Rinker on Collectibles: At 55, is Barbie Over the Hill?

The original 1958 Barbie. She will turn 55 years old this March. Is she still relevant in 2014?

In March of 2014, Barbie will celebrate her 55th birthday. G.I. Joe turns 50 in February. Both were born (introduced) at a New York Toy Fair. G.I. Joe became a member of the “Adventure Team” in 1970 and shrank to 3 ¾ inches in the early 1980s. While some 12-inch special editions have been issued, G.I. Joe essentially remains a diminished figure, lost among the superheroes and wrestlers on toy store shelves. While Barbie has fared (pun as to her origins definitely intended) better than G.I. Joe, she is showing her age—not in terms of wrinkles and sags—but popularity and relevance.

In Mae Anderson’s article “Barbie Fights For Her Life,” released by the Associated Press on July 18, 2013, she noted that Mattel’s Monster High and American Girl dolls, along with competition from other doll lines, are impacting Barbie sales. At the time of Anderson’s article, Barbie sales had declined for four straight quarters. The Barbie sales decline in the second quarter of 2013 was 12 percent. This decline is relative. Barbie remains a “billion-dollar” baby, a sales figure about which other doll manufacturers can only dream.

As Queen of the Hill—a position Barbie has enjoyed since the mid-1960s—she has faced a number of challengers. MGA Entertainment launched Bratz dolls in June 2001. By 2005, Bratz dolls were outselling Barbie in England. Barbie’s American sales fell by 30 percent in 2005. Mattel answered the challenge by suing MGA Entertainment, claiming designer Carter Bryant developed the Bratz concept while an employee of Mattel. Mattel won the initial court battles. In December 2008, MGA Entertainment ceased production. However, in April 2011, a federal jury ruled in favor of MGA. The fight continues. The success of Bratz dolls demonstrated Barbie’s vulnerability. The next serious doll challenger will likely dethrone her.

There are few anatomically correct dolls. Rather, dolls are symbolic representations, designed for play. Assuming they represent an ideal or role model is misguided. Yet, Barbie has been the brunt of body criticism from her inception. Comparing her to “the average woman” is unfair. Wikipedia’s Barbie reference notes: “A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/16 scale. Barbie’s vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist), and 33 inches (hips.). According to research by the University Central Hospital in Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for woman to menstruate. While the latter seems to fall into the TMI (too much information) category, it is helpful in understanding why Mattel never felt compelled to produce certain female hygiene necessities for Barbie.

If there’s a market, Matel is willing to make a Barbie to sell to it: The Barbie Collector Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II Bella doll.

Granted Barbie’s neck is too slender to support her head (early Barbie dolls featured removable heads), her wrists are too slim for her to lift heavy objects, her waist is so small there is no room for her body organs (when was the last time you played with a doll that had body organs), her ankles too thin to support her body weight, and her feet are size 3. Would Madame Alexander, Mary Gregory or other dolls measure up if subjected to the same comparison? 

Adult feminists are especially troubled by Barbie’s body. While decrying the fact that the figure is virtually unobtainable (do not tell that to Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova), they sound like Queen Gertrude who said “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Act II, Scene II). Far be it for me to accuse the feminist elite of body envy. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Mattel succumbed to the pressure from feminists in 1997 and reconfigured Barbie. Barbie’s breast size was reduced. Her waist was widened and more fat added to her hips. After the changes were made, only those with a veneer caliper could detect them. Few believed Mattel’s argument at the time that the changes were made so that Barbie could more easily fit into the contemporary fashions of the time.

Mattel has never taken a position on Barbie’s exact age. Since she ran for president many times, it is safe to assume she is at least 35, the legal age required to run for America’s highest office. If Barbie is 35, some of her teenage and twentysomething outfits suggest she has an unhealthy youth fantasy.

Author’s Aside: Barbie’s fourth run for president occurred in 2012. Barbie’s former presidential runs were 1992, 2004, and 2008. If Barbie was 35 in 1992, her chronological age in 2014 would be around 57, surprisingly close to her age as a doll. However, since Barbie was launched as a full-grown woman, add other 20 plus years to her chronological age.

