Barbie turns 55 today, and she doesn’t look so good.
Despite a flurry of PR in the constant quest to keep America’s original teenage fashion model doll relevant—including a controversial Sports Illustrated spread and a partnership with the Girl Scouts—Barbies aren’t flying off the shelves like they used to. Girls are ditching the teen dream, yes for iPads, but also for low-tech activity toys and for dolls with more interesting stories to tell.
While it’s tempting to credit feminists and academics with winning a long-waged war on the hyper-sexy doll’s promotion of an unhealthy body image and an outdated, milky white vision of beauty, the ultimate reason for her domestic demise might actually be due to the fate that often awaits some old ladies: Barbie got boring.
A study from Oregon State University released this week shows playing with a Barbie actually weakens a girl’s career ambition. Girls who were given Barbies to play with thought they could do fewer “boy jobs,” than girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head—results that held whether they played with a fashion Barbie or her stethoscoped counterpart.
Also this week, two advocacy groups blasted the Girl Scouts for partnering with Barbie on a career choice booklet and a pink patch that sports a cloyingly stupid “Be Anything, Do Everything” slogan and a Barbie logo. “Holding Barbie, the quintessential fashion doll, up as a role model for Girl Scouts simultaneously sexualizes young girls, idealizes an impossible body type, and undermines the Girl Scouts’ vital mission,” said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of the groups leading the charge.
Barbie isn’t immune to bad press and in 2013, it showed. Though she still dominates a steady $2.7 billion doll market, she peaked in 2002 and worldwide year over year sales dropped a whooping 13 percent over the most recent holiday quarter, six percent over the entire year.
Her abysmal numbers are a continuing trend for a company that’s struggled to recover from a Barbie crash caused in part by the success of competing brands under the Mattel umbrella. This year’s young stars include the infinitely more interesting Monster High dolls, gothy figurines inspired by creatures in classic monster movies, and American Girl dolls, an expensive but experiential toy that made up 14 percent of Mattel’s total sales in 2013 and continues to climb.
“The reality is we just didn’t sell enough Barbie dolls,” Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton said in the most recent earning calls to explain another disappointing quarter.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the year after her release at the 1959 International Toy Fair, Mattel sold over 350,000 of the $3 mini-mannequins. Little girls threw aside their pudgy doll babies and begged their parents for the first American doll with a “teen-age” hourglass figure. Mattel successfully marketed them with jingles copping to the aspirational nature of their use. In the first commercial a woman purrs, “Someday, I’m gonna be ‘xactly like you / Til then I know just what I’ll do / Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”
Over one billion Barbies have been sold worldwide since a 1964 article in The Saturday Evening Post called her “the hottest toy to come along since the balloon.”
She’s gone through several cosmetic changes over the years: eyelashes, a rotating waist, and a 90’s redesign that shrunk her breasts and widened her midsection. Perhaps the most feminist of them all came in 1971 when Malibu Barbie became the first of her kind to look straight ahead, instead of wearing a demure side-glance.
“We’re always challenging ourselves to think differently about Barbie and how we can continue to keep her relevant,” Lisa McKnight, Mattel senior vice president of marketing told The New York Times in February.
If these slight changes have been the secret to Barbie’s longtime success, why aren’t they working now? Why don’t little girls want to play with her anymore?
It could be that 55 years of criticism have finally caught up to her.
The impact of Barbie on the social and emotional development of girls was questioned from the start. At best, she’s been called confusing, and at worst, a menace to society.
Read More: Here