Barbie’s Fascinating Evolution From A 1959 Icon To 21st-Century Model Of Diversity

Mattel’s Barbie has come a long way in the 57-years since her March 9, 1959, debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. At 11.5-inches tall with a blonde ponytail and pointed feet, Barbie emerged as a teenage model wearing the now-iconic black-and-white striped one-piece swimsuit, sunglasses, gold hoop earrings, and a sideways glance. She was priced at a modest $3 and was not immediately well-received due to her adult female figure in stark contrast to the popular baby dolls of the time like Ginny, Betsy Wetsy, and Chatty Cathy.

Now Mattel is making headlines with Barbie dolls in three new body types: tall, petite, and curvy, plus a range of different skin tones, hairstyles and textures, and outfits to mirror the diverse girls who play with the popular dolls. Two years ago, the toy company challenged its designers to come up with ideas for how to make Barbie more relevant to girls growing up in an increasingly global, diverse and technology-driven world. Mattel introduced 23 new dolls in 2015 and announced Thursday the move to roll out more dolls, a total of 33, by the end of 2016 as part of the Fashionistas collection. Dolls hit major retail stores like Toys “R” Us and Walmart on March 1.

The namesake of Mattel co-founder, Ruth Handler’s daughter, Barbara, Barbie was the first doll with adult features mass produced in the United States. And she was ultimately a hit. Like young Barbara, many girls were fascinated with ideas about teenage and adult life, more interested in growing up than in mothering baby dolls.

By 1961 consumer demand for Barbie was so large, Mattel introduced a steady boyfriend, Ken, named after Handler’s son. Mattel sold 351,000 Barbie dolls in its first year, due in large part to television advertising. Mattel was the first toy company to market to children via this new medium. Since 2011 the brand has brought in over $1 billion in annual gross sales worldwide.

From the beginning, Barbie’s look and fashions have reflected social norms, culture, and trends, and she has always represented possibility, encouraging young girls to imagine the future. In the late 50s and early 60s, that future may have been confined to domestic responsibilities, but Barbie could do more and be more. Her resume lists many careers, more than 150: executive, airline pilot, firefighter, surgeon, computer engineer, astronaut — even a U.S. presidential candidate.

As women entered the workforce in numbers and started to break through the glass ceiling beginning in the 1970s, Barbie came under scrutiny. Some argued that Barbie’s endless supply of clothes, accessories and Dream House promoted materialism. Many argued that Barbie’s exaggerated physical proportions created unrealistic expectations for girls and boys about real women’s bodies and led girls to develop negative body image associations.

In the late 1960s, Mattel introduced an African-American doll and by 1980, Hispanic and Asian Barbie dolls hit the market. Since then, Barbie has come to represent more than 40 different nationalities.

Today Barbie has over 13 million Facebook followers and 257,000 followers on Twitter. She boasts more than one million subscribers on YouTube, where she launched her first vlog in 2015. Her Instagram presence on @BarbieStyle launched in 2014 and at 1.2 million followers, is a fast growing fashion channel. Despite her popularity on social media, Barbie sales have waned in recent years. Increasingly, consumers are interested in dolls that reflect diversity across skin tones, body shapes, eye colors, hairstyles, and more.

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According to Time, Mattel needed to do something.

“Barbie sales plummeted 20% from 2012 to 2014 and continued to fall last year. A line of toys designed to teach girls to build, Lego Friends, helped boost Lego above Mattel as the biggest toy company in the world in 2014. Then Hasbro won the Disney Princess business away from Mattel, just as Elsa from the film Frozen dethroned Barbie as the most popular girl’s toy. The estimated revenue loss to Mattel from Elsa and the other Disney Princesses is $500 million.”

It became clear Mattel could not expect to experience continued success with Barbie without adapting to the times. It’s still early to determine whether the new version of Barbie will backfire or be embraced. She faces obstacles with regard to clothes and shoes not fitting universally and some have already argued that the curvy model is not curvy enough. More than ever, parents today are concerned with presenting their children with empowering choices when it comes to play. Time will tell whether or not Fashionistas Barbies will live up to modern standards of beauty, identity, and diversity.

[Photo by Wally Santana/AP Images]