The Rise of Barbie and the Decline in Births. Is There a Connection?

In my last posting, I made the case that birth rates are declining in the developed world because there is no longer a social or economic advantage to having children. Children used to be an investment, but now they are a cost.

In this post, I want to discuss the toy industry’s role in encouraging a declining birthrate.

It all started with Barbie. Barbie made her first appearance at Toy Fair in 1959. She is still an iconic representation of beauty, grace, intelligence, and success one billion dolls later. Before Barbie, girls played with Baby Dolls and, through extension, learned nurturing skills and baby care. Barbie introduced a different concept of doll play. Rather than teaching nurture, it taught socialization skills and female empowerment.

To find out the impact of Barbie on popular culture, I used the Google Ngram Viewer. The Ngram Viewer measures the frequency of words in books. In this case, I entered the words “Barbie,” “Birth Control,” and “Baby Doll.” Below is the result:

Interestingly, as the above graph shows, the introduction of Barbie coincided with the advent of the birth control pill. They both coincided with a drop in the birthrate that has been going on for the last 64 years.

In the U.S., there were 23.257 live births per thousand women in 1959. Today, there are 12.023. Did Barbie play a role in fewer women having fewer children, or was the rise of Barbie a coincidence? It is a little bit of both.

Barbie showed up at the right time for a new way to look at doll play. She also came of age as the women’s liberation movement took off. Barbie was part of a mix of notable events for women: Barbie launched in 1959. Betty Friedan wrote her groundbreaking work, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. The first edition of Ms. Magazine came out in 1971.

All of these coincided to create a new vision of what it meant to be an adult woman. Children playing with Barbie got it.

One final thought: Barbie can do anything but has yet to get pregnant. Wouldn’t that be an interesting development? Particularly if she remains single.

Leave a Reply