En Garde, Princess!If I were Barbie, the 11-and-a-half-inch princess who has dominated the doll world since 1959, I would keep an eye on the newly formed SWAT team of action figures known as Get Real Girls. I wouldn't raise the pink drawbridge or dump the radio-controlled alligators into the moat. Not just yet, anyway. But I would watch my bony little back.
I do not say this lightly. As the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, I know that the princess has systematically annihilated each and every one of her competitors, beginning in 1963, when Marx Toys introduced a shabby wannabe, Miss Seventeen, with whom Barbie swiftly wiped the nursery floor. There were legal issues involved, but they did not ultimately matter. Miss Seventeen was a wreck--jaundiced skin, shoddily implanted hair, a veritable Miss Teen Runaway--and kids simply didn't want her. Consequently, when I was asked to evaluate these new pretenders to Barbie's throne, I knew I had to move fast. Barbie's challengers do not tend to last long.
When I saw the Get Real Girls, however, I was thrown off guard. These dolls are far from slipshod wannabes. And the time seems right for a toy-world upset. Last year, something happened at Mattel that had once seemed impossible: Jill Barad, the company's Barbie-identified, pink-suit-wearing (a bubble-gum shade) juggernaut of a CEO, resigned--after making such a mess of the company that its stock lost 70 percent of its value. If Barad, who built the Barbie line from about $250 million (when she arrived as a low-level manager in the 1980s) to $1.7 billion last year, could suffer a reversal of fortune, why not Barbie herself? This warranted a closer look: at Barbie and Barad, and the new, punchy young upstarts, the Get Real Girls and their creator, Julz Chavez.
The Get Real team has six members: Gabi, a soccer player, Corey, a surfer, Skylar, a snowboarder, Nakia, a basketball player, Claire, a scuba diver, and Nini, a mountaineer. You won't find these girls in toeshoes or figure skates. They are a tough, muscular lot, whose swelling biceps and chiseled abdominals are as much inspired by Brandi Chastain, the U.S. soccer player best known for ripping off her shirt after last year's World Cup victory, as by the original pumped-up action figure, GI Joe. (In fact, if you do rip the shirt off a Get Real Girl, you will find a trim little sports bra covering up a modest package in place of Barbie's bare, bullet-shaped bosoms.)
Chavez is not your archetypal doll designer. A cousin to Cesar Chavez, the legendary 1960s labor leader, she worked in toy development for 15 years, several of which were spent behind the fuchsia ramparts of Barbie's own manufacturer, Mattel. Chavez's dolls, however, do not bear a trace of fuchsia. Their boxes are blue and orange.
"Our stealth name for the project, while we were working on it, was, 'No Pink,'" Chavez told me over coffee recently. But the defiant moniker didn't make it to market. "If you call a concept 'No Pink,' Mattel will come after you big time," she explained.
Mattel will usually come after you anyway. In the fall of 1985, for example, the Barbie team learned from undercover sources that Hasbro was planning to release Jem, a new rock-star fashion doll, the following February. "Within minutes," a former Mattel executive told me, "we had a war council." Within an hour, they had a plan: Pull together a rock group for Barbie. Although Barbie and the Rockers hurt Jem's sales, the Hasbro doll destructed on her own. At 12 inches tall, she looked like a surly drag queen in Barbie's clothes. "If you're going to go up against General Motors," a dealer in collector merchandise explained, "you'd better be the same size."
Similarly, in 1991, Barbie's most recent challenger, Happy to Be Me, fizzled after a promising start. From Allure to People magazine, journalists applauded her alleged "realistic" proportions--closer to the Get Real Girls' 33-24-33 than to Barbie's (roughly) 40-18-22. But the doll did not live up to its press. Created by a Midwestern mom who lacked toy industry experience, Happy was produced cheaply and badly. The doll was repulsive--from its lackluster wardrobe, which seemed to consist solely of frumpy housecoats, to its sparse clumps of hair, scattered so meagerly that the total effect recalled Sen. William Proxmire's hair transplant.
It satisfied neither girls' craving for an over-the-top prom queen nor their mothers' desire for a tasteful, realistic role model. Like Barbie, Happy looked like she belonged in a trailer park, but if Barbie were cast in the role of neighborhood slut, Happy was the careworn housewife who had let herself go. She may have been happy to be herself, but it was obvious, even to kids, that she had extremely low standards.
The Get Real Girls, by contrast, are beautifully designed miniatures. If nothing else, Chavez's experience at Mattel taught her that details matter. The Get Real Girls are equipped with meticulous replicas of the sporty styles that modern girls covet--exquisite zippered backpacks, painted hiking boots, two-tone beach slippers. Chavez says her girls would "look great in a tight black dress," even if they had to steal it from Barbie. And despite their slightly obtrusive ball-like joints, I am inclined to agree (even if their sneaker-ready feet mean that they must pair their cocktail dresses with sensible flats). They also have great, shiny, abundant hair. This is a crucial asset, since "hairplay," as Mattel market research types call it, is a big draw for girls. "Each doll," Chavez reminded me, "comes with a hairbrush."
These dolls express the ethos of their time, which has changed considerably in the 40 years since Barbie first wobbled out in her steep stiletto mules. Today, the adjective "ladylike" has bitten the dust. Parents encourage daughters to sweat and grunt in physical competition, and even supermodels sport muscles obtained by logging hours at the gym. Chastain, immortalized in her sports bra, is a role model for girls, one that meets with the approval of most middle-class parents.
