the need to pay it much attention.
Today's change was not the first attempt at listening to the critics, however. Really Rad Barbie debuted in 1998, with a wider waist, a smaller bust and—praise be!—flatter feet.
"[The target audience] wanted Barbie to be cooler," Sean Fitzgerald, then vice president of corporate communications for Mattel, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "They wanted Barbie to be more reflective of themselves." But he insisted that the new shape (which still measured in at a lofty 38-18-34) was not a response to feminist critiques that Barbie presented a distorted image of a woman's body.
"We're very aware of those charges," Fitzgerald said. "But those people who have concerns about Barbie are not the ones who are buying them. We listen to our target market."
Fast-forward 18 years, and Mattel couldn't ignore "those people" any longer.
Barbie may have finally made the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2014, but in October 2015, profits were down 33 percent from the previous year, with Mattel marking its eighth straight quarter of falling sales, MarketWatch reported.
"Ultimately, haters are going to hate," Mattel President and Chief Operating Office Richard Dickson, who joined the company in 2000, told Time ahead of today's unveiling. "We want to make sure the Barbie lovers love us more—and perhaps changing the people who are negative to neutral. That would be nice."
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