‘Barbie Universe’: Inside the 62-Year-Old Doll’s Expansion Into Movies, Streaming and Instagram

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“We are always looking for new expressions of the brand … everything is on the table,” one Mattel executive says

Barbies/Courtesy of Mattel

Mattel’s Barbie doll made her debut in February 1959, making Barbie 62 years old. A Mattel spokeswoman would not confirm Barbie’s exact age as a beloved teen character but told TheWrap that Barbie — full name Barbara Millicent Roberts — remains a perpetual high school junior.

Barbie’s lack of a high school diploma has not stopped her from growing an empire that extends well beyond the toy aisle: Barbie, who has had more than 200 careers — from astronaut to robotics engineer — is now having a moment as a screen star with the Sept. 1 debut of a new Netflix musical special “Big City, Big Dreams.” Barbie’s first live-action movie, starring Margot Robbie and directed by Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird,” “Little Women”), also was recently announced.

Although Barbie has had numerous animated TV incarnations, including musicals, over the years, the Netflix project is arguably her first presence as original programming for a major streamer. “Big City, Big Dreams!” also introduces a new character into Barbie’s world, New Yorker Barbie “Brooklyn” Roberts, whom Malibu resident Barbie Millicent Roberts meets on a big trip to the Big Apple to become a star. Surprise, the Barbies become roommates (yes, same first and last name, so “Brooklyn” became the nickname for Malibu Barbie’s new friend).

Along with her many careers over the years — more on the list include fashion designer, surgeon, chef, ballerina and Olympic skier — Barbie has one identity that has never varied for 60-plus years: Intellectual Property Barbie.

“Barbie is obviously a very relevant pop cultural icon; she’s been resonating with fans of all ages for generations,” said Lisa McKnight, global head of Barbie & Dolls Portfolio for El Segundo-based Mattel Inc. “Barbie is experiencing incredible momentum right now. Last year, Barbie was the No. 1 toy property in the world … it’s the perfect time to bring Barbie to the big screen.”

What’s next for Barbie? How about a Broadway show, or NFT Barbie?

“We’re always looking for new expressions of the brand, new ways to use the brand,” McKnight told TheWrap. “Everything is on the table — we’ll leave it at that.”

Said Fred Soulie, SVP and general manager of Mattel Television, “Whether producing an episodic series, a long-form film or special, or short-form digital content, at Mattel Television we know engaging, relatable characters and great storytelling are the keys to our success. By bringing Mattel’s most beloved properties to life on the screen, we are deepening the relationship between our consumers and fans and, in turn, serving our valuable brands. For us, it’s less about selling a specific toy or product and much more about entertaining and inspiring our loyal audience.”

The list of more than 25 TV and film projects either existing or in development based on Mattel characters (announced as of July 20) includes movies based on Hot Wheels (also soon to introduce NFTs around the brand), Masters of the Universe, Polly Pocket, Rock Em Sock Em Robots and American Girl, and TV shows based on Thomas & Friends, Pictionary and a Whac-A-Mole game show. However, with Mattel reporting 70 million Barbies sold each year, she clearly stands among Mattel’s potential IP royalty.

“Barbie & Barbie” (Mattel)

Jay Tucker, who heads up the Center for Management Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, said Barbie represents the opposite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe superheroes dominating the film landscape at the moment because the toy came first, followed by the entertainment IP, rather than the way Marvel comics, TV and movies have spawned toys, action figures and collectibles.

“There is a kind of Barbie Universe,” Tucker said. “Barbie and some of these other characters that come from toys or games, like GI Joe (“Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origin Story” was released July 23) or Pac-Man, ultimately what you have is this multi-dimensional, multi-platform franchise, and you can experience the brand in a ton of different ways.”

Tucker added: “We’ve seen all kinds of examples of this intersection of brands and entertainment, and there’s an incredible brand in Barbie that’s been around forever … There’s a ton of pent-up love for the brand, and for toys. I think we are at a point now where the combination of high production values and nostalgia will get people to fall in love with it right away.”

Ghen Laraya Long, an entertainment attorney who formerly worked on developing IP from manga animation characters for the media company Tokyopop, said that Barbie and her family (she has three sisters) may have an edge in competing with “superhero fatigue” created by the ubiquitous Marvel Universe (although there is, in fact, a Wonder Woman Barbie, one of many Barbies that have been paired with other brands during her history). And, since the Barbie Doll has existed for generations, Long said mothers and daughters — and even grandmothers –can connect with Barbie stories.

Long also praised Mattel for making a concerted effort to reinvent the original blond, blue-eyed Barbie with permanently high-heeled feet and impossible measurements into a myriad of role model dolls representing various races, body types, hair colors and textures, athletic abilities and physical disabilities.

McKnight said that Mattel has particularly focused on making sure to create Barbies that represent careers in which women have been underrepresented, particularly STEM professions, to inspire girls “and show them they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.”

Barbie has stayed connected with young audiences via social media, McKnight added. “She’s been the No. 1 toy in social conversation. She’s got two Instagram channels, @barbiestyle has more than 2 million followers,” she said. “What’s fun about the channels is, that’s Barbie in the first person, talking about her everyday life. Barbie reflects what’s going on in the culture. She goes to events; she eats in the latest restaurants. When the world went into quarantine, so did Barbie.”

Barbie is also a vlogger, with social issues on her mind — and speaks out to her more than 5 million followers on YouTube. In the video below, she and her pal Nikki take on race issues.

“It’s important to have ongoing conversations about standing up to racism, so I invited my good friend Nikki to join the vlog to share her experiences about when she has been treated unfairly,” says the text that goes with the video. “I am grateful for her honesty and friendship. To be a good friend, it’s important to listen, to understand, and to notice when bad things are happening to other people and to do something to help stop it. I hope that after hearing from Nikki, you too, will be inspired to continue taking a stand against racism.”


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