Barbie in the Nineties



"We Girls Can Do Anything"

This slogan marked a point Mattel had been long-awaiting; it marked the most significant rise in Barbie's comeback. She had gone from a candy striper and housewife in the sixties to become "Astronaut Barbie"(1986) and "Dr. Barbie" in 1988. She was not just a stewardess but was now the pilot. Women were moving into the work force all over the country in every kind of career. For many families it had become necessary for women to work, but single women were also demanding equality. Mattel reflected the variety of options women were finding in the workplace through Barbie's many careers. She became everything from an aerobics instructor to a rock star to an executive. "Day to Night" Barbie (1985) was Mattel's version of the yuppie lifestyle, complete from modern office equipment (tiny calculator) to an evening gown design for the night out on the town. Not only did Mattel want to "make Barbie a woman of substance"(Newsweek 12), hoped that this "new" professionalism might improve their status with feminists. She still allowed young girls to fantasize about adult life, but now Barbie made the workplace, traditionally formidable for women, appear enchanting.

Of all the successful design and engineering feats of the seventies that "accomplished many innovations and inventions, only a few survived in refined forms in the eighties" (Westenhouser 111). The "Malibu" line was the only one that made it through the next few years. Mattel wanted to appeal to a wider market, so they changed the face molds somewhat and developed an international line. The dolls, including "Italian" and "Oriental" and "Hispanic" Barbies, were a good starting point to breaking all cultural, ethnic, and racial boundaries within Barbie's world. The dolls no longer relied on a separate personality to be successful, as the black doll Christie had in 1968. Mattel did not need to dichotomize the dolls' personalities; they could be the same "person" with different skin color. These dolls could do and experience everything just like Barbie. The country was becoming multicultural, and the increasing sales of these dolls proved Americans were accepting the equality of all races and nationalities.



John Amerman came into Mattel after it had lost 114 million dollars in 1987 and decided some changes needed to be made. As CEO he started his own "We're into Barbie" campaign to reemphasize the doll in a way that kept children excited while moderating profit swings(Leo 25). He says the secret of Barbie's success is that "the product has been continually freshened." (art 4) The key comes more in "re-invention" than invention. "Western Fun" Barbie (1990) was almost identical to "Western" Barbie of 1981. The outdoor/rodeo theme as well as the glamour/beauty theme are some that are almost timeless. Revised versions of "My First Barbie" and "Fun to Dress" Barbie were re-introduced in 1989, and every few years a "new" one is developed. There is always an element of excitement that accompanies something new that appeals to little girls when it comes to outdoor activities or make-up.

Barbie still had competitors, but like the earlier Tammy model, Maxie and Jem, though popular at their introductions, did not seem to appeal to their young audience's for long. Jem was a "punk" version of Barbie with purple hair and a rock band whose style was almost too outrageous and quickly faded ...

Maxie, however, could wear Barbie's clothes, play with her accessories, and was price lower than most Barbies. This did not seem to phase Barbie-makers or Barbie-lovers. Her name, brand, and lifestyle were so engrained into the American public's minds that she has been impossible to duplicate or destruct; that does not mean some people have not tried.

 The Flesh-toned Vinyl Icon of Miniature Womanhood Survives
     "It's remarkable...that in an era of computer games and political correctness an 
     anatomically improbable doll  that was dreamt up in the fifties should remain one 
     of the toy industry's hottest properties"    (Economist Feb 94). 

The nineties brought back "Teen Talk" Barbie(1992). Mattel had not produced Barbie's voice since a fire destroyed the plant in Mexico in which the talking dolls were made almost twenty years before. At its encore, however, they may have regretted at least one of the statements Barbie was programmed to say. Feminists across the country were in an uproar when hearing one of the several pre-recorded messages as Barbie saying "Math Class is Tough". For Mattel this did not mean that Barbie could not do math, but for many feminists it was simply what "she was supposed to say, probably under pressure from the heartless controlling patriarchs at Mattel"(Leo 25). The BLO, Barbie Liberation Organization, was responsible for switching the talking mechanisms in Barbie and Hasbro's GI Joe dolls so some Teen Talk Barbie's screamed, "Vengeance is mine!" when prompted to do so(Lord 252). The statement only fueled negative sentiment that had been on the muted but not silent for years. Barbie has always been an easy scapegoat for feminists. Many mothers see Barbie as a negative influence; not wanting to teach their daughter that they have to be blonde and beautiful to get a boyfriend or a career, some women do not allow Barbie's into their homes.

Parents shouldn't let their own biases interfere with their child's development. Overemphasizing Barbie's material possessions only incites controversy. A young girl might grow up wondering why her goals should not be like Barbie's. As long as a child realizes that she makes her own dreams come true and Barbie's world is make-believe, she should be allowed to play out her fantasies. After all, good motor skills are required to dress the doll, conversational skills are utilized, and her world feeds animation, imagination, and creativity. Some feminists actually believe she is the symbol of female emancipation because she works and does not have to depend on men for her wealth and possessions. She has become the consumer made vinyl...Mattel's "Material Girl"(Wolff 24).

Ken Handler, son of the founders of Mattel and namesake of Barbie's significant other, assails Barbie for having the wrong values. He does not approve of the image society has made for Barbie because "she should care about more than going to the beach...[she should] care about poverty and suffering in the world"(Handler qtd. in Green 189). In 1990 Mattel defended their Renaissance woman and proved that Barbie does care about those issues. Thirty-nine children from around the world met to discuss world hunger, environmental degradation, and war and peace as they joined for the "Barbie Summit" in New York City (Boroughs 56-9). This children's version of the United Nations showed the country and the world that Barbie was still dedicated to breaking cultural and ethnic boundaries. Her life did not revolve around superficiality as her shopping sprees and fascinating fashions may suggest. The "Barbie Summit" doll and "UNICEF" Barbie would benefit important children's causes(1992 Annual Report).

