Saturday, May 9, 2009

Miniature Ladies: Barbie’s Commodity Chain

[I wrote this paper tonight for a Human Geography class assignment to research commodity chains of international products. I selected Barbie, not because I own Barbie toys, but because I found the cultural issues surrounding the doll to be amusing and mildly intriguing. However, when I tell people of my topic I generally receive confused and hostile stares which I presume indicates that people assume I am some sort of pervert. Read the essay and you will surely find the controversies which surround Barbie is enormously entertaining.]

Miniature Ladies: Barbie’s Commodity Chain

by Ryan Haecker

Dolls are believed to have been a plaything of humans since before recorded history. Often being constructed of local materials, Dolls have been found in Egyptian graves dating as far back as 2000BC.
However the modern era of mass produced plastic dolls began with the replacement of celluloid with plastic as the preferred material for constructing dolls in the aftermath of the Second World War . Created in 1959 by American business woman Ruth Handler, Barbie has in the past half century become the worlds most purchased doll. Barbie’s extraordinary popularity has been the cause for satire, lawsuits, and even political controversy. Barbie has received criticisms from both feminists and social conservatives. Partly as a result, Barbie has been subject to innumerable controversies stemming from her ubiquitous popularity and the perceived cultural influence of Barbie dolls on young girls.

Recent sociological literature has attempted to demonstrate the connection between childhood dolls and the adolescent socialization of gender roles . In one recent example, West Virginia Congressman Jeff Eldridge introduced a bill to "ban the sale of Barbie dolls and other dolls that influence girls to be beautiful" within the state of West Virginia.” As recently as April of 2009, a “Totally Tattoos Barbie” was released which included what was perceived to be a sexually provocative lower back tattoo, or “tramp stamp”. Critics alleged that the doll unnecessarily sexualized young girls and promoted the crass culture which tattoos are often associated with. In 1999, a similar controversy was ignited when Barbie’s pregnant friend Midge of the “Happy Family” play set was hastily recalled after the doll received “uniformly negative” reactions from parents who often mistakenly interpreted the individually packaged doll as a single mother. Feminists have, for decades, criticized the “1 in 1000” body proportions of Barbie which they argue portrays unrealistic body standards and only serves to encourage male domination .

The production and purchasing of the doll has often aroused great hostility in foreign markets. In a provocative example, the conservative Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice published on their website that “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful!” The doll “Fulla” is widely sold throughout the Islamic community as an Islamic alternative to Barbie, which, in contrast to the perceived western licentiousness of Barbie, is marketed as modest and pious, complete with a detachable hijab (head scarf) and a tiny pink prayer rug.

Mattel, the Toy manufacturer which distributes Barbie, is a publicly traded Fortune 500 company with 31,000 employees and nearly six billion dollars in yearly revenues . A fact, which serves to reinforce the tremendous importance of Barbie, is that 80% of their revenue is derived from the sale of Barbie dolls . In the year 2000 alone, Barbie products brought Mattel yearly earnings of 1.5 Billion dollars! Mattel reports that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries since the introduction of the doll, with three dolls being sold every second. Part of Barbie’s international success has been attributed to her post-war television marketing strategy. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan with their clothing being hand-sewn by Japanese women. From 1959 through 1972, Mattel focused on a bottom line of manufacturing and Barbie was therefore made in low cost facilities in Japan. Today however, 65% of Mattel’s toys are manufactured in China. In the 1980’s “Mattel aggressively expanded the number of plants it owned in Asia. Noncore products, like trinkets made under movie-licensing deals, could be outsourced. But Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels, among others, would be kept in tightly controlled factories.” Mattel does not publically reveal the locations of Barbie’s international production; however it is known that many of Barbie’s component parts are produced in Southeast Asian countries such as China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. One of Mattel’s largest factories is the 330,000 sq. ft. factory in Guanyao, a city in south China’s Guangdong province, considered the world’s biggest toy manufacturing center. Here about 3,000 young, mostly female, workers busily assemble Mattel products for an average salary of 175$ a month.

Barbie’s enormous international popularity has been facilitated partially by an unusually large collectors market. It is estimated that there are more than one hundred thousand “avid fans”, 90% of whom are women over the age of 40, who will yearly spend over 1,000$ on collectable dolls . Mattel estimates that there are upwards of eight million Barbie collectors internationally . It has been reported that “the 1959 Barbie doll in mint condition will sell for thousands of dollars. Some have sold for as much as $8000 to $10,000 but you can buy them for much less and $2000 to $3000 is quite common.” It is said that “about 300,000 of the 1959 Barbie were made and there are undoubtedly many out there still undiscovered.” Mattel has recently attempted to create a local consumer base in China with a recent Barbie shop opening in Shanghai.

With her release in 1959, Barbie’s head and body were manufactured from a potentially toxic polyvinyl chloride or PVC . Barbie has received some recent material enhancements to make her appear more attractive and human in appearance: “New elastomers have given her a more lifelike body. Engineering thermoplastics have improved her complexion. And developmental water-based paints could soon result in a face that goes easier on the environment”. Barbie’s complex internal structure (flexible waist Barbie consists of more than 20 parts) and stress resistant polymers allow her to endure intensive abuse. Her characteristic hair is manufactured from a variety of synthetic fiber . The precise chemical composition of Barbie is unknown, making any assessment of the procurement of her materials problematic.

Although Mattel owns some Barbie themed retail stores, she is primarily sold internationally through auxiliary chains such as KB Toys and Toys R Us. However collectors and shoppers can also purchase Barbie online from a variety of vendors such as The shipping and distribution of Barbie, of course, an enormously complex feat of the international trade system utilizing transportation venues such as airmail, local shipping, and large freight vessels. The 50 year history of Barbie is remarkable testament to the perennial popularity of the doll among young girls and adult collectors. Although recent market challenges have arisen from rival toy lines (such as the controversial Bratz toy line), Barbie nonetheless has demonstrated a remarkable international and intergenerational appeal that is not likely to diminish soon.

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