Has Barbie finally cracked China?
By Elsbeth van Paridon  ·  2023-07-28  ·   Source: NO.31 AUGUST 3, 2023
(Top left) Barbie-inspired art by Chinese fashion artist Yvan Deng; Chinese social media platforms are flooded with posts and livestreams related to Barbie's modish and movie appeal (FILE)

Chinese social media is abuzz with Barbie fever, so let's explore the phenomenon that has taken the Western world and now China by storm.

Arguably the world's most popular doll, Barbie surpasses the realm of your typical (primarily) girl's toy. Her luscious blond locks and pink wardrobe have influenced every corner of Western pop culture for decades. Unsurprisingly, an entirely new aesthetic created in the figurine's image has been circulating on fashion catwalks and social media for the past year now: Barbiecore.

In the months leading up to the July 21 international release of Barbie, a pink-filled comedy fantasy and the doll's first live-action motion picture, directed by American actress and filmmaker Greta Gerwig, the trend has only intensified. As the world has sizzled this summer season, Barbiecore has blossomed into a fashion fusion of nostalgic references and echoes of the iconic American doll's "You can be anything!" philosophy. 

When it comes to her modish and movie appeal in China, then, one wonders… Barbie's life in plastic: Is it fantastic?

Behind the buzz 

Chinese consumers long considered Barbie just another symbol of American consumption like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and KFC. Her image as "a sexy but independent woman" just didn't seem able to win the favor of Chinese consumers.

American toy manufacturer Mattel opened its first flagship Barbie store—the House of Barbie—in Shanghai in 2009. Six stories of jewelry-encrusted plastic all tied up in pink, covering an area of 3,500 square meters and selling over 1,600 Barbie products… But the house wasn't hitting home.

Mattel had billed it as a unique shopping center for girls, but it seemed neither Chinese parents nor their offspring were convinced of its "think pink" appeal. Perhaps Barbie's higher price tag, compared with local dolls, was off-putting to price-sensitive Chinese parents. Perhaps Mattel overlooked the fact that most Chinese parents wanted their children to study rather than play. Or perhaps Chinese girls and women just didn't see themselves in this blonde American or aspire to be like her. In 2010, the sales target of the Barbie shop was lowered by 30 percent, according to Chinese financial and economic newspaper National Business Daily. Ultimately, a lackluster business performance led to the House of Barbie closing up shop after less than two years in business.

In 2013, the toy titan launched a localized Barbie called "Ling," sporting black hair and Chinese attire, but consumers believed that this was a Chinese girl in the eyes of Americans. The brand still missed the mark, failing to recognize that China's market valued, and values, cuteness over va-va-voom-ness.

Barbie—at her core 

According to global fashion search engine Lyst's 2022 Year in Fashion report, Barbiecore was the top trend last year, peaking in June 2022, when the first behind-the-scenes photos of Barbie were leaked. Snaps of stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, who play Barbie and Ken, in neon spandex and shocking pink cowboy attire sparked a social media craze for all things Barbiecore.

Given the world's post-pandemic yearning for simpler times, it only makes sense that the 1980s-inspired, unapologetically pink aesthetic is taking center stage as the IT style of summer. Though hot pink is preferred, other shades such as bubblegum and fuchsia also embody the Barbiecore vibe. The color is only one part of the trend though, as the second part is channeling the proper decade, which basically spans the 1980s to the early 2000s.

But Barbiecore wasn't an instant hit everywhere. Enter: China.

Dead Barbie pink 

On Chinese social media, it took months before the term Barbiecore gradually took off. The hot pink shade associated with the doll was initially deemed a hilarious siwang babi fen—literally "dead Barbie pink" as the "strong shade" has the power "to kill your look," according to Chinese fashionistas. The hue was also perceived as making the wearer's skin look darker, a downside in a culture where fair skin is still the ideal, leading digital publication on luxury consumer trends in China Jing Daily wrote in its Barbiecore report, released in June.

But over the past two to three months, things certainly took a turn for the, shall we say, livelier.

Barbie also hit Chinese screens on July 21 and, as the promotional fanfare for the flick started picking up in the months before, Barbie mania slowly took hold of Chinese social media. On Chinese lifestyle and e-commerce app Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), the hashtag babi chuanda, or "Barbie outfits," had raked in 22.3 million views as of July 19 and 24.3 million as of July 25. On Douyin, China's TikTok, the same tag featured 18.5 million related short videos and livestreams as of July 19 and 20.6 million as of July 25.

A Beijing-based photographer surnamed Song, who has a strong proclivity for doll-like dresses, high ponytails and a glittery eye, told Beijing Review that "anything from Dopamine Dressing [a splashy, colorful styling adopted by Gen Zs as a whimsical way to lift their mood amid the pressures of life and work] to Barbie style makes me happy from the time I walk out the door and go to work in the morning all the way through dinner and after."

In an era where genderless fashion is becoming a staple, the doll's hyper-femininity might appear retro. But instead, for some contemporary Chinese consumers, the doll today symbolizes the opportunity to celebrate womanhood and showcase the fact that a girlish aesthetic isn't incompatible with intelligence or authority, Jing Daily added.

As the number of Barbie-outfit-related online posts continued to rise, did this modish trend in turn help Barbie blow up the box office?

Mode to movie 

Over the 48 hours that followed the movie's hotly anticipated global debut, Barbie started breaking box office records left and right, becoming the weekend's big winner with $155 million in U.S. ticket sales and more than $300 million from other markets. These numbers combined made it the biggest opening of the year, American movie industry magazine Variety reported on July 24.

However, though Barbie was released in China to considerable fanfare, its pink appeal proved no match for some formidable local competition. The comedy fantasy finished its opening weekend in China in fifth place, having earned "only" $8 million as of 6:30 p.m. Beijing time on July 23, according to entertainment industry bible The Hollywood Reporter. The slow start for Barbie continues a trend of Hollywood films earning much less in China than they once did, the digital magazine added.

But it's worth noting that the babi dianying ("Barbie movie") hashtag reaped 120 million related livestreams on Douyin on July 21, with many netizens posting rave reviews and hailing the motion picture as "a tale of real, raw human emotion." That number had gone up to a whopping 190 million as of July 25. The plastic fantastic flick also received a major viewer rating of 8.8 (out of a maximum 10) on Douban, China's most popular movie review platform, that same day. The ultra-positive word of social media mouth has appeared to be giving Barbie a modest boost, with it climbing into third place in ticket sales at the time of writing.

After watching the movie on July 23, a professional in the creative industry, surnamed Li, posted on his Weixin moments, the Facebook-wall-like function of China's ubiquitous Weixin super app, "I thought this (the Barbie movie) would be a comedy; never could I have imagined the story would run so deep. This feature film deserves a thumbs-up!"

But some men were less impressed. Chinese social media has seen many posts about guys walking out midway through the movie, loudly vocalizing their disagreement with some of its main themes—e.g., reversing gender roles by making women dominate Barbieland. Netizens quickly quipped Barbie has become the "barometer for boyfriend material."

"Disappointing" box office numbers aside, it seems that Barbie­—as a real woman with style—in the early 2020s has finally won the favor of Chinese consumers. And it seems neither the mode nor the movie are done making moves in China just yet.

The grey-suited Hollywood finance guys might not be convinced Barbie's China life in plastic is fantastic right now, but the consumers looking pretty in pink sure are. After all...

"Anything is possible." —Barbie.

(Print Edition Title: Living Doll) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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