Okay, okay, so the title of this post is slightly over the top. This past Christmas was a bit more heavy on consumerism than I’d planned and I’ve sworn off getting my children new toys until their birthdays, but I have to say, I am pleasantly impressed with the new direction Mattel is taking Barbie. The toy company has just announced a move away from its classic look toward a greater embrace of diversity in body shape. The dolls in the image below are only some of the 33 new Barbies the company is releasing.
What prompted the change? This, apparently:
Barbie is to receive a dramatic makeover in 2016, toy company Mattel has revealed, as a new range includes three optional body shapes – petite, tall and curvy – as well as seven different skin tones and 24 hair styles.
Marking a radical change from the blonde, blue-eyed appearance and implausible proportions of previous models, the updated dolls are intended to better reflect the diversity of the product’s audience and appeal to the shifting expectations of what Mattel called “millennial moms”.
“We were seeing that Millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn’t see Barbie in this category,” Tania Missad, Mattel’s director of global brand insights, told the Telegraph.
And from later in the article, this:
Compared to Baby Boomers and Generation X parents, ‘Millennial moms’ were more likely to question institutions and harbour anti-consumerist sentiments. ‘Girls still love Barbie,’ says Missad. ‘But moms, and specifically Millennial moms, were having a real crisis about whether they wanted their children to play with Barbie or not.’ Mattel cannot afford to lose Millennial moms. ‘It’s currently a small group, but it’s a growing group,’ says Missad. ‘It’s the future.’
Let me explain why I find this so hopeful. I have complained, many times, about the increased gendering of children’s toys (and children’s clothes, and, well, children’s everything) in recent years. I’ve talked about how the girls’ toy aisle in most stores ends up a wash of pink and purple, and about the ways gendered toys affect girls (and boys). Presumably toy manufacturers have been marketing children’s toys this way because it’s what sells. This move by Mattel suggests that that may be changing. Maybe—just maybe—my generation can turn things around.
Yes, toy manufacturers can try to garner sales through advertising and efforts to convince parents that they should buy their products for their children, but they also conduct focus groups and listen to parents in an attempt to determine what parents want to buy. I think this is the first time I have seen a toy manufacturer speak openly of “Millenial moms” as a target market—and as a market that matters. And as a proud “Millenial mom,” that matters a lot to me.
After reading several articles on the new rollout, I turned to my husband.
“I think we may need to get Sally a Barbie for her birthday,” I told him.
“That’s something I never thought I’d hear you say!” he responded.
And that’s rather the point. But then, I can’t say for sure what we’ll purchase. Barbie will have to compete with GoldieBlox, Miss Possible, and Jewelbots, some of the many startups designed by Millenials in an effort to spark girls’ interest in science and technology and compete with more stereotypically gendered toys. Still, before this new rollout, I never even would have even considered Barbie in the running as a birthday present for my daughter. And that? That mattered to Mattel.
[Edit 1: In response to some things mentioned in the comments, I should note that I am not huge on preventing children from having toys all of the other children in their lives are playing with. I grew up in a home where TV was forbidden, among other things, and that left me feeling odd and out of step with my peers. My children currently have a number of Barbie dolls, some given them as gifts and some purchased at thrift stores. What changed with this new line is that I would be more likely to consider buying a Barbie doll new, and as an official gift. Before this, that would not have been on my radar, not because of an ideological boycott so much as because there are so many other quality toys available.]
[Edit 2: I am not against girls playing with things that are pink. I wrote a blog post critical of the Lego Friends line a while back, but have since purchased some of their sets for my children. They may have an overload of pink and purple, but some of the sets are quite nice and have interesting concepts. I also don’t object to my children playing princess. I let my daughter dress as she pleases, and her style is very feminine. I am, however, concerned about a sort of overarching color segregation that risks communicating to girls which toys they can acceptably play with and which they cannot.]
[Edit 3: While Barbie has released 33 new dolls in a range of shapes and colors, it is true that their new move still has its limits. Even the curvy dolls only represent the lighter end of large, and even then only in conformance with idealized body shapes in their proportions. I would also have liked to see some effort to create a doll with disabilities. Even with these limitations, I am impressed with how far this move has taken from their original product, and I appreciate the effort they have put into this new rollout.]