Toys

Barbie Leans In Just a Little Bit


Photograph by Mattel via Business Wire
Barbie doesn’t care what you think. The swimsuit model-turned-cop-turned-paleontologist-turned-Canadian Mountie doll is in the middle of a female-empowerment phase. Mattel hopes it will reignite young girls’ passion for its poorly performing Barbie brand.

There’s good reason for the marketing shakeup. While still the top-selling doll, Barbie’s sales dropped 15 percent last quarter in a continuation of a two-year popularity slide. Back in 1977, by contrast, 90 percent of American girls between the ages of 5 and 10 had at least one Barbie. Part of Barbie’s problem is that she’s not currently tied to a major movie or TV show the way most kids’ toys are today; Mattel has blamed Disney’s Frozen franchise as a main cause of Barbie’s recent drop.

The other factor behind the Barbie slump is the ever-nagging assumption that playing with gendered toys is detrimental to young girls’ ambition and self-esteem. Those worries have been around since the early 1980s when Bill Barton, one of Mattel’s original inventors of Barbie, publicly claimed the doll created unrealistic “beauty expectations” for girls. “If a child is less than attractive, she can develop a psychosis about this,” he told Newsweek in 1983.

Scientific research in subsequent years has largely reinforced those fears. A 2006 study at the University of Sussex found that girls who played with Barbie had “lower body esteem” than those who didn’t. An Oregon State University study released in March found that Barbies caused girls to think they could do fewer things than boys could. Luckily, Mattel’s half-human, half-ghoul Monster High dolls have yet to cause many 12-year-old girls to feel bad because they don’t look like a werewolf.

To give its most famous brand a boost, Mattel launched a Barbie campaign called #Unapologetic. Now, instead of shrinking from the criticism, the company is facing it head-on. Not that Mattel actually changed anything about the doll’s proportions or pink, bubbly image. Still, #Unapologetic—not to mention the toy’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover—suggests that Barbie knows what people are saying about her and just doesn’t care.

With #Unapologetic, Mattel hopes to turn Barbie into a feminist doll, one that values a career over clothes, personality over prettiness. To that end, the toymaker released an Entrepreneur Barbie with her own smartphone and LinkedIn profile. Barbie will also be at New York Fashion Week, where designers Charlotte Ronson and Rebecca Taylor will introduce human-size designs made using Mattel’s Barbie Fashion Maker game. (Think of it like the outfit selector in the movie Clueless.)

The idea of Barbie as a feminist icon isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. This is a doll who became an astronaut in the 1960s, a surgeon in the 1970s, and president—pantsuit and all—in 2000. But Mattel’s sales slump is real, and given people’s divisive reactions to the doll, it’s going to take an act of marketing magic to reverse it. Not only does the company have to convince parents that Barbie has changed, but it also has to make kids think new Barbie is just as cool as Disney’s singing Scandinavian princess.

To that end, Barbie has a feature film by Sony Pictures in the works. In the movie, which is being written by a former Sex and the City writer, Barbie will draw from the many skills she’s learned over her 150 careers to help make people’s lives better. Let’s just hope Ken turns out to be a better boyfriend than Mr. Big.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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