For better or worse, after a slump lasting for years, Barbie is queen of dolls again.
As dolls go, Barbie has had her ups and downs. She's achieved iconic status, amid multiple alterations to her figure, face and wardrobe. She's survived a very public breakup with Ken and withstood fierce competition from other dolls who've snagged some of her market share.
Sales also have slumped in recent years, as they did at the beginning of the women's movement in early 1970s — when "girls weren't supposed to just go to the prom and marry Ken," says Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant.
Yet somehow, as she always does, Barbie has managed to bounce back — and not just because she's made of rubbery plastic.
Partly nostalgia on the part of mothers and partly by adding a little bit of "nastiness," which apparently is an essential marketing ingredient for selling things to girls, numbers are good for this toy, whatever that might mean for the state of our girls. It's interesting that one element is an appeal to softness, which the feminists must hate as much as domesticity.
More recently, Mattel has tapped into younger girls' fascination with fairies and princesses, with lines known as "Fairytopia" and "12 Dancing Princesses," which include movies, a stage show and prominent play on Barbie's interactive Web site. Another new Barbie — the "Chat Diva" — carries a toy cell phone and can lip sync and bop her head to music when an iPod is plugged in. And to keep older girls interested, Mattel has developed product lines with cosmetic, perfume and clothing makers.
It would seem that even soccer playing Barbie and presidential candidate Barbie didn't work, whereas princesses and girlfriends provide that elusive marketing success. One cannot rewire girls, even over the course of 40 hard-driven years of trying. Girls want community, peer support, and fantasy that all will end well. Too bad it has to be wrapped in spike heels and a ridiculous bosom, but at least androgyny has crashed and burned with the 10-15 year old crowd. Now if we could only sell virtue in stylised "rubbery plastic," we'd all be saints.