The XX Factor

Is Barbie on Her Last (Unrealistically Proportioned) Legs?

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Photo by Timur Emek/Getty Images

The empire of Barbie is in decline, its Malibu-pink flag lowering. Legions of American Girl and Monster High dolls have taken over the Dream House. Ken has run off with a Furbie. Manufacturer Mattel’s slender 1 percent increase in revenue from last year comes no thanks to America’s former sweetheart: Barbie sales dropped 12 percent last quarter, despite the doll craze sweeping the U.S. and Europe. Meanwhile, American Girl sales increased by 14 percent and are now responsible for 40 percent of Mattel’s growth, reports the website Quartz.    

I’d like to think that Barbie has fallen from grace because her shallow, materialistic, my-boobs-account-for-80-percent-of-my-body-weight image has generally lost its luster. It turns out, though, that Barbie may just not be savvy enough at diversifying her brand. While the American Girls exist in a universe of related products—books, clothes, furniture, magazines, and movies—all of them capitalizing on the characters’ rich backstories, Barbie doesn’t seem to fan kids’ imaginations in the same way. She doesn’t have a detailed biography her fans can relate to. (Also, American Girl doll owners spend an average of $500 on the figure and her accessories, which probably helps with the franchise’s bottom line.)  

I was allowed exactly one Barbie during my childhood. I remember cutting her hair, trying to wrestle her into sequined hotpants, my mom trying to wrestle her into sequined hotpants, my dad slitting the sequined hotpants with scissors, and then her head falling off. Meanwhile, two of my colleagues were proud owners of American Girl dolls as kids. They loved learning about their dolls’ historical eras via the six books that accompanied each American Girl, and they enjoyed the franchise’s focus on strong, socially conscious heroines.

So is this coup—American Girls beating up on Barbie—something we can get behind? Yes and no. As the Atlantic reported in April, American Girl dolls are becoming far less radical. In fact, since Mattel purchased the brand in 1998, they seem to have received an almost Babs-like makeover. The stock characters now come with less elaborate narratives—two books rather than six—and American Doll stores offer professional haircuts for the products (where’s the fun in that?), as well as “interactive” opportunities for child-toy pairs to have dinner or tea. Nothing wrong with more interaction, if you can afford it, but the whole setup feels sort of fussy, as if one needed an entire frilly architecture to play with a doll. Plus, historical characters like spunky labor advocate Samantha and revolutionary Felicity have been retired to clear space for a new line of “My American Girls”—personalized toys individually crafted to look just like their owners.* This means kids have gone from dreaming about resembling Barbie to customizing dolls so that they resemble them. Progress, in an age when still so many girls don’t see images of themselves reflected in pop culture? Or just a new type of narcissism?

If it’s unrealistic to hope that everyone will just start playing with Legos, I’d at least like for Mattel not to respond to the slow demise of Barbie by Barbifying its other products. (It can totally zombify them though! These zombie Disney princesses are awesome.)   

Correction, July 18, 2013: This post incorrectly stated that the American Girl doll Addy has been retired. The reference was removed and replaced with Felicity, one of the dolls that is no longer available.