Bye-bye Barbie. There’s a new girl in town. She doesn’t care that much for fashion or Malibu beach parties. She’s kind of ordinary looking, a little chubby too and that makes her approachable. Her name is American Girl and she’s eating your lunch, including the bread rolls, doll.
Barbie’s put up a good fight but this champ is 55-years-old now, and even a heavyweight fighter has to throw in the towel sometime. That time could be now. Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls just announced their quarterly earnings and worldwide sales of the wasp-waisted doll feminists love to hate are down 12%, while those of her nemesis, Saige, (yes, that’s her name, God help us), are up 14% or $78.2 million (USD).
I’m grateful that I was a kid while Barbie was still in her ascendency because I missed that whole era of being made to feel guilty about playing with a dead-hot doll who didn’t worry about self-actualization or self-esteem issues; she just wanted to party and look gorgeous. My first doll was the quasi-earnest Back-to-School Barbie. She came with a sharply-tailored, apple-red coat cinched at the waist, matching books satchel and red high-heeled pumps. Simply divine.
My father spoiled me so she was only one of many different dolls I received over the years but her innate glamour put her way ahead of the pack. The other dolls had glassy, bulging baby-blue eyes, chubby cheeks and dimples and wore gingham dresses or aprons. They had rounded bellies and some had strings in their backs. When you pulled on them a recording came on that said “Mama” in a nasally robotic voice. They were designed to ignite maternal instincts but instead they found themselves unceremoniously stripped and tossed into the yard to languish in the sandbox or molt under the raspberry bushes, while I devoted myself to my Barbies, making evening gowns out of Reynolds Aluminum foil and brushing their cascades of hair.
Back then, Barbie was the only game in town for a girl who hankered for a little fashion razzle-dazzle. There were no Bratz dolls, (the bridge-and-tunnel version of Barbie), or fashion TV shows and Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs were not household names yet. Now girls can get a fashion fix anywhere, anytime. Barbie’s fate is not dissimilar to that of another 60s brand: Playboy. The explosion of online porn disrupted the dominance of a few brands of flesh peddlers.
American Girl markets itself as a company that provides girls, ages 3-12, with age-appropriate inspirational dolls that will encourage her to “stand tall, reach higher and dream big”. But dreams ain’t cheap. The dolls sell for $110 (USD). Tea parties at the brand’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, cost $20/head. And the brand has a gazillion product and service extensions to vacuum up your spare change.
But don’t cry for Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer. In 1998, the company purchased American Girl from Pleasant Company for $700 million (USD). Meanwhile, Barbie, a working girl since the 1950s, is looking into a gated retirement community in Boca Raton.