She may be a Barbie girl but she’s no longer living in a Barbie world.
Last week, toy manufacturer Mattel announced on a conference call that sales for their flagship doll have been on a precipitous decline for three consecutive quarters. As Forbes reports, Barbie’s gross sales have fallen 14 percent worldwide and Mattel has suffered an $11.2 million net loss overall. And as Sarah Halzack observes for The Washington Post, the young girls who once formed Barbie’s core demographic seem to be gravitating toward Mattel’s Monster High dolls and digital toys, like tablets and video game consoles.
But is this goodbye for Barbie? Mattel seems confident that it will be able to get Barbie back on track; after all, it wasn’t long ago that the fleetingly popular line of Bratz fashion dolls had Barbie on the ropes before she rallied back. Time and again, Barbie has proven herself to be the Jay Leno of the doll world, always managing to wiggle her way back into the spotlight.
This time around, however, analysts seem ready to toll the death knell for the world’s most famous doll. Business Insider deems Barbie “obsolete,” The Guardian writes that her charm is fading, and The Wall Street Journal says she’s “reeling.”
Has Barbie’s “unapologetic” brand of unattainability finally become her downfall? After a long and storied career as a jet pilot, a surgeon, an astronaut, and the president of the United States, is Barbie finally ready to retire? And if Barbie goes the way of the Bratz doll, will she be remembered as a feminist icon or as a symbol of rigid gender roles and unrealistic beauty standards? What kind of girl was Barbie, really?
For some feminist critics, Barbie’s demise is welcome news. Julie Bindel of The Guardian wasted no time penning an op-ed about Mattel’s slipping sales that reads more like an obituary. Barbie is no stranger to this kind of hostility. Earlier this year, the doll’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated sparked outrage from critics and parents who objected to this seeming collaboration between cultural powerhouses that promote unrealistic beauty standards for women. Women are frequently reminded, too, that Barbie would be dangerously underweight if she were a real human.
I asked a set of parents and Barbie experts to judge whether or not feminist critiques of the doll were behind her dwindling relevance or, at least, her absence from their own households. Jason, father of a 7-year old girl, says that he and his wife “made a conscious decision” to avoid the doll because they feel it promotes an “antiquated, sexist, and unrealistic representation” of women. When their daughter expressed interest in Barbie regardless, they gave her the Barbie Paleontologist but she quickly moved on to other toys.
Kevin, the father of a 6-year-old girl, also discourages his daughter from buying toys in the “pink aisle.” He and his wife feel that the toy sends “mixed messages” to girls, telling them to “be whatever you want to be” while also holding up a “ridiculous body image.” He says his daughter “craves adventure and Barbie, with her tailored suits and glamorous evening gowns, doesn’t really provide that.
Other parents told me that their daughters simply seemed to prefer other toys apart from their guiding influence. Kate’s daughter, for example, likes “soft cuddly dolls” and prefers Monster High dolls over Barbies because they are, and I quote, “monstery.” Jason M.’s stepdaughter similarly prefers stuffed animals, specifically Beanie Boos, to the abandoned bin of Barbies that collects dust in her room.
And Tanya Lee Stone, author of Barbie history book The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, doubts that Barbie has taken a serious blow from critiques of her dimensions alone. “There are so many choices now—both three-dimensionally and virtually—that it may simply be par for the course,” Stone writes in an e-mail.
Stone even makes a feminist case for Barbie, arguing that she “still functions as a vehicle for a child’s imagination” despite the fact that she has become “a scapegoat for issues better pinned on society at large.” If the end of Barbie is truly drawing near, Stone will “choose to remember that Barbie was an astronaut long before American women were allowed to be.” It is indeed worth noting that Barbie has been the president of a country that has not yet elected a female president, and that she has held careers in male-dominated fields that LEGO women can only dream about.
But avid Barbie collector and dressmaker Nikeeyia Howell has a more ambivalent relationship to the question of Barbie’s progressiveness. Howell remembers “how hard it was to find black Barbies on store shelves” as a child. Even today, she notes, “the black version of the doll” she regularly encounters on store shelves has “very light skin [and] if you want a darker skin, black Barbie, then you have to get one from the S.I.S. line,” which she finds problematic. And because Barbie’s clothes were so expensive, Howell had to get “creative” within her family’s budget. Together with her mother, she sewed her own clothes for the dolls, further fueling her childhood dreams of becoming a fashion designer.
Howell, too, has a unique perspective on Barbie’s fading star. She believes that Monster High dolls are, in part, surpassing Barbie in terms of popularity because “they aren’t just selling kids a doll but a whole world and narrative to go with it.” Barbie, she notes, “doesn’t really have a linear narrative” because “each Barbie represents a world that exists concurrent with and yet independently of each other.” In a world saturated with narrative media, she suggests, perhaps children simply aren’t ready to wrap their heads around the idea of dozens of different Barbies that each occupy their own parallel universe, Quantum Leap-style.
Despite their different approaches to the controversial doll, both Stone and Howell hope that Barbie can weather this latest storm.
“I think she stands up to a lot of modern toys that require little or no imagination,” Stone writes, “and I hope she perseveres.”
Howell, too, writes that, “Regardless of her problems, Barbie is such a classic.”
After five and a half decades of Barbie, it’s hard to imagine a world without her ice blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. Only time will tell whether Mattel can save their premier toy from financial ruin. For now, it seems as if Barbie’s sales are wearing as thin as the doll itself. But even if she has to sell her convertible and put her Dreamhouse under foreclosure, Barbie will live on in our cultural memory for years to come. With her controversial figure, her ever-changing occupations, and her idiosyncratic relationships with children and collectors worldwide, perhaps it’s best to remember Barbie as she lived: plastic, in every sense of the word.