Barbie first hit the toy market 60 years ago in March, 1959. Her creator, Ruth Handler, believed that by playing with this new toy, “little girls…could be anything they wanted to be.” This message continues to be a clear winner.
In 2018, the Barbie brand “generated gross sales that amounted to about 1.09 billion U.S. dollars, up from about 955 million U.S. dollars the year before.” Mattel hit the jackpot with Barbie, both here and across the globe . The website Statista reported, “The commercial success of Barbie has allowed Mattel to become the ninth most valuable toy brand worldwide as of 2018.”
It is not surprising that to commemorate her diamond anniversary, Mattel introduced a glamorous Barbie who, according to the company’s product website, “wears a cascading ball gown twinkling with silvery sparkles. Paying homage to the original Barbie® doll and her iconic fashion heritage, Barbie® 60th Anniversary doll wears a dramatic ponytail with an elegant twist, side-eye glance, hoop earrings and wrist tag.”
The original Barbie was unrealistically thin, blonde and built with impossible to obtain proportions. Critics noted that she was stereotypically, the “dumb blond.”
That conclusion was reinforced when, in 1992, Mattel introduced Teen Talk Barbie. A doll with a voice box programed with such phrases as “Math class is tough.”, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”, “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”, ”Wanna have a pizza party?”, “Want to go shopping?”, “Okay, meet me at the mall”, and “Let’s have a campfire”.
With very few exceptions these phrases added to the picture of Barbie as a air-headed girl who could only think about enjoying today. She personified the stereotype of the day; a female who had no dreams of a future career, only thoughts about fun and marriage.
Since then, perhaps in response to changing demographics, Mattel has done a 180, and has embraced Ruth Handler’s message of choice, who once said, “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” Mattel’s recent focus has been on Barbie’s choice of career. One report on the popular website TwentyTwoWords claims that Barbie has had “over 200 careers… she’s been everything from robotics engineer to journalist; a few more of her careers include a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Squadron Leader, a paleontologist, a fashion editor, a sign language teacher, and a presidential candidate!”
Barbie was around when the percentage of women entering the labor force shot up dramatically., and Mattel’s decision reflected this change. “In 1970, about 43 percent of women ages 16 and older were in the labor force. By 2000, 61 percent of adult women were in the labor force ,” reports the Population Reference Bureau.
In another move to recognize women’s outstanding contributions, Mattel honored a number of female heroes (Sheros) with their own Barbie dolls, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay , tennis champ Naomi Osaka, fashion executive Eva Chen and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The list of continues to grow by recently introducing big wave surfer Maya Gabeira; Kristina Vogel, a disabled Olympic Gold Medal cyclist from Germany who has gone into politics; Tessa Virtue, a Canadian Olympic gold medalist in ice dancing; Yara Shahidi , co-star of the popular sitcom Blackish; Vogue cover model Adwoa Aboah; Dipa Karmaka, an Indian visual artist; Chinese photographer Chen Man and Ita Buttrose, an Australian journalist and editor. And, in 2016, “Mattel went a step further and released a range of dolls with different body types, more hairstyles and seven skin tones, to better represent the world we live in.”
Mattel has also incorporated other changes to reflect the diverse world of today. As of 2016, Barbie is no longer universally slim, blonde, and pale skin. She is now brown, black, and Asian. She also mirrors society by featuring some dolls in wheelchairs and even wearing a prosthetic leg.
So Mattel is clearly getting some things right, but there is one glaring omission. Barbie may have Ken, but she certainly doesn’t have children. In that way, she is just as one-dimensional as the original Barbie. Apparently, she can choose to have a career, but she cannot choose to have a career and children. Yet the choice of being a working mother is the overwhelming choice of her target audience. In an important way, Mattel is sending the age-old message: Women cannot have it all.
But young women are ignoring that advice. A 2014 large-scale Gallup poll concludes, “There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that millennials — both married and single/never married — are putting off having children. Even among the small percentage (2%) of married 18-year-old millennials, less than half (44%) have no children, and the percentage decreases with age to just 17% at age 34. And while few single 18-year-old millennials have children (4%), that percentage rises to almost half by age 34. Essentially, almost half of the oldest millennials who have never married nonetheless have children. In 2000, the comparable number for Gen Xers aged 30 to 34 was just 30%.”
Regardless of whether they delay marriage or decide not to marry, millennials are definitely choosing to become parents. In fact, working mothers are now the norm, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Labor. Indeed, “Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force, with over 75 percent employed full-tim Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in 1960.”
Women are clearly are opting to have it all, while Barbie is still stuck in the days when that option was not available. She may look different, she may not be tied to the house, but she is clearly out of touch with the life most of her target audience envisions for itself.
Maybe Mattel needs to add working mom Barbie to its cast of characters. She could be wearing a suit for the office, scrubs for the operating room, a police uniform or work clothes for the building site.
She would also come with a detachable snugli with a baby in it.
Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist who has directed studies for the National Science Foundation, NIMH and the Sloan Foundation and Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston University They are the authors of The New Soft War on Women (Tarcher/Penguin)