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Midlife could be bumpy for Barbie


Corilyn Shropshire

Houston Chronicle

May 1, 2008

Poor Barbie. Her next birthday could be a rough one, and not just because she's turning the big 5-0. At middle age, the iconic blonde's previously untouchable status is being challenged by such youthful powerhouses as Bratz and Hannah Montana.

With Barbie's sales down 12 percent in the U.S. since January, these decidedly more modern upstarts threaten to overtake her as America's top doll.

Could Barbie's heyday be coming to an end?

Not soon enough for those who believe Barbie's a poison pill to the self-esteem of the young girls who play with her.

"When I heard on the news that Barbie's sales were down I thought 'Hooray'!" said Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group for women. "Those of us who work with women would've been happy to see Barbie gone from the shelves years ago."

As much as some of her detractors would like to see her disappear, Barbie remains the most desired doll among girls around the globe, according to the National Retail Federation. The rivals nipping at Barbie's delicate heels have yet to catch up.

"I don't think Barbie's obsolete," lamented feminist writer Vanessa Valenti, who blogs on "I predict it will be a long time before we see the end of Barbie."

But the doll may have lost some of its appeal.

Olivia Clore, a 6-year-old in Pearland, barely touched the Barbie dolls she has received as gifts.

"I think she's bored with them," said her mother, Brooke Clore.

"There's not much to do with Barbie," said Clore, noting that Olivia is more of an action-type of girl, who likes to play the Nintendo Wii and do arts and crafts.

But if Olivia were to all-of-a-sudden pull Barbie and Bratz out of the closet, her mother wouldn't protest. Like Barbie, Olivia has long blond hair, blue eyes and a tiny nose, so the doll isn't likely to hurt her self-image, said Clore.

"She's a real girly-girl anyway," said Clore. "If she wants to put on makeup, she didn't get it from Barbie. She got it from me."

Barbie is no stranger to brouhaha she's been causing a fuss since her debut in 1959.

Much has been said about the icon's enduring image as the demure blonde with disproportionately large breasts, small waist and tiny, pointed feet (perfect for slipping into high heels).

For years, Barbie has been a source of ire for those who believe she promotes unrealistic beauty standards for women.

But that doesn't seem to be what's hurting her status.

Barbie may have a personality problem as in, she lacks one making it difficult for little girls to connect with her.

Not much is known about Barbie other than she's had a dream house, a dream car and, until an amicable breakup a few years ago, a beau named Ken. Her story line has offered little more than a series of changing careers, from cowgirl to astronaut, with outfits to match.

In other words, she's more famous for what she looks like than what she does.

That's unlike her contemporary peers, who are the stars of their own stories, according to Arnet.

Bratz characters may be clotheshorses, but they also tackle the same challenges that real girls face: high-school politics, snotty-girl cliques and races for school president.

Like the shy-and-clumsy-by-day Miley Cyrus, who at night pops on a wig and transforms into Hannah Montana, super-glam pop star, these dolls are brought to life and made real for little girls in books, movies and television shows.

"By blurring the lines between reality and fiction, Hannah Montana seems like a real person (to kids)," said Zach Oat, editor of Toyfare, an industry publication.

Grown-up Barbie, by contrast, is more like their mothers.

It's left Barbie's parent company, Mattel Inc., busy looking for ways to make her relevant for a new generation of girls, said Oat.

In recent years, Mattel has tried to bring Barbie off her pedestal with such direct-to-DVD movies as Barbie of Swan Lake and Barbie as the Island Princess.

The company launched, a virtual world for Barbie lovers, in the face of mounting competition from the Internet.

On Earth Day, Mattel introduced "eco-friendly" accessories, such as backpacks and hobo bags made of excess trimmings and fabrics from Barbie clothes.

Mattel plans to revive a line of Barbie dolls based on DC Comics super heroines, including Wonder Woman, Super Girl, Bat Girl and Black Canary, women with a back story, said Oat.'s Valenti said she hopes that Barbie's sales are down because girls are "rejecting the everything-pink, plastic-card-wielding, and shopaholic that Barbie seems to symbolize."

However, she figures Barbie's decline is more likely due to other toymakers' attempts to woo girls to what she called their "more contemporary forms of sexist stereotypes."

She singled out Bratz, the controversial multiethnic clique of pouty and fashion-addicted adolescents.

They may appear to be better role models because they are racially diverse and play sports, Valenti said, but that doesn't negate the damage they do in other areas.

Valenti bristled at what she called Bratz's emphasis on makeup and "scantily clad" fashion sense that "sexualizes little girls."

While the Bratz certainly aren't perfect, they do have some redeeming qualities, according to Arnet of the Women and Girls Foundation.

Bratz characters encourage girls to think that life isn't just about snagging a man.

They make it seem cool to have friends, dream big, become rock stars, even run for class president, Arnet said, as opposed to dating.

They are "a step up from Barbie," said Arnet.

She's more concerned about the Disney Princess line of toys and videos. Like Barbie, she said, the Disney Princess is "still steeped in the age of where all a girl is supposed to do is grow up and fall in love with a boy who will rescue her spiritually and financially."

But Brooke Clore doesn't see the harm in the Disney Princesses for her daughter Olivia, who owns every costume from the toy line.

"We just watch them because we like the classic story line," said Brooke Clore. "We're princess-y girls."


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