Astronaut Barbie appeared in 1965. Sally Ride was America’s youngest female astronaut—32 years and 23 days when she flew on STS-7 in June 1983. Britain’s Helen P. Sharman is the youngest female astronaut to travel into space. She was 27 years and 11 months old when she went into space aboard Soyuz TM-12 in May 1991. Although global in sales and international in appearance on occasion, Barbie is American through and through. Given the age of the actual astronauts and if Barbie was true to life, her 1965 age (almost 50 years ago) was between 28 and 32. It is apparent that Barbie has the ability to add or trim years off her age, a characteristic that even a feminist would envy.

Barbie has had more than 125 careers. Mattel held a contest to determine her 125th career. The winner was a computer programmer. Wikipedia’s “Barbie Careers” divides them into categories—arts, business, education, medicine, military, miscellaneous (ranging from babysitter and cat burglar to movie star and ocean treasure explorer), political, public service, science and engineering, and transportation. The list did not specify some of the “adult” issues, such as the five Silkstone Lingerie Barbie dolls, which were most likely safely grouped in the “Fashion Model” designation. 

Barbie has had more than 125 careers, including in the fields of the arts, business, education, medicine, military, miscellaneous (ranging from babysitter and cat burglar to movie star and ocean treasure explorer), political, public service, science and engineering, and transportation.

Barbie’s many careers are fascinating, especially since her biography lists only a high school education. Barbara Millicent Roberts from Willows, Wis., attended Willows High School, although later accounts have her attending Manhattan International High School. There is no record of her attending any college or university.

Barbie’s many careers meant to inspire girls and broaden their horizons raise serious issues. Barbie never seems to hold a job for more than a few months. Could this mean she has an attention deficit challenge? G.I. Joe advanced through the ranks, eventually becoming a general. Barbie starts at the top of every career. There is no Barbie lesson that career achievement is the result of education, career growth and persistence. Is Barbie partially responsible for reinforcing an attitude among today’s high school and university students that their appearance in class is all that is required to earn a high grade?

“Coach Barbie,” a version of iconic Barbie Roberts doll dressed head to toe in a genuine Coach outfit, includes the Classic Trench in Tattersall, an exact replica of the popular Coach style, along with a striped sweater and an ultrasuede skirt. For Barbie doll loving fashionitas, it really does not get any better than this.

Barbie leads an easy life. Whatever she wants, she gets. She has had more than 40 pets, including a panda and lion cubs. Her vehicles include a pink corvette. Her fashions include accessories and dresses by some of the world’s leading fashion designers, including Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie, Vera Wang, Diane von Fürstenberg and Coach. Her shoe closet rivals that of Imelda Marcos. Barbie’s wealth is infinite. There is nothing she cannot afford.

Will the “real” Barbie please stand up? The answer is not as simple as it seems. As a doll, Barbie is a play toy. As fiction, Barbie is an object designed to stimulate imagination and ingenuity. When assigned a career, Barbie becomes real, opening the door to questions ranging from her body proportions to her ability to represent large communities of users.

Everyone wants a piece of Barbie, and Mattel has done its best to accommodate them. There is a Barbie for every ethnic group. There are Barbie exclusives for the Big Box stores and others, limited edition Barbies, and Barbie dolls designed for adult collectors. If there is a market, Mattel is willing to adapt Barbie to meet it. The tragedy is that this has diluted the brand. No collector can afford the time or finances to maintain a one-of-everything collection.

Mattel deserves credit for its many efforts to keep Barbie current, ranging from the incorporation of digital technology and allowing Barbie’s image to appear in film and television to creating a dozen facial redesigns (BOTOX Barbie). As Barbie ages, the fight to keep her relevant intensifies. Sales figures do not lie. Barbie’s “golden age” is in the distant past.

Linda’s and my 8-year old granddaughter Sofia is into the American Girl doll, much to the dismay of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s pocketbook. Barbie plays no role in her life or her playmates. The few Barbie dolls that we gave Sofia rest in the bottom of her toy box or have been donated to charity.

Is Sofia typical or atypical of her generation? Barbie has more riding on the answer than Mattel. Since Mattel owns the American Girl line, it is safe no matter what happens. As for Barbie, her space on American toy store shelves continues to shrink. Her future rests with international sales, although even these are exhibiting warning signs.

In summary, 55 years is a good run for any doll—fictional or living.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

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Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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