How Barbie Had Reinvented Herself For Her 60th Birthday

For her sixtieth birthday Barbie has had a makeover to include different body types, ethnicities and disabilities

Diverse Barbie

by Jane Mulkerrins |

Next month Barbie, that tiny icon of youthful, fresh-faced femininity, will turn 60. And, like most women of her age, she’s been though some ups and downs.

In spite of the 200-plus careers she’s had – and running for President on four separate occasions – in her mid-fifties the perennially popular 11.5 inch plastic doll experienced something of a slump, finding herself out of step with modern tastes and values, Millennial mothers less inclined to endorse her notoriously unattainable body shape when buying toys for their offspring. Sales were steadily falling, dropping 20% between 2012 and 2014, the year that Barbie was unceremoniously elbowed off the top spot of girls’ toys (by Elsa from Frozen) for the first time in a decade.

But in a move that would make Madonna proud, Barbie turned it around, reinventing herself at the age of 56. In January 2016, the doll’s manufacturers, Mattel, unveiled three new body types – petite Barbie, tall Barbie and curvy Barbie – who joined a line-up of the most diverse dolls ever in terms of skin tone, eye and hair colour; Ken even got a couple of new physiques too: a slimmer Ken and a broad-bodied version (dad-bod Ken?). The reinvention proved a triumph – sales are increasing steadily and the new body shapes are a hit. The top-selling model of 2017 was a curvy doll with red hair, wearing a girl power T-shirt. Fewer than half of the Barbies now sold are the classic white-skinned doll with blonde hair and blue eyes.

Later this year, Barbie’s cultural relevance will receive a further boost when filming begins on the Barbie movie; Margot Robbie will both star in and produce the live-action film, which will reportedly have a strong focus on feminism and diversity. And now, upping the brand’s inclusivity credentials even further, this summer will see the launch of a Barbie in a wheelchair and another with a prosthetic leg. It’s a rain-soaked, deeply un-Californian day when I visit the Mattel HQ, near LA’s airport, as part of a ‘Barbie immersion’ that includes a tour of the plant where the dolls are designed and developed, meeting the Barbie vlogger who stars in the hugely popular web series, and learning about the brand’s Dream Gap Project to combat gender bias.

But I’m most interested in meeting the two new dolls with disabilities, and I persuade Kim Culmone, head of design for Barbie – and the woman who led the charge in pushing for the multiple new body shapes for Barbie – to give Grazia an exclusive sneak preview. While no one could argue that producing toys that represent the real world and the people who live in it isn’t a positive step, I must admit to having some reservations about the new iterations: is this tokenism, or part of a shrewd marketing ploy to reposition Barbie as the right-on toy choice in an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace?

Kim argues, firmly, it is neither. ‘I know the intention behind these choices. Being the most diverse and inclusive doll line is very important to us,’ she says. ‘And we are responding to one of the most common requests we get from customers: when will you bring out a doll in a wheelchair?’ The Barbie that Kim shows me is black, with trendy Afro-puff hair, wearing jeans, a striped T-shirt and silver sunglasses (she will also be available as a blonde), and she comes with a ramp to allow her wheelchair easy access to Barbie’s house. ‘The team worked closely with a doctor at the UCLA Medical Center who works in developing wheelchairs for kids,’ says Kim. ‘It’s not intended to represent a wheelchair for someone who is ill – it is for someone who has a different body – and the wheelchair has no handles, she is self-propelling.’

‘We are not defining what the disability is,’ adds Kim. ‘That’s for the girl – or boy – to play out and imagine.’ The doll with a prosthetic leg is Caucasian and wears a blue ruffled dress – her above-the-knee prosthetic limb fully on display – teamed with white trainers and hoop earrings. For this doll’s design he Mattel team worked with Jordan Reeves, the 13-year-old who sparked an internet sensation when she designed a prosthetic arm that shoots glitter. ‘She gave us very specific details about what would be important to her, not just as someone who uses a prosthetic but as a kid who recently played with dolls – she told us what she wanted to see.’

‘Exposure, inclusion and normalisation is critical,’ Kim continues. ‘We’re not making these dolls separate from our primary range or special in any way – she’s a $10 doll like any other – and that was important to us.’

There’s no doubt Mattel is making great strides (particularly now Barbie, with her new foot shape, can wear at shoes as well as heels) to ensure that the iconic doll stays relevant, reflects the real world and delivers on its long-standing mission to ‘inspire the limitless potential in every girl’. ‘We continue to push the brand’s diversity in small ways too,’ nods Kim. ‘For example, adding a doll that has freckles all over her body, not just on her face, and diversifying the fashion to include not only feminine styles but more masculine-presenting clothing.’

Barbie has not yet had any tattoos though, I note. And there’s also a bigger issue she has not challenged: she might be turning 60, but Barbie never gets old. ‘As a character, Barbie is a teenager and she remains that age for the consumer she’s aimed at,’ says Robert Best, head of product design and fashion. ‘But it is something we need to talk about because, as a culture, we have a real problem with ageism.’ Giving your daughter a Granny Barbie for her birthday could really be breaking the final taboo.

Barbie is celebrating her 60th anniversary on 9 March #Barbie60

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