Barbie at 60, and how she made her mark on the Arab world

Barbie at 60, and how she made her mark on the Arab world
US Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad with her Barbie model and, the Moroccan Saghira. (AFP)
Updated 05 January 2019

Barbie at 60, and how she made her mark on the Arab world

Barbie at 60, and how she made her mark on the Arab world
  • After entering the Saudi market in the 1990s, the doll gained fans while causing controversy for ‘encouraging un-Islamic dress codes’
  • Temporary bans failed to dim her appeal in the Kingdom, and Middle East companies came up with more modest alternatives like Fulla

JEDDAH: Barbara Millicent Roberts, also known as “Barbie,” one of the world’s most famous dolls, is celebrating her 60th birthday. With a brand name that has become synonymous with glamor, style and female empowerment, Barbie has captured hearts and minds all over the world, including Saudi Arabia.

More than 1 billion Barbie dolls have been sold since she made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. She was invented by Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, who was inspired by her own children in her creation. 

Barbie officially entered the Saudi market in the mid 1990s, but many people recall having played with Barbies as children in the 1980s and early 1990s. Even temporary bans — in 1995 and 2003 — have failed to dim her appeal in the Kingdom.

“I received my first Barbie when I was about 8 or 9, ” said Hatoon Al-Toukhi, a corporate communications manager in Jeddah. “By the time I was in my teens, I had about 15. This was in the late 1980s and we used to get them from abroad. Back then, they weren’t allowed to sell the doll, but they did sell the clothes, shoes and accessories. There weren’t many varieties back then, but my favorite Barbie was blonde with blue eyes. I remember that she had light pink heels, too. Playing with Barbies was like living in a dream world. You shift into that make-believe land and I had my cousin who shared my love for Barbies. We’d have them play the roles of doctors and teachers, even cousins since we were cousins. The epitome of Barbie excitement came when we’d receive our Eid money and go to buy more clothes for our Barbie dolls.”

Hatoon has passed on her love for Barbie to her 6-year-old daughter, Dana. “I’ve always dreamt of having a Barbie Dream House, but it was too expensive back then. My daughter now has over 50 Barbies and I can see the same excitement in her eyes as I once had, I also got her the Barbie Dream House, but I don’t know who’s more excited about it, me or her.”

Barbie, with her long blonde locks of hair with big bright blue eyes, has been a beloved doll for many generations across the globe. Despite fierce competition in the toy industry, 58 million Barbies are sold each year in more than 150 countries, Mattel calculates that a Barbie is sold every 2 seconds somewhere in the world. 

Pink is the word — Barbie even has her own Pantone: 216 C. Her products don’t stop at the dolls themselves; Barbie’s name and face have probably been plastered on almost anything you can imagine. Clothes, makeup, kitchenware, and school supplies are just a few of the massively popular Barbie-branded products that have graced high-street and online stores. She has even starred in 34 movies, and counting.

Barbie has also been recognized globally as a major brand over the decades of her career, with international editions of the doll being released every year in traditional costumes for different countries. Among the most notable in the Muslim world are two from Morocco, one from Ghana, one from Malaysia and one from Egypt.

Many of these limited edition Barbie dolls are considered more pieces of art than toys. Barbies that are no longer sold in stores can be found for exorbitant prices on online auction sites. The original 1959 Barbie doll is estimated to be worth about $24,000. In 2017 Australian jewelry designer Stefano Canturi — asked to design a one-of-a-kind Barbie to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research foundation — sold his creation at auction at Christie’s, New York, for a huge $302,000.

However, a career as long as Barbie’s doesn’t come without its share of controversy. The doll has been banned multiple times in multiple countries, both temporarily (in places such as Saudi Arabia and Russia) and permanently (in Iran). In the Middle East, Barbies were commonly banned for being “promiscuous” or “encouraging un-Islamic dress codes.” In Russia, they were banned for “encouraging consumerism among Russian infants.”

After the Barbie ban swept the Middle East around 2003, many local companies were keen to step in, with local and regional alternatives coming on sale. Notable alternatives to Barbie are Fulla, from Middle Eastern manufacturer NewBoy; Razanne, from US-based Palestinian expat Ammar Saadeh; Morocco’s Saghira; and Iran’s Sara and Dara. 

Fulla was launched in the Middle East in 2003 and soon became available in stores across the globe. She is now sold in China, Brazil, North Africa, Egypt, and Indonesia, and even in a few locations in the US. Within two years of her arrival, Fulla had sold more than 1.5 million units, quickly becoming a fierce competitor for parents who didn’t wish to buy Barbies for their daughters. 

In Iran, Sara and Dara were presented as more child-friendly than the more provocatively dressed Barbie; they were created by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in an effort to promote traditional Muslim values in the country, and dressed in traditional Irani clothes. The brother-and-sister duo are supposed to be eight years old, young enough under Islamic law for Sara to appear in public without a headscarf. However, the creators included headscarves with the toy.

Barbie’s range of “Sheroes,” launched last March, were modelled on internationally familiar role models such as NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, Australian conservationist Bindi Irwin, US fencing champion and first official Hijabi Barbie, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and Polish journalist Martyna Wojciechowska. 

In an effort to make the dolls more inclusive, one of the biggest changes in the next generation of Barbie and friends, 40 new dolls, seven new body types, 11 skin tones and 28 different hairstyles were introduced into the market. 

In the era of digital toys, Barbie has struggled. In 2012, Barbie’s global sales dropped 3 percent, falling. a further 6 percent in 2013 and 16 percent in 2014. However in 2017, sales rose by 9 percent, and commentators believe that Barbie might be making a comeback.

Richard Dickson, president and chief operating officer of Mattel, said: “Barbie reflects the world girls see around them. Her ability to evolve and grow with the times, while staying true to her spirit, is central to why Barbie is the number one fashion doll in the world.”