Victor Margolin

One of the most privileged populations in America today is dolls. They are the beneficiaries of powerful forces of consumption that seek ever-new audiences for the plethora of goods that is available for sale. In earlier times, dolls were not thought to be such active participants in the consumption process. They were for the teaching of nurturing. Young doll owners, and here I hesitate to specify girls, learned to enact rituals of caring and caretaking with their dolls. These were the recipients of lavish affection and apparently did not mind not having elaborate wardrobes, homes, or vehicles. Well, Barbie changed all that. Barbie was a fashion plate, whom one acquired to dress rather than care for. After all, Barbie was already of an age, somewhat indeterminate nonetheless, when she could drive, keep house, and form romantic alliances with the opposite sex. This, of course, positioned her as a high-end consumer who needed a fabulous wardrobe, knock out furniture, and a dazzling car to tool around in.

As if Barbie and her needs weren’t enough to soak up the allowances of pre-pubescent young folks eager to shop for their glamorous alter egos, Mattel invented Ken as another magnet to attract consumers to its ancillary products that now included a line of male as well as female fashion. With the introduction of Barbie and Ken, Mattel redefined the doll’s function from a helpless creature that needed caretaking to a stylish young consumer who required a steady supply of consumables, provided by “good parents” who would deny their own needs to support their high-living wards. Once Mattel demonstrated that it could persuade its young customers to give up their allowances to finance the lavish lifestyles of Barbie and Ken, it remained for American Girl Place, now also owned by Mattel, to up the ante by multiplying the number of dolls that one could dress and care for and elevating the costs of their wardrobes and other accoutrements. Competition was also provided by the line of Bratz dolls which in some countries has exceeded the popularity of Barbie and Ken.

The dolls offered by American Girl Place are more life-like than Barbie or the Bratz girls and more persuasive as surrogate children. Unlike Barbie and Ken, they are all pre-teen and thus require extensive care. Although they are of different classes and ethnicities, they are subjects with upper-middle class needs. They require extensive wardrobes that change with the seasons as well as sessions with an actual hair stylist. Whereas Barbie’s outfits were cheap – her shoes were simply tiny pumps made of molded plastic – the outfits that American Girl Place sells are of a far higher quality and consequently cost much more. American Girl Place is also a culture. The stores are destinations and are heavily stocked with books, clothes, and other goods for sale. There are theaters that present plays based on the girls’ lives and restaurants. Thus stores function as Macys in Miniature, providing all the components of a grown-up shopping experience. This is a far more effective way to part families with their dollars than stocking Barbie and Ken outfits in low-end packaging at Toys R Us, which has claimed Barbie and Ken as its own. Neither Barbie, Ken, nor the myriad dolls in the American Girl Place collection could exist without an intense culture of consumption such as the one in which Americans live. When it becomes difficult to sell customers more goods for themselves, what better way to increase spending than to create needy recipients of their largesse such as dolls. Such consumption opportunities are part of a culture in which buying things for one’s self and others has been inextricably conflated with the expression of feelings. As a result, new populations create vast markets for products and services that would not otherwise exist. But no one ever said that dolls should not live as well as their owners aspire to.

Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding editor of DesignIssues, is a regular contributor to Design-Altruism-Project.

One Response to “The Valet of the Dolls”

  1. Amber Sperry Says:

    It’s true that dolls are more pampered than we humans are, and probably always will be. We give them what we aspire to have. These dolls have gone from being a learning tool of how to care for a child, to now being designed just as play toys.
    Once Barbie came along, I don’t think there was ever any going back to dolls that were made for teaching kids how to nurture for young. The idea had changed and so had the design. Dolls were now being designed for fashion and needed the best of everything to go with them. There was a clothing, furniture, housing, and a shoe design line just to accommodate this Barbie doll. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could have our own clothing lines made just for us, and then someone else would buy them and give them to us? We wouldn’t have to spend a nickel. Kids have to have the accessories once they have the doll. I personally think this was just a design to make the consumer spend more money on dolls and accessories for their children than they already did.
    Now there is a new line of dolls that are designed to be more lifelike and more diverse. The more diverse these dolls are the more kids in different cultures and ethnicities and races can relate to them. They are designed more everyone, rather than how Barbie was for the longest time just made Caucasian. Although these dolls are designed for many more races and ethnicities, they are also designed to make money for the company. The clothes are higher quality, therefore higher cost to the consumer, but every doll needs a couple sets of clothing.
    Well, there are other things that were created around the design of the dolls to make the company revenue. These items were designed but not as necessity, but for want. Kids see the books and clothes and ask their parents. Which, this is a smart move on that of the company because we are living in a culture of consumers. The parents will purchase the items for the kids then, or else wait for a holiday or special occasion and get the items. We give gifts as a selfless act to make others happy; hence, the sense of altruism in our culture.