Throughout her history, Barbie has been stand-in for arguments over all manner of real-world issues women and girls face. Healthy body image, career obstacles, growing acceptance of tattoos – the baggage of all of those debates and more has zipped around with her in that mini pink Corvette for several decades.
But even so, she’s never really been just for girls, something parent company Mattel is embracing as ideas about gender identity and appropriate play become more and more fluid.
Mattel released a video ad earlier this month for its “Moschino Barbie,” starring a boy who’s just as enthusiastic about the doll as his female co-stars. “Moschino Barbie, she’s so fierce!” he crows, arranging accessories on the Barbie and screening calls on her tiny cell phone. It’s the first time that a boy has been featured front and center in a Barbie ad in the doll’s 56-year run.
The Moschino Barbie line of dolls and accessories, which mimics the outfits of the fashion house by the same name, is among the brand’s limited edition, collectible offerings, retailing at $150 each (Barbies sold as toys start as low as $8.00). The initial batch of 700 dolls, offered up on the high-end retail site Net-a-Porter, sold out in under an hour and are now showing up on the secondary market for $400 to $800.
Barbie is no stranger to controversy, and she’s had a fair share recently: in 2014, Mattel caught flak from many corners for the doll appearing on the cover of that year’s Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue,” which critics argued perpetuated unrealistic beauty standards. That same year, the release of “Entrepreneur Barbie,” decked out in a stylish pink dress and accessorized with a cell phone and briefcase, drew criticism for emphasizing fashion and perfect hair over the specifics of starting a business and, detractors argued, reenforcing limiting stereotypes of femininity while ignoring real obstacles facing women in corporate culture.
The Maschino Barbie ad, however, has received warm support, particularly from Barbie’s grown male fans. “This almost made me cry!” reads the top comment on the ad on YouTube. "I used to play with my sister's Barbies and felt such shame afterward. I'm so glad we can just let kids be kids. Thank you for this! Boys like dolls too!”
In addition to offering a much-needed dose of goodwill for Barbie, who is seldom seen as a pioneer of progressive gender norms, the ad is a reflection of a toy market in flux. Barbie sales have been in a slump for Mattel for the past four years, falling 16 percent in 2014, according to Forbes. The company still claims Barbie is the most popular doll of all time, but she has faced stiff competition over the years from newcomers (Mattel, too, recently lost licensing rights to the popular Disney Princess line of dolls, including Anna and Elsa from the megahit film “Frozen”).
At the same time, many toymakers, retailers, and parents are moving away from marketing toys as gender specific. Earlier this year, Target stopped labeling its toy aisles with “boy” and “girl” sections, in favor of the term “kids.” In 2012, Hasbro changed the packaging for its Easy Bake oven to be more gender-neutral in response to a popular online campaign. Other stores, including Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us, and Harrod’s in the United Kingdom have reorganized their toy sections to de-emphasize a gender divide.
Such reforms haven’t been met entirely without criticism. Target’s signage announcement in August drew the ire of many customers, conservative critics, and pundits arguing that a lack of clear gender markers might be “confusing” to children.
Barbie, meanwhile, isn’t actively marketing to little boys just yet. The Moschino Barbie is a collectors item aimed at adults, not a mass market toy. But if the toy most quintessentially linked with girls and women (for better or worse), is broadening its horizons, it’s not difficult to imagine more toy brands doing the same.