In an effort to expand all existing marketing channels, Mattel also launched an advertising campaign in 1990 geared towards the black and Hispanic versions "with an eye toward capitalizing on ethnic spending power." They focused on magazines such as Essence and television spots on "Pepe Plata", a Hispanic children's show. This was thought of in an attempt to allow "ethnic Barbie lover's to dream in their own image." Mattel states they have not started this kind of campaign until that time because of the already good name recognition among ethnic groups; however, some believe it is simply Mattel's "insensitivity and arrogance"(Berkwitz 48). Regardless, Mattel is still traveling in the right direction through their valley of the dolls.

We have seen Barbie in the most current fads, "from country and rap music- inspired fashions [to] activewear adapted from the latest sports trends and retro '60s looks"(Mattel 2). Mattel remains abreast the trends with "Troll" Barbie(1993) and "Karaoke" Barbie(1995), but they continue to reinvent faithful lines like "Slumber Party", "Dress 'N Fun", "Western' Stampin'", and "Cut 'N Style" year after year. Because displaying Barbies has become almost more prominent than playing with them, Mattel targets the older generation Barbie owners with "35th Anniversary Nostalgic Barbie" and Collector's Editions. The American Stories collection includes "Pioneer", "Pilgrim", and "Colonial" Barbies; Hollywood Legend features Ken as "Rhett" and Barbie as "Scarlett"; and the Dolls of the World series includes Chinese, Dutch, Kenyan, Native American, Polynesian, and German Barbies.

These collections fascinate children with their ornate costumes but appeal to mothers because of their exquisite features that allow them to reminisce about their Barbie-playing days. The new "My Size Barbie" is three feet tall and allows girls to have a friend closer to her own size to which she can relate and identify. Barbie continues to epitomize the popular sentiments and requests of the day.

Barbie has become universally recognized partly because of her association with other popular, recognizable brands. One of Barbie's sets is "Birthday Fun at McDonald's"; she owns a "Baywatch" rescue boat and a "Jeep", and she wears Lee jeans. By attaching her to culturally specific ideas and pictures, Barbie becomes part of them. People familiarize themselves with the images together, and as one increases or decreases in popularity the other follows.


Mattel waited until 1990 to get a license to sell Barbie merchandise; they do not worry about its selling status, but they just want it to bring in steady sales in a market that is very temporary and faddish. Because Barbie is so easily identifiable, the marketing team at Mattel must be careful about "how to use Barbie to market merchandise other than dolls because [they] want to maintain her integrity as a brand"(Fitzgerald 30). The "Barbie for Girls" licensed products emerged as a way to take Barbie beyond the doll: backpacks, clothes, games, and even furniture help young girls to play out their fantasies. Mattel does draw the line somewhere. Putting her in a particular television series or movie role would leave her wide open for criticism, slashing; since the early novels there have been no more. This leaves Barbie's storyline open to the imaginations of little girls .

Through the development of multiple doll segments based on established play patterns and effective advertising, promotion, and merchandising; and with sales teams in thirty-five countries, Barbie sales reached one billion dollars in 1993. She and related products account for thirty-four percent of Mattel's overall sales (1994 Annual Report). Hardly a girl left on the continent that does not have a Barbie. The average number of dolls per household in the sixties was one, now the average American girl, three to ten years old, owns eight (1994 AR). She has survived because she is so accessible. Even children in the poorest countries can afford a Barbie; her world has transcended all socioeconomic boundaries. "The reality is the reproduction. Most human icons are possessed only through film or audiotape; the `original' forever eludes ownership. Barbie, however, is meant to be owned, not by a few, but by everybody. She is the ultimate piece of mass art"(Lord 73).

Much as when she was placed in America's time capsule, when Barbie entered a Paris wax museum in 1993 her "role as an American cultural icon was confirmed"(Grant 74). She has captured the hearts of young girls and the wallets of mothers all over the world. As long as Mattel continues to absorb current attitudes and feelings and apply them to Barbie, she will be an integral part of girls' lifestyles, both young and old. If they develop a line that doesn't sell, they can throw it out and try it again another year. She is the endlessly successful brand, the "toy world's version of Coca-Cola or Marlboro"(Morgenson 66). Barbie has been fluid through time because Mattel has captured necessary generational differences. The Barbie team has taken every criticism in stride and transformed threats into opportunities; Mattel responds to the marketplace in hopes of shaping it. And when it comes down to it, they have truly made the All-American doll and given her to the world. Barbie could teach us all a few things...

                           Life Lessons From Barbie
     1. Family is Fundamental
     2. Many Girls have the same name, but you can still be an individual
     3. A shortage of Men won't ruin the party: women have superior social               
         etiquette and important galas don't require men in attendance
     4. Alternative Lifestyles Acceptable
     5. It's Cool to Have Many Careers 
     6. You Can Have love and work at the same time
     7. Dysfunction and Deformity are a part of life
     8. War is hell
     9. All homeless must be sheltered
     10. Monogamy can work                                       Shapiro 84

I don't regret spending the majority of my recreational time as a child climbing trees and riding bikes, but I might allow a couple of Barbies in my own home; she'll be around...what could it hurt?

Three different sources give three different dates for the introduction of the black Francie. Billy Boy gives 1965, Lord gives 1966, and Dewein gives 1967.
  • Introduction
  • Inventing Barbie
  • Barbie in the Sixties
  • Barbie in the Seventies and Eighties
  • Bibliography Return to Home Page