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The Barbie doll first appeared on the American market in 1959. The blonde doll with the white skin, waspish waist, and perpetually perky demeanor was sold by Mattel and was geared toward girls aged 3 to 11 years. The doll was named after the 13-year-old daughter of its creators, Ruth and Elliot Handler. The women’s movement gave rise to what came to be called the Barbie Doll syndrome, which identified the phenomenon wherein girls began dieting at an early age to achieve the impossible goal of looking like their Barbie dolls. When they failed to reach that goal, feminists insisted that the girls developed low self-esteem. Girls of color were also unable to find dolls that looked like them in other ways until the rise of multiculturalism led Mattel to produce dolls of various races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Despite the popularity of Mattel’s chief rival, the Bratz dolls, the average young American girl still owns at least eight Barbie dolls, and Barbie dolls continue to be favorite toys for girls in this target group. Mattel insists that the Barbie doll enjoys 100-percent name recognition among girls between the ages of 3 and 10. Mattel introduces approximately 125 new Barbie dolls each year. In 2013, one Barbie doll was sold every 3 seconds somewhere in the world. Sales amount to approximately $2 billion annually, and half of all Barbie dolls are sold outside the United States. Barbie dolls are a major attraction for doll collectors of all ages, who buy a 10th of all the Barbie dolls sold each year.
The first Barbie doll to appear on the scene was introduced at the American Toy Fair in 1959. The first Barbie was short on accessories by subsequent standards. She came dressed only in a black-and-white striped bathing suit, but the Handlers understood the importance of dressing up dolls to young girls. The first shipment of half a million Barbie dolls was accompanied by a million costumes. In 1961, Mattel introduced Ken, a boy doll named after the Handlers’ son. Ken was marketed as Barbie’s boyfriend. Barbie’s best friend, Midge, was introduced in 1963. The following year, Allan was introduced as Ken’s best friend and Midge’s boyfriend.
In 1963, Mattel sold 5 million Barbie, Ken, and Midge dolls along with 25 million costumes. Within a year, more than 50 separate outfits were available for the Barbie doll. In 1967, Mattel introduced Skipper as Barbie’s younger sister. Additional friends have been added over the years, including Stacy, P. J., Jamie, Steffie, Kelley, Cara, Tracy, Miko, Whitney, and Teresa. From the beginning, Barbie and her friends could wear the same outfits, as could Ken and his friends. Despite this sharing, dressing and accessorizing Barbie dolls were expensive since a basic wardrobe encompassed 54 costumes for Barbie and Midge, 36 for Ken and Allan, and 10 for Skipper. In all, the cost of these costumes was approximately $200. Other accessories such as furniture, jewelry, dogs, and other paraphernalia raised the costs even higher.
The Barbie doll so inspired young girls that Mattel created a real-life Barbie entourage that included 25 press agents, 45 advertising executives, 5,000 Japanese doll makers, and a personal secretary to answer Barbie’s mail. With 8,500 chapters of the Barbie Fan Club, it required 15 people to keep it in operation. Mattel even began publishing the Barbie Magazine, which claimed a subscriber base of 100,000. In her first three decades, the Barbie doll sold 500 million units. Over the subsequent 5 years, that number jumped to 800 million units, amounting to more than $1 billion in sales.
In the 1960s, considerable attention was being paid to the fact that young African American girls were identifying white dolls as “better” than dolls that looked like themselves, and intensive efforts were focused on building self-esteem in African American children. Mattel responded to the consciousness raising of the civil rights movement by introducing “Colored Francie” in 1967. Even though the doll had black skin and dark hair, its features were Caucasian, and it did not sell well. The following year, Christie, who looked more African American than Francie had, was introduced with improved results.
It was not until 1980, however, that the black Barbie was introduced. In 1988, Mattel also offered the opportunity for young girls to customize their own Barbie dolls, selling them at Barbie.com for $39.95 plus the costs of shipping and handling. Girls could choose their skin, hair, and eye color; give them their own names; and create a social profile for them. Recognizing the validity of minority buying power, Mattel introduced Hispanic and Asian Barbies in the 1990s and began selling the African American Shani doll. All these dolls were intended to look like the girls playing with them rather than imitations of the original Barbie. Soon the Barbie Doll World Collection had grown to include Jamaican Barbie, Japanese Barbie, Peruvian Barbie, Moroccan Barbie, Austrian Barbie, and Australian Barbie. Becky, Barbie’s disabled friend, was introduced riding in a wheelchair.
Barbie dolls have also proved to be a marketing bonanza in the fields of movies and television. The first short Barbie movie, Barbie and the Rockers: Out of This World, appeared on television in 1987. Barbie was also featured in Pixar’s Toy Story 2 in 1999. In 2001, Barbie starred in her first fulllength movie, Barbie and the Nutcracker. A series of movies followed, allowing Barbie to appear in a variety of roles. By 2013, the Barbie doll had appeared in 25 films, and Barbie videos became hot-selling items.
In an innovative move that served as a model for other companies, Mattel brought the Barbie doll to television by creating the Barbie Channel in 2008. The Barbie Channel offers interactive content, such as on-demand videos, polls, and games designed to appeal to girls between the ages of 2 and 11. The channel originally appeared only on cable systems but later expanded to include satellite companies. It reaches an approximate audience of 19 million. In addition to the Barbie Channel, the intensely interactive Barbie Web site offers videos, games, and a range of activities for young girls.
By 2013, young girls had become the focus of most toy companies since the sale of products for girls had increased by 28 percent; at the same time, the sale of products geared for young boys dropped by 9 percent. The increased interest in girls’ toys resulted in a 3-percent increase in the sale of Barbie dolls. That same year, Finweek identified Barbie as one of the five most influential people who never existed.
Barbie’s chief competition continued to be the Bratz doll, which was created by Carter Bryant, a Mattel employee who failed to win approval from his employers to develop the doll for Mattel. Bryant subsequently left Mattel for MGA, which manufactures the Bratz dolls, and Mattel successfully sued for copyright infringement.
Barbie dolls continue to reflect the changing times of modern society, and Barbie has been engaged in a wide range of careers since the doll was first introduced in 1959 as a fashion model. Inviting little girls to aspire to fulfill their dreams, some of Barbie’s careers have included becoming a ballerina, a nurse, a flight attendant, an athlete, a teacher, an astronaut, a doctor, a dentist, a business executive, an entertainer, an ice skater, a veterinarian, a race car driver, a zoologist, and even a presidential candidate.
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