Aleksandra Szczerba

|

20.12.2019

|

10 mins

A decade of life in plastic: The state of the fashion doll in the 2010s

As the year draws to a close and we prepare to enter 2020, many of us are looking back not just at 2019, but also at the entire decade. Lists ranking top TV shows, films, toys and memes are popping up everywhere, as are pieces contemplating the cultural significance of many events or pieces of media. This prompted me to think about a type of toy that has been around for a very, very long time, and has had a very interesting decade in the midst of changing social norms and trends: the fashion doll.

One could argue that fashion dolls have always been synonymous with gender stereotypes and portrayals of perfect aspirational femininity. The Barbie doll and its successors have been the target of criticism as far as I can remember, may it be for their body shape, clothing, or career choices. Always too skinny, too glamorous, too girly, too inappropriate, the fashion doll has been the subject of many a think piece and piece of academic research. The 2010s have seen particular strides being made when it comes to women’s position in society and the breakdown of norms and expectations (to varying degrees of course; we are still far from a feminist utopia), but (un)surpriprisingly the fashion doll has held on tight, and isn’t going anywhere.

Mattel’s Barbie turned 60 years old this year, and despite criticism she carries on being one of Mattel’s strongest brands. Both Barbie’s popularity and the revenues the brand generates have risen in 2018-19. Barbie is named as the third favourite toy by children aged 3-12 in France, Germany and Italy, only falling short of LEGO and Playmobil brands. Starting with Q4 of 2017, Barbie has seen constant sales growth each quarter. In their financial reports, Mattel has reported a 10% increase in gross sales of Barbie in the third quarter of 2019, making it the doll’s 8th quarter of continuous growth. 2018’s sales of Barbie reached a five year high with $1.09 billion (USD), and considering how 2019 has been going, this year’s sales will exceed this.

Although the toy industry has slowed down the past few years, dolls have been one of the sectors that have not shown the same kind of decline. According to the NPD group, doll sales will continue growing through 2020 and 2021. Barbie isn’t the only reason for this. There is of course the doll brand which has been topping all the top toy sales lists and selling out worldwide - LOL Surprise. Owned by MGA Entertainment, the dolls combine cuteness, unboxing, and collectability - but the brand did not have a fashion doll line until this year.. LOL Surprise have now released upwards of a dozen LOL Surprise O.M.G dolls - trendy older sisters to their core line. O.M.G dolls are curvier than a Barbie doll, have more “current” clothing, and have large heads with exaggerated facial features. Sound familiar? It should. Remember Bratz dolls?

Bratz dolls, also owned by MGA, were competitors to the Barbie in the 2000s. They were the cooler, more “urban” doll aimed at slightly older girls. Released into the world in 2001, they quickly caught up to Barbie. They were largely ethnically ambiguous and diverse, they could stand up unassisted, their makeup and outfits were more sexy. While Barbie joined a myriad of professions and her mission was to show girls that they could do anything (whilst looking glamorous at all times), the Bratz slogan was a more simple “the girls with a passion for fashion”. By 2006 Bratz comprised 40% of the fashion doll market worldwide (vs Barbie’s 60%), and they were the top-selling fashion doll in the UK and in Australia.

Despite this booming success, Bratz entered the current decade in a problematic position  with an injunction looming over the brand. In 2002 Mattel unveiled their own line of trendy fashion dolls with larger heads aimed at tweens - the MyScene doll line, a direct competitor to Bratz. What ensued was a battle lasting a good few years between MGA and Mattel over who had the rights to the cool, stylish, multi-ethnic, big-eyed dolls. Although the court ruled wholly in Mattel’s favour in 2008, the battle was far from over. After an appeal process, in 2011 the federal court ruled in MGA’s favour, and this time Mattel was in trouble - the jury found them liable of stealing MGA’s trade secrets. Due to a technical issue nothing came of this...but Mattel discontinued MyScene dolls in 2011, and in 2014 MGA filed a lawsuit against Mattel for $1 billion - which is pending to this day.

