Where Have All the Barbies Gone?

June 12, 2018

There are two different dates that changed the toy industry, particularly for girls.  In 1959 Barbie was born and in 2014 Elsa and Anna were introduced and the movie Frozen became an instant success. Frozen became a welcome change in movies not only for the animation which was phenomenal but the whole theme of the film.

All one must mention is Frozen and it is instantly recognizable by everyone. Can anyone recall a memorable Barbie movie? I think not.

Frozen is a story of grieving, self-isolation, protectiveness, deceit, sisterly love and sacrifice.  The swirling winds and the icy cold goes through us. We shiver watching Kristoff galloping on his Reindeer Sven through the driving snowstorm to save his beloved Anna. This the pivotal turning point in the movie. Anna turns when she hears Kristoff calling her name and at the same time, she sees her beloved sister whose life is about to slip away. The audience holds their breath awaiting the choice that Anna will make. She turns away from Kristoff to save Elsa. There is so much emotion in this scene I confess I was a bit teary eyed!

This scene… this one cinematic moment was a massive turning point for Disney and all of us. One could argue that this scene was the exact moment that Barbie became irrelevant.

Enter the strong heroine. Even though the movie does have the cliché, “happily ever after”, it still resonates with the theme of powerful female figures who can survive on their own.

Barbie sales started to drop in 2014, the same year Frozen came out. A coincidence you might ask?  In 2016 sales of Barbie continued to drop. Wall Street Journal reported a double-digit decline in January 28th, 2016 despite the introduction of the new Barbie dolls who have positive role models. Perhaps a bit too late?

In 2015 I had a discussion with employees from Mattel (the toy company behind both Barbie and the Frozen 9-inch dolls) and they correlated Barbie’s drop in popularity directly to the Frozen dolls rise in sales.

Is Barbie’s stick thin, unrealistic body shape no longer trending?  After watching the movie, I noted that Barbie, Anna and Elsa’s characters had very similar body shapes.  This leads me to the conclusion that her decline is not necessarily because of Barbie’s appearance.

Perhaps it was because management failed to keep her relevant. With the new addition of curvy, tall and petite dolls has management finally gotten Barbie right? Only time will tell if this change will put Barbie in the forefront again.

Or maybe the fact that kids like change have a bearing on sales. What is once the hot must-have toy is quickly forgotten when the next new thing comes out. Remember Cabbage Patch dolls, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, and Care Bears? All popular toys that became obsolete but have now experienced a resurgence in the past 5 years.  If Barbie is lucky perhaps she can survive long enough to gain more sales when and if trends change.

However, let’s be realistic. Since the Frozen movie appeared on the screen in 2014 their doll sales have soared while Barbie sales have dropped.

Also, if you look at the new 9 inch dolls that have sprung up such as the heroic “DC Superhero Girls” or the rebellious “Descendants” dolls you start to see a steady theme of female empowerment.

Young girls today are far more intellectually stimulated than girls in the past. These girls don’t necessarily only want the “girly” stuff anymore. They are far more attracted to the strong, empowered female figures that they see all around them.

Will Anna and Elsa and all the other “Superhero” type of dolls continue to maintain their share in the market over the long haul? Absolutely and without question!

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Written by

Elayne Isenberg