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Barbie, that iconic staple of toy stores and childhoods, turns 60 this weekend.
And while 60 might technically qualify Barbie as a senior citizen, retail experts say there’s nothing old or outdated about the legendary doll. If anything, they say, she’s evolved into a more significant role model than she was in previous generations, not only to the children who play with her, but also to businesses seeking to create an iconic brand.
“Barbie has indefinite longevity,” said Jackie Breyer, editorial director at The Toy Book and The Toy Insider. “All toy brands are cyclical, but Barbie’s got staying power.”
After six decades, Barbie continues to perform as a brand. Barbie sales rose 14 percent in 2018 and the doll’s maker, Mattel, posted five consecutive quarters of growth. Retailers say she remains a toy they can count on. Target cited Barbie sales as one of the strong points of their recent holiday season.
Breyer attributes Barbie’s ongoing success to the brand’s ability to evolve.
“Mattel continues to make sure Barbie is ahead of the times,” Breyer told NBC News, pointing to the ever-greater varieties of Barbie dolls available that go beyond blonde hair and blue eyes.
In 2016, Mattel, responding to ongoing backlash that charged Barbie dolls promoted an unrealistically thin body type, launched a Fashionista line of dolls. The line includes new body types, including shorter and curvier Barbies, and new skin tones. The response to the greater variety of Barbies, say Mattel representatives, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Today over 60 percent of our dolls are diverse,” said Marissa Beck, director of global communications for Mattel.
In 2018, the bestselling Barbie was a curvy, redheaded doll sporting a leopard-print skirt and a t-shirt with the words “Girl Power” emblazoned on it.
More diverse Barbies are heading to store shelves. Earlier this year, Mattel unveiled the first line of Barbies with disabilities, including a Barbie in a wheelchair and a Barbie with a prosthetic leg.
Breyer calls Mattel’s decision to diversify Barbie’s look a savvy business move.
“By broadening their inclusiveness for girls, it broadens their opportunities and generally makes people feel good about giving girls a Barbie,” Breyer said.
Breyer also lauded Mattel for working to connect Barbie with a growing number of female empowerment themes.
“Today, female empowerment is stronger than ever and I think Barbie fits into that.”
Barbie dolls have long shone a spotlight on the wide variety of careers women can pursue. As early as 1965 — a full four years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — Astronaut Barbie was available.
By 1973, Surgeon Barbie hit store shelves. And by 1992, Barbie was running for president for the first time. Different incarnations of Barbie have run for president in every presidential election since 1992.
Barbie’s also been sold as a rapper, a TV journalist, a NASCAR driver, and a computer engineer.
The latest iterations of the doll include Video Game Developer Barbie and Robotics Engineer Barbie.
“Barbie has had over 200 careers," Beck told NBC News. “That is a core pillar to what the brand stands for — showing women they can be anything they want to become.”
Barbie was first unveiled at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. Developed by Ruth Handler, a California mother who wanted to give her daughter, Barbara, a broader variety of dolls that went beyond baby dolls and paper dolls, critics initially scoffed at Barbie’s womanly figure.
But Handler proved the critics wrong. Barbie brought in $351,000 that first year, a sizable sum 60 years ago. Within a decade, Barbie sales had skyrocketed to $500 million. Eventually, they climbed to over $1 billion annually.
“The average lifespan of a toy is three to five years — so it’s a testament to Barbie that we’ve been around for 60 years,” Beck said.
Breyer noted Barbie’s path has not always been smooth. In 2005, Barbie was briefly eclipsed by the racially diverse Bratz dolls, upending Mattel's market share and eventually leading to an intellectual property infringement lawsuit that centered on whether the designer of Bratz had come up with his creation during the time he worked at Mattel. Mattel was subsequently required to pay $400 million settle the case. Shortly after Barbie’s 50th anniversary, sales dipped to under a billion dollars, causing many to worry the sun was setting on America’s sweetheart.
But Barbie seems to have rebounded in recent years as Mattel has found new avenues to connect with girls, including on social media. Barbie now ranks as the number one girls’ brand on YouTube.
Celebrities have rediscovered Barbie as well. Margot Robbie is set to star as Barbie in the first live-action film that pays tribute to the doll.
Even feminists seem to be rethinking Barbie, the doll they once pointed to as antithetical to feminist ideals. The 2018 documentary "Tiny Shoulders" paid tribute to the trails the doll is credited with blazing, and suggested Barbie may be an underestimated force for good when it comes to female empowerment.
"Barbie became things real women hadn't become," said Amy Richards, a renowned feminist and author of Manfesta, in Tiny Shoulders. "She kind of cracked the world open for a lot of these little girls who were seeing their moms, educated women, stuck at home."
In honor of Barbie’s 60th birthday, Mattel has planned a host of events. In New York City, there will be a pop-up Barbie event, aimed at bringing together Barbie fans, past and present. More than 30 Walmarts around the nation will be hosting Barbie birthday events. And New York’s Empire State Building will be pink this weekend, in honor of Barbie.
In spite of her age, Mattel says Barbie has no plans to slow down.
“The team that leads the brand wants to leave it in place better than we found it,” Beck said. “We’re not done yet. Today’s kids will know a different Barbie than we knew growing up — and tomorrow’s kids will know another Barbie. We want to continue to produce a product that we are really proud of.”