CHICAGO – As dolls go, Barbie has had her ups and downs. She's achieved iconic status, amid multiple alterations to her figure, face and wardrobe. She's survived a very public breakup with Ken and withstood fierce competition from other dolls who've snagged some of her market share.
Sales also have slumped in recent years, as they did at the beginning of the women's movement in early 1970s — when "girls weren't supposed to just go to the prom and marry Ken," says Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant.
Yet somehow, as she always does, Barbie has managed to bounce back — and not just because she's made of rubbery plastic.
Mattel Inc. (MAT), which makes Barbie, says sales so far this year have been up for the first time in several years. And one survey of parents done by the National Retail Federation found that Barbie is the top toy for girls this holiday season (TMX Elmo was first for boys).
So what is it about Barbie? How — nearly 50 years after Mattel introduced her — has she managed to thrive, especially in a time when classic toy makers have found themselves scrambling to attract new audiences?
Ask a girl who plays with Barbie, and you'll get this kind of answer: "I always wanted to grow up to be like a Barbie. I don't know why — but she's kind of cool," says Cassidy Moock, a fifth-grader in Lorton, Va., who's had Barbies since she was little and still plays with a Barbie styling head to practice hair and makeup. "She has her own house. She's got cool clothes — better than when my mom had them."
In other words, part of Barbie's charm — and Mattel's success with her — has come from an ability to keep up with the times.
"Barbie has consistently reinvented herself," says Byrne, who's based in New York.
She's evolved, for instance, from a cat-eyed girl in a bathing suit in 1959 to a go-go dancer, a tanned beach bum, and eventually a career woman whose resume includes presidential candidate, rock star, astronaut and World Cup soccer player. There've also been black and Hispanic Barbies, over the years, and those that've represented more than 45 nationalities.
More recently, Mattel has tapped into younger girls' fascination with fairies and princesses, with lines known as "Fairytopia" and "12 Dancing Princesses," which include movies, a stage show and prominent play on Barbie's interactive Web site. Another new Barbie — the "Chat Diva" — carries a toy cell phone and can lip sync and bop her head to music when an iPod is plugged in. And to keep older girls interested, Mattel has developed product lines with cosmetic, perfume and clothing makers.
It's a strategy that works with this generation of girls and their moms — many of whom also grew up playing with Barbie — says Marian Salzman, a trend-watcher and chief marketing officer for advertising firm JWT Worldwide.
"Her look is more in than out again — Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, Victoria Beckham. They all bring with them in your face glamour," Salzman says. "And that's a nice balance to the traditionalism of it being Barbie.
"So it's a chance for kids and moms to experience nostalgia ... and just enough nastiness to be 2006."
Mattel also has tried to position Barbie as a "a blank palette," Salzman says, allowing her to appeal to a wide range of girls.
On Barbie's Web site, girls are encouraged to "B who U wanna B — B-a-r-b-i-e," whether it's a "fashionista," a "gamer" or a "princess."
It's that universal feel that appealed to Leah Appel when she played with Barbie as a kid.
"Yes, she is 'perfect Barbie.' But when I was a little kid, I didn't see it that way," says Appel, a 22-year-old photographer in Washington, D.C. "I pretended she was whoever — she was my friend, Barbie."
Her fascination with Barbie prompted her to create photographs depicting life-sized Barbie doing everyday things — among them, sitting on a toilet or eating at a fast-food restaurant.
Of course, there are those who still see Barbie as promoting a narrow beauty ideal — blonde, blue-eyed and stick-thin.
"We're living today in a hyper-competitive society where there's a tremendous amount of pressure on kids to be perfect — to be dominant, to win," says Jessie Klein, an assistant professor of sociology who studies gender issues at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "In this atmosphere, it makes sense that girls would be interested in Barbie."
It's caused some Barbie fans to second-guess themselves.
"When I have a daughter, I can't help but truly wonder if I should advocate Barbie as much as my mother did," says Gigi Gallinger-Dennis, a 29-year-old San Francisco resident who received a tan Malibu Barbie at age 2.
Chuck Scothon, a senior vice president who oversees girls' products at Mattel, is aware that Barbie can be controversial. But he says the company will continue to take its cues from girls — not adults — when deciding how to change or market the doll.
"We should let them be kids," he says, "and enjoy a doll."