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On a crowded toy shelf, making room for a new era of Barbie

Barbie will now come in more shapes and sizes than its iconic, and unrealistic, original form. The decision to diversify was partly about softening sales, but also about the growing sense that the doll seemed out of touch. William Brangham reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But, first, the iconic Barbie doll, beloved by some and loathed, decried by others, is going through something of a transformation.

    Toy maker Mattel is introducing three new Barbies with three different body shapes. The company acknowledges the financial reasons for the decision, but, more importantly, the changes are meant to deal with a changing marketplace and issues of diversity in the real world.

    William Brangham has a look.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    This is what the newly refashioned Barbies are going to look like. On the left, that's the new petite Barbie. In the middle is the tall Barbie, and to right, the curvy Barbie.

    In this behind-the-scenes video, "TIME" magazine was granted a look at the making of the new dolls. And in it, Mattel's Evelyn Mazzocco told "TIME" that the decision to introduce these new body styles was partly about business, but also about the growing sense that the original Barbie, with its wildly unrealistic body, needed to change.

  • EVELYN MAZZOCCO, Senior Vice President, Mattel:

    Our decision to go on this journey to really evolve the brand was inspired by many things. Of course, it was inspired by softness in sales. It was inspired by what we were seeing on social media about Barbie. Does she really know what's happening in the world today? She seems a little out of touch. It was driven by moms and — saying, like, I don't think that there's a — that Barbie really speaks to me.

  • RICHARD GOTTLIEB, Global Toy Experts:

    I think Mattel is really responding to a culture both in the U.S. and globally that's dramatically changed.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Richard Gottlieb is with a group called the Global Toy Experts, and he says that while Barbies sold well last Christmas, Mattel seems to be acknowledging that the world is changing.

  • RICHARD GOTTLIEB:

    Barbie has — really had some strong headwinds in terms of cultural identity in the U.S. and around the world. As Mattel is a corporation and Barbie is a brand globalized, Barbie had to contend with a world that was multiracial and multicultural.

  • GIRL:

    It's important for Barbie to look different.

  • RICHARD GOTTLIEB:

    A big part of it is that children and their parents want a doll that the child can identify with and a sense of accessible beauty, that I can be, I can look like this. And then, as far as the body type is concerned, I think that is where that really comes in, is that sense that this is an obtainable figure. This is a person I can be.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    This, of course, has long been the criticism of Barbie dolls, that her exaggerated body shape and stereotypical depiction of what women are supposed to look like gave generations of young girls a role model they could never match up to.

  • MEGAN GARBER, The Atlantic:

    She has these exaggerated breasts. She has a tiny waist. If you were to kind of think about her proportions in terms of a real woman, she probably couldn't bear a child, so you have that element of things.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Megan Garber is a staff writer at "The Atlantic," and recently wrote a piece about the new Barbies.

  • MEGAN GARBER:

    And then you also have just the idea that she focuses on fashion and she focuses on appearance, and there hasn't been much out there about her historically that has really suggested that she has much more aspiration than to just be pretty and blond and all of that.

    And Mattel has tried to fight back a little bit from that, with making her an astronaut and a doctor and all of these different things, but, fundamentally, I think the appearance of Barbie has sort of superseded everything else.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In the online news site Mashable, writer Katie Dupere, while complimenting Mattel's recent move, also summed up many people's feelings about the doll — quote — "Barbie has, to some extent, always been this bully to women. Her impossibly thin waist has taunted us, pointing out what for many of us is our biggest insecurity, our body size. Though she is carved plastic, she has screamed at us across generations, telling us our bodies aren't good enough."

    In the Associated Press, the University of Maryland's Kumea Shorter-Gooden applauded Mattel's move, but pointed out that — quote — "European-American hair prevails" and the dolls are dressed in a way that — quote — "conveys a traditional and constraining gender norm about how girls and women should look."

  • MEGAN GARBER:

    We live in an age now where there is Taylor Swift on the one hand, but there is also Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and Gina Rodriguez, and all these different body types, but also shades of skin.

    And I think Barbie is definitely trying to sort of reflect that in the culture. You look at these Barbies, and they are still very much Barbie dolls. They are still very much — they are thin. They — in general. Even the curvy one is very thin by most standards.

    So, these are very incremental changes. But I do think they are changes, and we have to sort of embrace those changes.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Of course, Barbie is also living in a much more competitive marketplace than just a few decades ago, with cell phones and apps and games constantly vying for kids' attention.

    LEGO and its global brand recently overtook Mattel in total sales. And just on the doll front alone, the global blockbuster "Frozen" saw its heroine, Elsa, become one of the bestselling dolls even two years after the film's release.

  • RICHARD GOTTLIEB:

    It's important to look at it from cyclical standpoint. When the "Frozen" movie came out, the "Frozen" dolls just did incredibly well. And, of course, that cannibalized a lot of Barbie sales.

    So, that had an impact on last year. But, overall, Mattel and every toy company has been really challenged with a world in which there are so many ways to play.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But will any of these changes matter at the cash register? We talked with some parents today at a toy store in Arlington, Virginia.

  • WOMAN:

    You like her?

  • GIRL:

    Yes.

  • WOMAN:

    Why do you like her?

  • GIRL:

    Pink.

  • WOMAN:

    I think it's great. I love the new Barbies.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The new Barbies are available online for presale, and the real test will be when the new dolls hit the shelves later this year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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