Barbie Lands a Spot on Forbes’ 2023 Power Women List

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Barbie is the first-ever fictional character to be selected as one of Forbes’ most powerful women in the world, a list that otherwise includes 99 hardworking, flesh-and-blood founders, leaders and innovators. It’s an unconventional choice, we know, and could be especially controversial in a year of wars, environmental challenges, creeping threats to democracy and the continuing rollback of women’s rights.

But the very real difficulties in conquering those obstacles are exactly why we chose her for the list.

Barbie may be a doll, but in 2023 she became much more. On the strength of Greta Gerwig’s Warner Bros. movie, Barbie expanded beyond a symbol of female empowerment to become an avatar for the necessity of fighting to recapture power that’s been taken away. She’s inspired girls and their mothers for generations, but this was the year women needed her most. And she came through. Nearly 65 years into her “life,” the 11.5-inch Barbie stands at the height of her influence.

“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” says Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s chief brand officer and global head of Barbie. “She galvanized a movement. Barbie is absolutely hitting her stride right now.”

McKnight says that with full knowledge that Mattel, her employer, is a direct beneficiary of Barbie’s galvanizing powers. Influence may not be easily calculated, but Barbie came through on the math, too. She boosted an entire industry. On the heels of Barbie the movie, sales of Barbie the doll jumped 16% in the third quarter, to $605 million, from the same period in 2022. Market-research authority Euromonitor International says the effect is not limited to Mattel; Barbie could propel global doll sales to $14 billion by 2027, a 16% “jumpstart” after sales lagged in 2022.

Record crowds turned the movie into a touchstone. Barbie drew $1.4 billion at the global box office, enough to land Gerwig in the history books as the first woman to helm a $1 billion-plus moneymaker as a solo director. The movie was so talked-about that it drew the disapproval of Fox News and, in the middle of its pre-release publicity hype, Pantone named a deep pink, Barbie’s favorite, its color of the year.

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Barbie also rocks the social-media metrics of a powerful woman. She boasts more than 5 million followers across TikTok and Instagram and has nearly 12 million subscribers on YouTube.

The numbers, impressive as they may be, are dwarfed by Barbie’s intangibles.


All The Options

In 1959, when Barbie made her debut, contraceptives were illegal in some states, limiting women’s life options. Women couldn’t borrow money from a bank or even open an account without the signature of a husband or father. This would’ve been a dealbreaker for a vast number of women on the Power List, including Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser (No. 7), Oracle CEO Safra Catz (No. 17) and Nasdaq president Adena Friedman (No. 43), who couldn’t run international financial institutions, technology firms and stock exchanges needing a man’s permission to cash checks.

Barbie, meanwhile, has had all the life options. She was created by Ruth Handler to show her daughter she could aspire to a life and career that extended beyond taking care of babies. She has held down 250 different jobs, including entrepreneur, U.S. presidential candidate, architect and astronaut. It’s easy to forget now, especially amid criticism leveled at Barbie and her creators over the body image issues a perfect hourglass toy can spark, but Barbie was founded as a revolutionary figure.

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In 2019, Barbie even boosted her business knowledge with a visit to Forbes’ Fifth Avenue event space in New York City.MATTEL

Barbie played a crucial role in shaping girls’ views on how much they could accomplish, says Colleen Kirk, a New York Institute of Technology professor who studies consumer behavior. When girls play with a doll, they explore and create identities for themselves, Kirk says. “So all of a sudden, you have, ‘this astronaut, this is who I am; this surgeon is who I am,’” Kirk says. “It’s not about the toy, right? It’s the whole idea that Barbie can reflect our aspirations. We can put ourselves into this doll, as women of all ages, and that’s really powerful.”

Barbie’s popularity hasn’t always been so pervasive. Sales hit a low point in 2014, and the more inclusive, ethnically- and ability-diverse dolls in today’s Barbie universe are a direct result of the rehabilitation efforts Mattel’s McKnight spearheaded. It’s why McKnight says that Barbie both “reflects culture and inspires culture.” To be successful, Barbie needs to look like the world around her — and the world around her is one in which beauty standards have evolved almost as much as women’s roles have.

Now, Barbie’s influence is waxing at a time when women’s power has waned. Women in the U.S. are still reeling from the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade — the greatest step backward for women’s rights in a generation. Women in the Middle East continue to be subjected to gender-based violence. Women in lower-income and agricultural economies like Zambia, Mali, Bangladesh and Pakistan are disproportionately suffering from the extreme effects of climate change. Forty-three years after Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland became the first female president of any nation on the globe, women remain grossly underrepresented in world politics. Just two of the G-20 members have female leaders — the European Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, No. 1 and No. 4 on the Forbes Power List, respectively.


Primed For Barbie

The state of the world primed the public for the Barbie movie, and given the environment, it’s no surprise that it did as well as it did. Consider the plot (spoiler warning): a world run by women is infected by aggressive, dominating men and regressive gender norms take over. Women get pushed out of power, but they don’t accept the reversal of their fortunes. They fight back, educating the men about how much better life is for everyone when women are in charge. By the final curtain, women’s power is restored.

“It was an incredible high to feel a part of what happened this summer, and to share that with my daughter,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG US, “but it wasn’t enough.” Swonk says the thing that gives her hope for women’s power in the coming year (and beyond) is a trend that goes far beyond the plot of Barbie.

“My hope lies in what I see as young women who are angry about having power taken away from them. What’s important is that they also know what that power is,” Swonk says. “It’s not just being told that you can’t be something. It’s saying, ‘I’ve been something, how dare you take it from me?’ That’s a different argument. And I think that’s a better starting point, because you can’t just erase what people have already experienced.”

As arbiters of the Power List, we acknowledge that Barbie can’t restore Americans’ reproductive rights, reopen girls’ schools in Afghanistan, bestow liberty on Iranian women or save women in Gaza and Ukraine from the devastation of man-made bombs. Only women in political, economic and institutional power can do that.

What Barbie can do is give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless through her ability to inspire.

Barbie is much more than just a plastic toy. For starters, she’s No. 100 on the list of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by The Kashmir Monitor staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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