Thursday 27 April 2017

Bye, bye, Barbie: How the world's most iconic doll got edged out by new arrivals

As sales of the iconic doll continue to slide, Heidi Scrimgeour reports on how Barbie was edged out by more realistic rivals

Cali Girl Barbie waves from the front seat of a Chevy SSR during the Toy Fair in New York on February 17, 2004. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.
Cali Girl Barbie waves from the front seat of a Chevy SSR during the Toy Fair in New York on February 17, 2004. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.
Barbie
Lammily
Lottie doll
Elsa doll

Heidi Scrimgeour

My little girl recently spurned her friend's best efforts to persuade her to play with a Barbie doll.

 Instead, she tucked a soft-bodied genderless baby doll under her arm and refused to be parted from it. So it didn't surprise me to learn that sales of Barbie dolls were down 16pc in 2014 - the third consecutive year of dwindling sales for the impossibly proportioned doll.

Mattel seemingly saw it coming, too, and recently announced the departure of CEO and chairman Bryan Stockton following a 59pc drop in profits. The writing has been on the wall since last Christmas, when Barbie was knocked off the top spot on America's National Federation Holiday Top Toys Survey for the first time in its history.

One-in-five parents planned to buy merchandise from Disney's Frozen film, compared with 16pc who still had Barbies on their shopping lists. Anna and Elsa had stolen Barbie's crown.

Barbie
Barbie

But did Barbie fall - or was she pushed? It seems ironic, given her reputation as a style icon, that Barbie should become a victim of changing fashions. But her eye-watering vital statistics - which would reportedly render her incapable of lifting her head if scaled up to human proportions - didn't seem so out of place when I was a child in the 1980s.

Amid today's backlash against airbrushing and size zero models along with concerns about the gender messages being mediated through the toy aisles, and stark warnings about the hyper-sexualisation of girls, it's easy to see why Barbie's appeal is waning. She just isn't 'on message' with the values we want for our daughters nowadays.

"When I'm buying toys for my daughters, I tend to go for anything other than Barbie," agrees Andrea Mara, mum of four and founder of OfficeMum.ie. "Her plastic 'perfection' annoys me and I'm not going to actively push that on my daughters."

That's a sentiment shared by mum-of-one Kellie Turtle, who would prefer her daughter not to play with Barbie dolls.

"It's a body-image concern, primarily; the ludicrous proportions and the focus on thinness. I know boys have muscle-bound superhero dolls but they are at least based on something they can do, like Spiderman figures that can shoot webs," she says.

"Barbie's significance, in contrast, amounts to how pretty she is, despite numerous attempts to shoehorn her awkwardly into various types of 'professional' uniform."

Lammily
Lammily

Mum of three and teacher Sharon Battye says her beef with Barbie isn't her physique, but what she stands for.

"It's not so much the body-image aspects of Barbie that concern me, but the rampant consumerism that she seems to represent. Barbie is a First World consumerist ideal in a world of massive social and economic divides; totally engrossed with herself, her life and the 'stuff' she has."

If Barbie leaves a lot to be desired as a modern role model, it's no surprise that others have been quick to spot a gap in the doll market.

Ian Harkin is managing director of Arklu, the Donegal-based company behind the Lottie doll (lottie.com). Since launching in August 2012, Lottie has won 21 international awards and now sells in more than 30 countries.

Elsa doll
Elsa doll

Developed with input from child psychology and nutrition experts along with parents, children and toy-industry representatives, Lottie's body is based on the average proportions of a nine-year-old girl, and holds appeal in the days of Barbie's demise, according to Harkin, because she is "an antithesis to brands which have a skewed view of femininity and childhood".

Lottie is not the only contender for Barbie's throne. Lammily (lammily.com), billed by its creator Nickolay Lamm as a realistic fashion doll, is based on typical body proportions, and can be customised with stickers resembling stretch marks, cellulite, acne and grass stains.

Social ecologist Kathryn McCabe welcomes the emergence of these alternative dolls. "Barbie comes from a time when women were unquestionably sexualised, white privilege was unexamined and capitalist gain was the dream," she says.

"Diversity is always better; these dolls certainly seem to be more realistic in body image, age-appropriate interests, and less gender normative in their activities. Those are improvements."

But, Kathryn adds, Barbie may still have a place in the toy box. Comforting words to those whose children show little sign of losing interest in her. "Personally, I wouldn't ban Barbie, but I might avoid her until a child is old enough to discuss any concerns you might have about her," she says. "On one hand, there's nothing wrong with being a beautiful, sexy woman like Barbie, yet that is not the only way to be.

Lottie doll
Lottie doll

"Getting kids thinking critically about their dolls is helpful; for developing their understanding of the world, their openness to diversity, their recognition of their own privilege, and a gradual choice over how they want to express themselves."

For Elfreda Manahan-Vaughan, a life coach who gives self-esteem workshops, Mattel's slowing sales are easily explained. Barbie just isn't as cool as she once was.

"My students are drawn to Monster High dolls, which have special powers, or dolls with something that makes them seem unique or different," she explains. "The media really promotes specialness nowadays - the popular reality TV formats are about making ordinary people special - which encourages children to want dolls that appear special because they aspire to that. In comparison, Barbie is generic. She just hasn't anything very special about her any more."

Or, as a fellow mum put it recently: "Elsa kicked Barbie to the kerb." What the Frozen sisters have that Barbie lacks is depth of character and a compelling back story, it seems. Magical powers are a bonus.

So perhaps the time has come for Barbie to swap her California Dream House for a pink retirement home in Florida.

Let's just hope Mattel has the sense to let her go (pun intended) gracefully.

 

DOLL WARS...

Lammily - the realistic fashion doll based on human proportions was dreamt up by digital artist Nickolay Lamm and brought to life thanks to more than 13,000 backers of Lamm's crowdfunding campaign, who pre-ordered over 19,000 dolls.

Elsa - Queen Elsa of the fictitious kingdom of Arendelle in the Disney movie Frozen has magical powers - she can create and control ice and snow, but they're not without complications...

Lottie - based on the actual proportions of the average nine-year-old girl, Lottie's interests and clothing reflect those of real children, and she doesn't wear jewellery, make-up or high heels.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Also in this section