Disturbing news this week for Barbie: Mattel reported that revenue from the doll fell 12% in the second quarter that ended June 30. That’s Barbie’s fourth straight quarterly sales slide.
It’s tough to be a middle-aged female entertainer, and Barbie, at 54, is no different. Over the years, she has tried to rebrand herself -- Dentist Barbie, Astronaut Barbie -- but she's still struggling to keep a strong fan base. Mutating into the meme of the moment doesn’t seem to work for her. Becoming Hip Hop Barbie won’t make her a cult figure again.
I grew up when Barbie was Barbie, and that was enough to make her a sensation. I started with the pony-tailed Barbie with immobile joints, and moved on to Skipper, Midge and the more flexibly limbed Francie. (I took a brief detour from the Mattel family to Tressy, the doll with hair that grew out of a hole in her head.) I didn’t have the Dream House, but I did have Barbie’s Fashion Show, which, for me, might as well have been the Dream House. I was never able to amass enough of her wardrobe to keep me happy, but I do remember being thrilled when my mother splurged and bought me the green-and-blue tulle strapless formal gown from the collection.
Barbie was soignee at a time when that was what girls aspired to be. But now there’s less dress-up in real life -- or adult life, that is -- and that’s lamentable.
My niece, Elise, who just turned 13, loves clothes but never went through a Barbie phase; she never played with any dolls the way I did. Her objects of choice have gone from stuffed animals and soft squishy Hello Kitty toys to iPhones and iPads.
In fact, some in the toy industry suggest that kids are outgrowing traditional toys younger and moving on to electronic devices, according to The Times' story on Barbie’s earnings. Yet, the story notes, dolls are the fastest-growing segment of the toy industry this year. In that category, Mattel’s rather tartily-outfitted Monster High dolls did very well last quarter.
I’m not sure why. It helps that you can make them do things. “Clawdeen Wolf” can tilt her head back and howl at the sky, for example. But it seems that girls could just watch cable and see the Kardashians do that.
I think it’s possible that Barbie belongs to another era, or at least a different sensibility, from the prevailing one that has little girls obsessed with “Glee” stars and pop-music princesses. Taylor Swift is the new Barbie for 10-year-olds.
It may be that Barbie will move completely from child’s toy to adult collector’s item. It already is that to a certain extent. Vintage Barbies and their outfits and Dream House real estate have been resold or reissued for years. I once went to a gathering at a couple’s house where the thirtysomething wife had turned a room into a veritable museum of vintage Barbies, all of them arranged in stacked plastic cubes. Not a bad decorating idea.
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