When I was 13, I still played with Barbie. OK, I did it in secret, in my basement, where no one in my neighborhood could see me playing with Barbie, but play I did, and it was with great reluctance that I packed up my Barbie dolls in their doll trunk for the last time at 14.
Back in Barbie's early heyday, in the 1960s and 1970s, my story wasn't unusual--girls often played with Barbie until their early teens. But today, girls are retiring their Barbies to the "outgrown toy" pile at earlier and earlier ages. Newsweek reported just last week that little girls are outgrowing Barbies as early as 8, and that Mattel has been so worried about this that they keep trying to produce "hip" and "cool" dolls like the My Scene Barbie dolls and the new Flava dolls to keep the interest of "tween" girls (girls 9-12 years old). The Bratz dolls have effectively exploited this 'tween market, taking market share from Mattel in this age group. But...this all begs the question: WHY are little girls outgrowing Barbie so early?
Barbie Is Too Pink
If Barbie was all frilly, cotton-candy pink when I was 13, I can assure you I wouldn't have wanted to play with her. When I was little, Barbie dolls were more sophisticated. They had real clothes--the clothes were perfect replicas of career outfits (nurses, business people) or glamorous copies of real-life evening and day wear. The accessories were realistic too--real telephones and realistic food. The clothing and accessories were quality miniatures, and fascinating for older girls. Today, everything in Barbie's world is not only cotton-candy pink, but frilly and sparkly and sweet, and very, very fake plastic. Mattel hasn't made realistic accessories for years, and the clothing tends to be cheaply made and frosted with glitter. Of course, given the pink, fantasy presentation of Barbie these days, she appeals more to a 3-year old than to an 11-year old. But, bring those same 11-year old girls into my doll shop and show them a quality collector's doll--the new Modern Circle dolls, or Elle Woods, or even Sandy in Grease, and they are fascinated.
No Room For Imagination
Its not bad enough that Barbie is seriously pink, but she also comes packaged in a well-defined role--imagination need not apply. When I had Barbie as a child, she was just Barbie. She might have had a twist and turn waist, or a new "American Girl" hairdo, or real eyelashes, but she was a blank slate. I got to choose her outfits, and her personality, and her roles. Little girls get Barbies today that have a defined personality--perhaps a "Fantasy Mermaid" or a "Ballet Barbie," or a "Happy Birthday" Barbie. This is fine for a 3 year old, or even a 6 year old. But, older girls have more sophisticated imaginations and they need more sophisticated playthings. Note that I didn't say "hip hop" playthings or "cool" playthings" or anything that looks "bling-bling."
It's Not All Mattel's Fault--The Culture Is To Blame
Of course, its not just that Mattel has taken Barbie and changed her into a toy for younger children. Our culture, a culture that takes children and makes them grow up too fast, is also to blame. Tweens are bombarded with images of hip and cool--with adult-like images of themselves in movies and on television, and in popular music. Tweens, instead of wanting to be children, want to grow up immediately into little adults. They wear revealing clothing (short, midriff blouses and low rider pants) and makeup, they see PG-13 and R movies, and they listen to edgy music--and, for the most part, their parents let them! Naturally, they no longer see themselves as playing with dolls. These are the kids that Bratz and Flavas are aimed at.
All of this has contributed to why girls are outgrowing Barbie at such a young age. Next week, we'll look at the Flava and Bratz dolls. Are these dolls really the solution?
Edited by Ellen Tsagaris, Doll Collecting Expert Guide