In 1959, US businesswoman Ruth Handler created Barbara Millicent Roberts, the first fashion doll for little girls. A runaway success, 350 000 Barbies were sold in the first year, but it would take 37 years for South Africa to have its first taste of the Barbie empire. Josse Feldman was the first distributor for Mattel products in South Africa, and commenced redistribution towards the end of the eighties.
According to Michelle Reid, the chief executive of Blue Horizon Licensing (the local company that deals with all Barbie brand licensing), Barbie merchandise first appeared in the form of clothing.
“The first range of Barbie children’s clothing launched in South Africa in Woolworths stores in 1996. This was the first time that South Africa had seen any Barbie licensed product in the country,” says Reid.
But it wasn’t just a doll that was being imported – attached to the slim-waisted, tanned, blue-eyed and flaxen-haired princess was a host of idealogical messages about what is considered beautiful. In a country that was just starting to empower black people, Barbie was, unknowingly, portraying an apartheid message that only girls who look a certain way are beautiful.
Narratives about Barbie are, however, often overly simplified. There’s the idea that Barbie was only produced as a white doll, when, in fact, the African-American Christie was launched in the US at the same time as Barbie herself. Called Talking Christie Doll, she sported a short, stylish bob and a green crochet dress.
While many people say they don’t remember seeing black Barbie in South African stores, Christie was available in South Africa and appeared in hundreds of iterations throughout the years. She even had a black boyfriend called Steven.
In 1988, Hispanic Teresa, Asian Miko and Native-American Nia also entered the scene.
But, due to a complex mix of adverts, music, film and media that all work together to push a Eurocentric idea of beauty, only one Barbie took the stage – the white version. In fact, the best-selling Barbie is
It would take a major shift in our cultural beliefs for society to start considering other forms of beauty.
Who was first?
So overarching is the idea of Barbie as the blonde, that many people in South Africa think model and entrepreneur Mala Bryan’s Mala range was the first black doll on the market. Children and their parents celebrated when South African entrepreneur Molemo Kgomo created Ntom’benhle, a range of black dolls that represent the country’s many cultures.
Barbie is still going to have a hard time beating these beautiful Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu toy dolls, but the famous Mattel doll is now one of the most ethnically diverse toys on the market. In 2009, the brand launched a new range of black dolls with fuller lips, a wider nose and more pronounced cheekbones. Grace, Kara, Trichelle and their little sisters Courtney, Janessa and Kianna sport curlier hair and varying skin tones – from light brown, to chocolate and caramel.
The Fashionista range introduced in 2016 and available in South Africa includes four body types (original, petite, curvy and tall), seven skin tones, 22 eye colours, 24 hairstyles and countless on-trend fashions and accessories.
According to a Huffington Post article last year, the best-selling Fashionista doll is a brunette Latina with a “curvy” build and brown eyes.
For International Women’s Day last week and in time for Barbie’s 59th birthday, the brand released the Role Models range, with a doll each modelled after 17 historical and modern-day women from around the world, including film maker Patty Jenkins, boxing champion Nicola Adams and volleyball champion Hui Ruoqi. They’re not available in South Africa, but can be ordered on Amazon.
However, the line isn’t perfect. Actress Salma Hayek bashed Barbie for portraying the Frida Kahlo Barbie with her signature unibrow lessened and with a slimmer figure. Some of Kahlo’s relatives claim that no one asked for permission to use the artists’ image, while Mattel says it worked closely with the Frida Kahlo Corporation.
The Kahlo blunder proved one thing – as much as Barbie is getting it right, sometimes she still gets it very wrong. Ultimately, however, we can’t leave education on body image and beauty standards up to a doll. Barbie has always been diverse, but we were too dazzled by her blonde iteration to notice. This year, little girls and boys, and their parents, are buying toys that look like them. And, for better or worse, Barbie is one of them.
BARBIE IN NUMBERS
According to leading South African toy retailer Toys R Us, sales of the Barbie dolls have increased in the past few years, and 30 000 units of the doll were sold last year.
The best-selling Barbie is the Doll Princess 3, probably due to her price, which is R99.90. Steffi fashion doll is the toy store’s second best-selling fashion doll.
In terms of merchandise, Blue Horizon Licensing sold more than 10 million units last year, making South Africa one of the leading regions for consumer product sales of the Barbie brand.
Since her inception, more than 1 billion units of Barbie have been sold worldwide; she has a 99% brand awareness across more than 150 countries around the world; more than 14 million Facebook fans; more than 4.5 million monthly app users; more than 4 million active website users; 3.2 million YouTube subscribers; 268 000 Twitter followers; and one of the world’s fastest growing Instagram accounts – @Barbiestyle – which now has 1.9 million followers.
BARBIE'S RACY ANCESTOR
Barbie was based on a German doll called Bild Lilli, who is based on a character in an erotic comic called Lilli.
It’s not something Mattel is eager to publicise, but Lilli was no Stepford Wife – described as “a gold-digger, exhibitionist and floozy”, she was often depicted in sexy clothing.
In fact, the sanitised, wholesome, US Barbie we know had a racy European ancestor as Bild Lilli was a prostitute who serviced German businessmen, and the Bild Lilli doll was sold as a novelty item in bars and tobacco shops.
According to Netflix show The Toys That Made Us, Mattel’s chief designer Jack Ryan filed the Bild Lilli doll’s nipples off before presenting her as a prototype.
THE BARBIE BEATDOWN
Remember the early 2000s, when Britney Spears’ voice was blasting from every radio station?
Around that time, a bobble-headed, big-eyed fashion doll called Bratz leapt on to the scene, challenging Barbie’s authority as the reigning girls’ fashion doll.
You might also remember that Bratz disappeared quietly after a few years.
When Bratz came out in 2002, it was a threat to Barbie sales. In fact, by 2006, Bratz was outselling Barbie in South Africa and, at one point, owned 40% market share of the fashion doll industry.
The Barbie bigwigs knew something had to be done. They sued MGA, the producers of Bratz, claiming that Bratz creator Carter Bryant was employed by Mattel when he thought up the doll, and thus Mattel owned Bratz. The legal battle went back and forth and lasted for a staggering eight years.
In the end, MGA won, but, thanks to the lawsuit and new competition from the likes of Disney’s Frozen, Bratz was discontinued in 2016.
Barbie outlasted Bratz, reiterating the lesson all fashion dolls know: you never mess with Barbie. You know what they say, it’s a doll-eat-doll world.