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Are kids over Barbie?
The iconic doll with the hourglass figure is struggling against newer, cooler rivals
Barbie, abandoned.
Barbie, abandoned. CC BY: Derek Gavey
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fter 54 years, the most iconic American doll is beginning to show her age.

Quarterly sales of Barbie dropped 12 percent, marking the fourth straight quarter of declines. Overall, the 21st century hasn’t been kind to the former queen of the playground. Not only did she break up with her longtime beau Ken, but Barbie sales in the U.S. have dropped by approximately 50 percent since 2000. All of which raises the question: Are today’s kids bored by Barbie?

It certainly appears that the new dolls on the block are pushing Barbie out of the picture. Mattel’s American Girl sales jumped 14 percent in the latest quarter, while sales of Mattel’s other dolls rose 23 percent, suggesting the hourglass classic is having trouble keeping abreast.

So, why is Barbie no longer the coolest doll? Isn’t being an astronaut-cheerleader-WNBA player-dolphin trainer enough for today’s generation of doll owners?

Compared to the other dolls out there, Barbie is an "unsocial luddite," writes Roberto A. Ferdman at Quartz. For one, Mattel’s Monster High dolls, which launched in 2010 and are based on teen character offspring of famous monsters (imagine vampires crossed with an all-girl punk band), have been a huge hit, with sales growing to more than $500 million since they hit the market. Mattel has also been far savvier with American Doll, "squeezing everything it can out of the craze, creating an entire ecosystem of products," says Ferdman. From the accessories, including furniture and clothes, to the movies, magazines, and stores where you can take your doll for tea, American Doll owners spend an estimated average of $500 per doll. (The doll itself with her book runs a cool $110, a lot more than your average Barbie.)

"Those real-life interactive experiences are proving attractive in an era of child-oriented mobile devices and new technologies," writes Ferdman.

Barbie’s physique and appearance may also seem antiquated to today’s children and, perhaps more importantly, parents who are actually shelling out the cash. In the last few decades Mattel has faced criticism "about her unrealistic body measurements and the passive image of women the doll presented," writes Thandiwe Vela at the Globe and Mail. Christina Martins, a mother of 10- and 7-year-old girls, tells the Globe and Mail that she prefers American Girl dolls because they’re "less hourglass, less makeup, the hair’s more realistic, someone they can relate to more."

But don’t write off Barbie just yet. Mattel is making a concerted effort for Barbie to keep up with the times. "To mirror consumer fascination with all things digital, new Barbie products have taken on a distinctively techy tone," writes Mae Anderson at the Associated Press. New items include a Digital Makeover mirror, which "turns an iPad into an interactive mirror," and the Barbie Digital Dress Doll, which uses "LED and touch screen technology," writes Anderson.

And Barbie is still a solid money-maker. The doll and her branded merchandise bring in about $3 billion in annual revenue for Mattel. "Tradition, nostalgia, and a still-gigantic share of the doll market are powerful shields against the fluctuation of tends," writes James Norton at The Christian Science Monitor. Tanya Lee Stone, author of The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, is quoted saying, "Barbie was always intended to be a vehicle for a girl’s imagination, and I don’t think that concept can ever go out of style."

Mattel is certainly hoping that’s the case.

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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