New & realistic?

ACCEPTABLE FORMS

New & realistic?

We’re seated in a Pantone 219-pink-walled boardroom at Mattel HQ in a retail park in El Segundo, Los Angeles. Two wall-mounted clocks relay the time in LA and Hong Kong, and posters of Barbie campaigns and fashion tie-ins adorn the walls: Barbie’s recent collaboration with Moschino, the 2014 Karl Lagerfeld Barbie, plus doting portraits of Barbie in various guises, from astronaut to presidential candidate. But all eyes are on a 12-inch stand on the boardroom table, draped with a candy-pink veil.

What I and four other journalists are about to witness is the culmination of a highly secretive 18-month operation codenamed Project Dawn: the design and manufacture of 33 new Barbie dolls that mark a radical departure from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, improbably-proportioned doll we know and love or hate.

Changing preferences

“Right now when you say ‘Barbie’ to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll comes to mind,” says Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie. “In a few years, this will no longer be the case. We’re exploding a system that’s been in place for 56 years and a heritage that’s been passed down from generation to generation.”

As the satin veil is whipped off, there’s a gasp in the room. It’s a line-up of black Barbies, tanned Barbies, white Barbies: seven different skintones in total. There is afro hair, curly red hair, tousled blue hair and jet-black straight hair; 30 colours and 24 styles and textures. There are blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes. Plus, there are three new body shapes or ‘archetypes’: a smaller doll, a taller doll, and the one everyone reaches for first — a Barbie with solid thighs, a waist able to accommodate vital internal organs and biceps meaty enough to beat Ken at arm-wrestling.

I pick up bigger Barbie by her gratifyingly sturdy waist and surreptitiously nudge up her skirt. Barbie has had her most radical makeover ever — and I can exclusively report that the thigh-gap is officially gone.

Barbie is no stranger to adversity, and comes from humble beginnings. Mattel Creations was founded in 1945 by Elliot and Ruth Handler, from the garage of their family home in California. As the story goes, inspiration for Barbie struck as Ruth watched her daughter Barbara and her friends playing with paper dolls. The girls used them to role-play teenage and adult scenarios, such as doctors and nurses, cheerleaders and businesswomen. At the time, the only toy dolls on the market were podgy-faced babies to be bottle-fed and pushed around in a pram. Ruth observed that ‘little girls just wanted to be bigger girls’, and realised that playing out adult lifestyles and professions was a natural way for children to form aspirations about their future.

Barbie also represented a lucrative opportunity to fill a gap in the market. On holiday in Europe, Ruth spotted a 12-inch German doll named Bild Lilli, who was based on a popular satirical cartoon character in Bild-Zeitung newspaper. She had long legs, a slender waist, pert breasts, full make-up and a sideways, sultry glance. She carted three Lillis back to California, unaware that the doll was marketed not to children, but to adult men as a novelty gift. Regardless, Lilli (with a few nips and tucks, and minus her nipples) was the
prototype for Ruth’s new doll, and after overcoming the resistance of manufacturers, retailers and the sales team, ‘Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model’ doll was launched on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Barbie — full name Barbara Millicent Roberts — came in blonde and brunette versions, clad in a fabulous zebra-print one-piece swimsuit and accessorised with cat’s-eye sunglasses.

Buyers were sceptical, placing small orders for this precocious new doll. But Ruth’s instincts paid off when little girls got their first glimpse of Barbie on the shelves. By Christmas 1959, more than 3,50,000 Barbie dolls had been sold. Mattel Creations rapidly expanded to cope with demand, and by 1965 it was among the top 500 companies in America.

The first dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes — by fashion designer Charlotte Johnson — hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Today, a team of eight face designers and four hair designers produces up to 30 new prototype dolls a week, each taking anything from a day to six weeks to perfect. Some of the design team have a background in engineering or industrial design, others in fine art or graphic design. Barbie also has a team of designers expanding her vast wardrobe, and stylists to make sure she looks perfectly on-trend for ad campaigns and shoots. 

As well as being a roaring success, Barbie’s personal life was rosy. She began an on-off relationship with the hunky himbo Ken Carson in 1961. A news release from Mattel in February 2004 announced that Barbie and Ken had split up (and an Australian surfer doll named Blaine hit the shelves to keep her company) but in February 2006 they decided to rekindle their relationship following Ken’s makeover.

Problem with ‘millennial moms’

The loudest chorus of criticism levelled at Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic body image for young women. Barbie’s vital statistics have been estimated by Yale academics at 36 inch (bust), 18 inch (waist) and 33 inch (hips). Barbie-bashers gleefully seized on the observation by Finnish researchers in 1994 that Barbie lacked sufficient body fat to menstruate.

But the real threat to Barbie’s empire is not Islam, or anti-capitalist campaigners. It’s 21st-century mothers. “Around 18 months ago, we realised we had a problem with moms,” says Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice president and global brand general manager. “Girls still love Barbie,” says Tania Missad, director of global brand insights, who leads all Mattel’s research on its girl brands. “But moms, and specifically millennial moms, were having a real crisis about whether they wanted their children to play with Barbie or not.”
 
So, the most powerful weapon in Mattel’s charm offensive targeting Millennial moms is the army of 33 new-generation dolls. With this new breed of Barbie, Mattel has created a doll for children to play with, and adults to talk about. “When kids play with Barbie dolls, they don’t get hung up on this. Diversity is a bigger adult conversation,” says Robert Best, senior design director. And the conversation, in tightly controlled focus groups with
mothers and daughters, has been overwhelmingly positive. “We’ve had a lot of ‘Amen’s and ‘Finally’s from moms,” says Tania. Naturally, there will be critics who dismiss it as tokenism, or point out that the bigger Barbie is still definitely not fat, and is attractive in the most conventional of ways: big eyes, high cheekbones, flawless skin, taut limbs.

“There will be people who say we haven’t gone far enough, or people who ask what’s next, question our commitment to this,” sighs Tania. But there are significant logistical
complexities for retailers, such as shelf space and display units. “And just like in real life, not all clothes will fit each doll,” observes Robert. For the first time, Barbie will know what it’s like to be unable to squeeze into her friend’s jeans. “But Barbie can handle it. She’s a big girl,” he says, with a laugh.

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