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Decline in Barbie sales, a shift towards feminism

Contributor

Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Updated: Sunday, December 15, 2013 12:12

Barbie

Photo in Public Domain

Growing up, I had two types of dolls: impossibly thin, top-heavy Barbie dolls and the round-faced, girlish-figured American Girl Dolls. My favorite Barbie, a nameless “princess” character, had pin-straight yellow-blonde hair, an enormous pink dress and a thimble-sized waist. I don’t remember her story, but I assume it had something to do with her being a combination Princess-Astronaut-Powerhouse-Model. On the opposite spectrum, my favorite American Girl doll was a curly-haired Revolutionary period doll named Felicity. She had a back story including a disdain for mundane housework and a love for animal rights. See any disparity between these two dolls?
Interestingly, doll sales are on the rise, just not the dolls you may suspect. For toymaker Mattel, quarterly earnings showed their Barbie sales dropping 12 percent, while, according to The Atlantic, American Girl Dolls rose 14 percent in sales.  This unexpected ratio presses a hard look at Barbie’s relevance amidst new consumer wants. Barbie’s narrative usually includes a helping-oriented career choice, an outfit and maybe a background picture of Barbie with Ken (never Stephen, mind you, but that’s another subject). The American Girl Dolls, on the other hand, offer realistic and varied stories, cultural backgrounds,and personal causes.

It’s apparent Mattel has been attempting slow strides to catch up, but Barbie remains to feminists what Jar Jar Binks is to Star Wars fanboys. Even since her introduction to the market in 1959, Barbie has emulated a very male-centered (read: unrealistic) ideal of what a woman should be. Despite real world examples of female Prime Ministers, astronauts, scientists and the like, Barbie is still sporting an impossible hip-to-waist ratio, permanently high-heeled feet and perfect skin. To add insult to injury, Mattel’s efforts to get her in a spacesuit wouldn’t be complete without her signature pink suit (Friedan is rolling in her grave).

On the flip side, you have the rounded, less sexualized American Girl Doll. She has freckles, wavy hair and a story that is not perpetually made complete by the addition of a Ken or a Stephen.

At play time, when my brothers and I needed a damsel in distress to be rescued by our GI Joe forces, we called on Barbie to play the lead. She fit so perfectly into a role in which no character development was needed – “Look, now she’s been captured by enemy forces. Let’s go save Barbie.”  Or, we need a scantily-clad-nurse – “Get Barbie!” Even when she was saving the day, her “story” wasn’t forgotten because it hardly existed in the first place. I can’t even credit Barbie for being tabula rasa because Mattel does include storylines for each Barbie, but the narratives read from a totally male perspective. The result is trite and uninteresting, leaving her outfits and impossible looks to do the talking instead of her narrative.

Thankfully, female stories are being slowly inserted into movies, television and literature. Arguably, many movies are still featuring the female actors as props for male characters, but at least the rising sales of dolls with an actual narrative are indicative of a market seeking an interesting but realistic portrayal of women.

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