Pink Turns Golden

On the 9th March 1959 at the New York Toy Fair, Mattel Creations revealed a new doll that would change playtime for girls, forever.

Barbie, the teenage fashion doll, wasn't to be nurtured like a baby doll or to become a miniature, Sunday best version of its owner, as with traditional standing dolls. No, Barbie was the star of fantasies acted-out by girls dreaming of what they wanted grown-up life to be like.

In 1959, an enormous 300,000 of the $3 dolls sold and her rise in worldwide popularity seemed unstoppable. However, in recent years sales in Barbie merchandise have slowed. Many of the doll's critics would take satisfaction that the end was nigh for the saccharine smile, improbable proportions and sit-up-a-beg eyes of the doll with dubious origins, that represented much of what was wrong with the world's expectations of womanhood.

However, the real culprit, I suggest, was a combination of a new range of dolls and a new generation of girls with a stronger desire to get closer to the grown-up world. The new dolls were Bratz, aspiring to more make-up, more jewellery and more fashion worn in a way that would make Barbie look like she was dressed by her grandmother. Coupled with a generation that recognises being famous as a career choice, the various vocations of Miss Barbara Millicent Roberts were left to 4 year olds to enjoy. Leaving many a once beloved Barbie to become an object of cosmetic and violent spite, to the girl that feels she has out-grown her. Beheaded Barbie - a modern day right of passage.

Now to some degree, at least, Barbie has been welcomed back into the toy box, especially as the star of modern re-tellings of fairy tales. Though, I don't see Barbie becoming anything more than a fleeting favourite for future generations in western countries. The karaoke machine, dance mat and other electronic items have meant that anyone can play at being a pop-star, movie actor, etc. Making dolls just too unreal for many children that master high-tech wizardry as if such knowledge was in their DNA.

Another 50 years of Barbie? I don't doubt it. Mattel's new multi-level store devoted to the doll in Shanghai is a first step into a country that has seen its toy market grow 20% year on year. The shops of the emerging economies is where the toys industry needs to be. In the west the toy market is at best static, while video games and music players become the wishes of increasingly younger children. However, the doll is not doomed in the west. It's still a sizeable part of most toy shops and will remain so. The range of collectibles dolls with adults in mind seem more important than ever; a fact underlined by much of the anniversary publicity.

Recent weeks have seen Barbie's first real fashion show, first department store and first home decor range for grown-up. So, after 50 years and 108 careers Barbie still somehow manages to be fresh and surprising. Happy birthday Barbie.

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