After decades of criticism over Barbie’s body shape, Mattel is finally ready to reveal several new body types with more realistic proportions. Curvy, petite, and tall versions of Barbie will now be sold alongside the classic doll, beginning a new and very uncertain era for the brand as it tries to stay relevant to a new generation of kids and moms.
Time has a lengthy feature on the new Barbie dolls and the challenges that Mattel faced in bringing them to market. They talked to Mattel COO Richard Dickson and head of the Barbie brand Evelyn Mazzocco about the process of bringing new body shapes to Barbie, and how it might affect the doll going forward. It makes for a pretty interesting read, especially the bits about the need for an image change running up against the need to maintain a profitable and competitive brand, especially with Bratz dolls and Disney princesses encroaching on Barbie’s turf. There’s some really fascinating stuff in there, especially the bits about how much research was needed and the challenge of translating the descriptions of the dolls to not be offensive in all the languages of the countries Mattel does business in. If you’ve ever wondered what takes these companies so long to change, this feature is a good place to get some answers.
The new dolls will go into production this year, and will be available in the new skin tones that Mattel introduced a few years back. That’s an unprecedented amount of choice for Barbie, who until recent times used to be the same skinny blonde dressed up in any number of outfits or work uniforms. The curvy Barbie will have more rounded out hips, legs, stomach, and rear — and it’s odd describing her, because it feels like engaging in the same kind of body scrutiny that this is supposed to be going against. The Time feature reflects that sentiment — the higher ups at Mattel know they can’t win, but they’re trying anyway, and there’s something to be said for that.
The transition to variety won’t be easy for Mattel. As controversial as Barbie’s figure was, it did afford her a clear identity — when people thought of Barbie, they thought of a very specific image of an impossibly thin, blonde doll. It was a look that spawned as many pop culture references as it did complaints. That identity won’t go away overnight, but this week’s announcement is the first step toward the Barbie brand shedding it. It’s worth noting that all the skin tones and body shapes will be called Barbie — while the classic Barbie might still be the representative for animated shorts and promotional materials for now, the thinking is that all of these Barbie dolls share the name equally. It’s a risky move, but considering that Barbie’s fortunes have been waning in recent years, it might be one worth taking.
Meanwhile, Dickson and Mazzocco are fully prepared for the complaints that will come their way soon, both from purists criticizing them for kowtowing to activists and from activists who believe they haven’t gone far enough. They’re no strangers to this — according to the Time feature, death threats over Barbie’s body are not uncommon — but given that those complaints will now be packaged with very real fear about the future of the brand, it sounds like stressful times are ahead for Mattel. Ultimately, the feature ends with an odd sort of hopeful resignation, with Dickson channeling his inner Taylor Swift — “Ultimately, haters are going to hate…We want to make sure the Barbie lovers love us more—and perhaps changing the people who are negative to neutral. That would be nice.”