Years ago, it wasn't unusual to still be playing with Barbie at 13. OK, maybe it was in secret, in a basement, where no one in the neighborhood could see her, but it was still with great reluctance that Barbie dolls were packed into their doll trunks for the last time upon transitioning into full-blown teen-hood at 14.
In fact, in Barbie's early heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, girls often played with Barbie until their early teens. But today, girls are retiring their Barbies to the "outgrown toy" pile at earlier and earlier ages. Newsweek reported that little girls are outgrowing Barbies as early as 8, and that Mattel has been so worried about this that they keep trying to produce "hip" and "cool" dolls like the "My Scene Barbie" dolls and the new "Flava dolls" to keep the interest of tween girls (girls 9-12 years old). The Bratz dolls have effectively exploited this tween market, taking market share from Mattel in this age group. But...this all begs the question: WHY are little girls outgrowing Barbie so early?
Barbie Is Too Pink
If Barbie was all frilly, cotton-candy pink when I was 13, I can assure you I wouldn't have wanted to play with her. When I was little, Barbie dolls were more sophisticated. They had real clothes, perfect replicas of career outfits (nurses, business people, etc.) or glamorous copies of real-life evening and day wear. The accessories were realistic too, with real telephones and realistic food. The clothing and accessories were quality miniatures and fascinating for older girls. Today, everything in Barbie's world is not only cotton-candy pink, but frilly and sparkly and sweet -- and very, very fake plastic. Mattel hasn't made realistic accessories for years, and the clothing tends to be cheaply made and frosted with glitter. Of course, given the pink, fantasy presentation of Barbie these days, she appeals more to a 3-year-old than to an 11-year-old. But, bring those same 11-year old-girls into a collector's doll shop and show them a quality doll--the new Modern Circle dolls, or Elle Woods, or even Sandy in Grease--and they are universally fascinated.
No Room for Imagination
It's not bad enough Barbie is seriously pink, but she also comes packaged in a well-defined role for which imagination need not apply. Decades ago, Barbie was just Barbie. She might have had a twist and turn waist, or a new "American Girl" hairdo, or real eyelashes, but she was a blank slate. Girls got to choose her outfits, her personality, and her roles. Little girls today get Barbies with defined personalities: "Fantasy Mermaid," "Ballet Barbie," or "Happy Birthday" Barbie. This is fine for a 3-year-old or even a 6-year-old. But older girls have more sophisticated imaginations, and they need more sophisticated playthings. Note that I didn't say "hip hop," "cool," or "bling."
It's Not All Mattel's Fault--The Culture Is to Blame
Of course, it's not just that Mattel has taken Barbie and changed her into a toy for younger children. Our culture, a culture that takes children and makes them grow up too fast, is also to blame. Tweens are bombarded with adult-like images of themselves in movies, on television, and in popular music. Instead of wanting to be children, tweens want to grow up immediately into little adults. They wear midriff blouses, low rider pants, and makeup; they see PG-13 and R-rated movies; and they listen to edgy music. Naturally, they no longer see themselves as playing with dolls. These are the kids that Bratz and Flavas are aimed at.