Although MGA emerged on top, they still placed the Bratz brand on a brief hiatus in the midst of all these events, whilst also coming out with a separate (but similar) doll line called Moxie Girlz. As these gained some popularity (but never reaching Bratz levels), the Bratz brand received a series of little makeovers. In 2013-14 Bratz were officially back with a new look and a new slogan, and in 2014 MGA stopped producing Moxie Girlz. Nonetheless, the attempts to overhaul the brand did not replicate the success of the early 2000s - Bratz fans were critical of the 2015 makeover, and the dolls failed to captivate a new audience. The last Bratz release took place in early 2018, with a set of four collector’s re-editions of the original 2001 dolls. Although Bratz entered the zeitgeist briefly in 2019 due to viral internet beauty and fashion trends, with girls and women basing outfits and makeup on the dolls, Bratz dolls can now only be purchased on Amazon. The Bratz shaped hole in the doll market is now being filled by MGA’s aforementioned hit: LOL Surprise O.M.G dolls.

As LOL Surprise are owned by MGA, it comes as no surprise that the O.M.G dolls are an updated version of the Bratz concept. Their appearance matches the LOL brand, but the exaggerated eyes and lips were also a recognisable part of the Bratz identity. Their body shape has been updated to match the 2019 body ideal - the “Kardashian kurves”, so to speak. They have long fake nails, and their makeup, hair and outfits are reflective of trends on social media. Just as Bratz were reflective of noughties trends, O.M.G dolls are a reflection of trends today, and just as Bratz were criticised for their looks whilst being praised for their diversity, so are the O.M.G dolls. Even though various groups are actively trying to promote body positivity and to inspire girls to reach for more challenging and less shallow toys, these dolls are a huge hit. And no wonder - the fact they are so on trend with their looks makes them a very aspirational toy.

That’s not to say the fashion doll market has not seen a bit of a cultural shift. Spurred by critiques of Barbie’s body shape and independent releases of curvier and more “normal” looking dolls like Lammily, as well as changing ideas about gender norms, Mattel released a number of new lines. The Barbie Fashionistas line was released in 2014, featuring tall, petite and curvy body types, as well as a wider range of ethnicities and natural hairstyles. This year they took the line a step further to include disability representation - adding dolls with wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. Fashionistas are now the core Barbie line. In addition, although the first astronaut Barbie was already released in 1965, the current Career Dolls line aims to inspire girls by including non-gendered (and not-necessarily-pink-hued) careers such as beekeeper, astrophysicist, firefighter and builder. The line also has a “doll of the year” - Judge Barbie. Since 2015 they have also been producing their “Shero” line of dolls honouring real-life role models. Although the majority of these dolls were one-of-a-kind dolls gifted to the women being celebrated, a few received wide releases, such as the Ibtihaj Muhammad doll. Ibtihaj is an Olympic fencer, a Muslim-American woman who competes in a hijab, and the first Muslim-American athelte to win a medal at the Olympics. The limited Shero line has been followed up by the Inspiring Women line, featuring the likes of Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks and Sally Ride. All in all, Mattel are really attempting to embrace celebrating women, include diversity, and focus on Barbie’s mission of inspiring girls.

It’s difficult to say what the future holds for the fashion doll market, but we will definitely be witness to a continued Mattel-MGA clash of the doll titans. The 2010s marked the demise of MyScene and Bratz. They have also been a time of Barbie becoming more diverse, and the birth of the LOL O.M.G range, the on-trend successor to the fashion-obsessed Bratz dolls. 2019 also saw a recent Mattel release of a separate line of customisable gender-neutral dolls under the name Creatable World. Although not exactly a fashion doll range, and one with a non-catchy name to boot, it may mark an upcoming shift towards even more inclusive dolls. Nonetheless, as much as things may change, other things stay the same - and as much as some girls are playing with Judge Barbie or Wheelchair Barbie, the LOL Surprise O.M.G dolls are making huge waves too.