Mattel chief executive Bryan Stockton resigned Tuesday after a five-quarter sales slump and three years of flagging sales of the company’s best-known brand, Barbie. It is, however, definitely not the end of the Barbie phenomenon, or, at any rate, of what Barbie stands for: An unattainable ideal of princess-like femininity that is all about looks, not brains. I would know – I have a 4-year-old daughter.
The Barbie sales slump has already given rise to gloating headlines: “Bye Bye Barbie,” “Mattel’s Barbie out of Fashion with Today’s Girls,” “Barbie Dull?”, “Barbie ‘Frozen' Out” (geddit?). “Should Barbie retire, too?” Quartz wondered on learning the Stockton news. And it stands to reason that the impossibly-proportioned doll first created in 1959 should finally be losing favor with girls.
Barbie is directly descended from Lilli, a postwar German cartoon character (and doll, marketed to adults) known for persuading sugar daddies to complement her meager budget. That parentage is now all but forgotten, but Lilli’s DNA lives on. Barbie is a pin-up beauty. Her face and figure have been periodically updated, but even the latest, 2009 iteration (with 12 different face styles, ranging in color from moon-pale to ebony) still has impossibly long, slim legs, a wasp-thin waist and puffy lips. She is no feminist ideal.
And then there are all the accessories you can buy for Barbie. In 2014, the “Barbie 3-Story Dream Townhouse” was the brand’s best-selling product. Trailing somewhere behind were Barbie’s various lines of clothing, furniture, luggage, cars and all sorts of professional accessories. “Perhaps what makes Barbie such a perfect icon of late capitalist constructions of femininity is the way in which her persona pairs endless consumption with the achievement of femininity and the appearance of an appropriately gendered body,” said a 2006 “Reader in Promoting Public Health” edited by Jenny Douglas.
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Like most parents this century, my wife and I have encountered plenty of such criticism. There’s a lot of truth to it: We wouldn’t like our younger daughter to grow up craving clothes, handbags and “3-story dream townhouses.” Nor would we want her to strive for that too-perfect figure, and as for that pouty face, I hope I never see our 4-year-old Nina wearing it. So we never bought her a Barbie – until she asked for one.
Nina owns an iPad, and she’s good at finding entertainment for herself on YouTube and in the Apple store. One day she stumbled upon one of more than 20 made-for-TV animated Barbie films (something about mermaids), and she was hooked – she’s been watching them all. Of course she wanted the doll, too. And rather than explain about “capitalist constructions of femininity,” we bought one.
I know from talking to other parents – and from the time my stepdaughter, now 12, was growing up – that girls go through the so-called “princess phase.” The name explains it all: They like to pretend they are princesses, wear pink dresses and glittery things, imagine they live in a palace, ride in pretty horse-drawn carriages and meet princes. Barbie fits in well with the princess stage in a girl’s development. Despite all of Mattel’s efforts to make her modern and push her into challenging careers, the doll inhabits a fairy-tale world. She is a princess type.
Mattel executives clearly understand this. On an October earnings call, Stockton said:
“We know girls love the princess play pattern. We have deep experience with it and we’ve had great success with ourselves in the past. Barbie, alone, has had a number of princess-themed executions with products, licensed merchandise and DVDs over the last decade. So we have some time and the number of ideas to fill this 2016 revenue gap and we'll share these ideas with you as we get closer to their execution.”
This year’s Barbie TV movie is called “Barbie in Princess Power.” It’s far from enough, though, to close the revenue gap Stockton mentioned – the one that Disney will open up by moving the production of dolls based on its 2014 animation hit, Frozen, and on their entire princess line, away from Mattel and to Hasbro. For Mattel, this will likely mean a loss of about $300 million a year, according to Stockton. A “Frozen” set made by Mattel was the 1oth bestselling traditional toy in 2014.
My daughter has seen “Frozen” about 100 times, and she still watches it from time to time. She also has the “Frozen” dolls. The princesses, Else and Anna, look almost exactly like the modern Barbies – in fact, I can’t tell them apart without their clothes on. Something tells me Hasbro is not going to change them much.
The thing about Elsa and Anna is that they do not have the stigma associated with Barbie and her more than 60-year-long history. They are fresh personages out of a fairy tale that pooh-poohs the notion of romantic love and stresses achievement. (They are also not as demanding as Barbie in terms of accessories.) No wonder they are winning out in competition with Barbie: Conscientious parents liked them better, and little girls in the “princess phase” loved them just as much.
Mattel may have mishandled the Disney license (having published children’s books in partnership with Disney, I know the company can be an extremely demanding partner), or Hasbro, needing growth in the girl segment, may have offered better terms. In any case, those would be business matters. The need for a princess-type ideal lives on in 3- and 4-year-old girls, and Barbie – as well as a growing number of competitors – can satisfy it.
Sure, she finds it harder and harder to compete, but bad times can boost creativity, and I wouldn’t write Mattel off yet. Last year, it started plotting a major movie release with Sony, which, if it comes to fruition, may well breathe new life into the original glamorous role model. And even if Mattel squanders the Barbie magic, it will live on in other long-legged dolls with giraffe-like eyelashes.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.