Just before Thanksgiving this year, Barbie had her wokest moment yet. On the official BarbieStyle Instagram channel, she was pictured in a series of photos with another doll, Aimee, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Love Wins,” the slogan of the marriage equality movement. The posts were a tableaux of domesticity. In one, the pair is sitting cosily in Barbie’s walk-in closet, stroking a dog and staring into each others’ eyes. In another, they are eating avocado toast at their favorite Silver Lake café.
The status of Aimee and Barbie’s relationship wasn’t made explicit in the post, but people quickly came to their own conclusions. Along with much celebration, vitriol also exploded in Barbie’s Instagram feed, with people accusing Mattel of promoting homosexuality to young girls.
These “Love Wins” photos were part of a broader trend for Barbie. In September, the BarbieStyle Instagram account featured Barbie wearing a “People Are People” T-shirt designed by Christian Siriano as a protest against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Mattel also released its first hijab-wearing Barbie, modeled after the American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Again, she wasn’t universally embraced: Under one Instagram post of the new doll, a commenter asked, “Does she come with a male guardian so she can go outside?”
Courting controversy is a bold move for Barbie, a 58-year-old brand that has been a fixture in girls’ toy boxes around the world for three generations. In the United States, Barbie’s liberal stances have been particularly striking at a time when the Trump administration has been making efforts to overturn LGBT rights in the workplace and the military, and preventing people from Muslim countries from getting visas, prompting waves of protest on both sides of the political divide.
This effort to remake Barbie as a progressive icon appears to be a calculated business decision on Mattel’s part to win over today’s millennial parents. While Barbie is still a powerful force in the toy market, generating $971 million in sales in 2016, younger parents have been less keen on buying the doll for their daughters than those in generations past. Mattel has seen sales of Barbie spiral downward since 2009. Between 2012 and 2014 alone, sales dropped by 20%. Part of this decline is due to the fact that kids are increasingly choosing to play with touch screens and electronic toys, rather than with old-fashioned dolls. (One of the best-selling toys this holiday season is a small robotic monkey called Fingerling that blows kisses and blinks.) But analysts have also attributed the decline of Barbie to the fact that Mattel hasn’t been able to shake the stigma that the brand is a bad influence on girls because she promotes sexism.