Although Mattel equipped its princess for such country-club sports as tennis, at the time of her creation, the idea of a woman participating in a so-called extreme sport was inconceivable. In the 1960s, even swaggering gym teacher types rarely engaged in anything more vigorous than golf or bowling. Barbie, to be sure, has been issued paraphernalia for rougher sports, but with her '60s-era pinup girl figure, she looks ridiculous in a basketball uniform--as if she borrowed it for a photo shoot and cannot wait to give it back.
And the Internet may do for the Get Real Girls what television advertising did for Barbie. In 1955, Mattel became the first toy company to broadcast commercials during children's programs that were aimed directly at underage viewers. Before this time, children were not thought of as significant consumers, and no company had made a large-scale attempt to shape or exploit their buying habits.
Chavez's site speaks directly to girls. It is reminiscent of the early Barbie commercials, in which the doll was deliberately portrayed in a subversive way that, during market research sessions, had unnerved parents and delighted kids. Back then, of course, subversive meant unabashedly sexy. The Get Real Girls are subversive in a different way: jocky, and up-to-date on music that may be grating to parental ears. At the Get Real Girl site, users can choose among "dance," "groove," "lounge" and "tune out" sounds. Every single music selection had a thumping beat that irritated me immensely--a sure sign that kids will groove on the music.
It isn't as if Barbie doesn't have her own Web site. She does. It's just shockingly uncool and hopelessly out of date. Hit an icon labeled "Storytelling," for example, and you are assaulted by insipid harp music reminiscent of Walt Disney's TV show during the 1950s.
Although GetRealGirl.com is intended to sell dolls, it does not promote specific products by other manufacturers. "I don't want to tell kids that you have to buy brands to be cool," Chavez explained. "We will not post banner ads on our site." (On the other hand, Chavez does encourage kids to obtain certain accessories, even if their makers aren't specified. "I wish I had an MP3 player like Sky does," Corey, for example, laments in the course of her adventure.) The deemphasis on brands, however, places Chavez in sharp contrast to Barad, who coaxed high-end manufacturers like Ferrari to license Barbie-size versions of their products, as way to teach brand recognition to kids.
Born Julia Chavez in 1962, Chavez shortened her name to Julz when, after graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts, she applied for jobs designing toys not specifically intended for girls. As Julia, she got polite rejections; as Julz, she was invited to show her portfolio. In person, her gender was abundantly clear: When I met her, she was chic, thin and stylishly turned out in a turtleneck and leather jacket.
Yet her demeanor was a far cry from that of Barad, who made grossly exaggerated femininity her trademark. Barad dressed to intimidate: The suit she wore when I met her while researching my book cost more than my car. During company presentations, she would often dance, cheerleader fashion, to music from product promotions--a practice that appalled Wall Street. "This may be very infectious in a sales presentation at a toy company," an industry analyst told The New York Times, "but you are not accustomed to seeing it at banker presentations."
Chavez was never much of a fan of froufrou femininity. Neither Chavez nor her sisters ever owned a Barbie. This did not present a problem until she arrived at Mattel, and was told that all new employees must accept an upscale porcelain version of the doll. "I made it so far without a Barbie," she told them, "I'm not going to start now." When they gave her a hard time, she reluctantly accepted a porcelain Ken.
One of 10 children raised by her father, a farm worker, Chavez was born in Yuma, Ariz., and came of age in Southern California. The Arizona years were hard, in no small part because of the discrimination visited on Mexican Americans. "We were thrown out of restaurants because my father was too dark," she recalled.
Chavez based the Get Real Girls on her real-life friends--athletes like Olympic cyclist Stephanie McKnight and former professional surfer Candace Woodward. She claims that out of all her dolls, she feels the strongest affinity for Gabi, the Brazilian-American soccer player, who, like her, is biracial.
I asked Chavez for the details on the Get Real Girls' lives: How old are they? Are they still in school? Have they turned pro? Chavez picked up a blue and orange package and read the girls' biographies off the back of the box. Nini plans to study archaeology. Claire intends to be a vet. "But Nakia," Chavez said slyly, "might turn pro. I'm not sure yet."
And where are the tennis players? Aren't Venus and Serena Williams inspiring girls left and right? This question seemed to hit a nerve. The sisters, Chavez said, "made a deal with another company."
Inspired by her cousin, Chavez has been vigilant about labor practices involved in the making of her dolls. The Get Real Girls, like Barbie, are made in China. But before Chavez would permit production to begin, she visited the factory to make sure workers had adequate on-site living facilities and received sufficient breaks. (If Barad ever did anything along these lines, she did not tell me or any other journalist.)
In the past, Barbie has, of course, navigated shoals that shipwrecked Mattel executives. In 1978, for example, Ruth Handler, the Mattel co-founder who is considered by many to be the closest thing Barbie has to a mother, pleaded no contest to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and falsifying Securities and Exchange Commission information. She was sentenced to a 41-year prison sentence and a $57,000 fine, which the judge later suspended. He did, however, require that she devote 500 hours each year for five years to community service and pay $57,000 to fund an occupational "rehab" center for convicted felons. Barbie, however, suffered only a temporary setback. No competitors managed to exploit her weakness. Roughly 15 years later, when Barad arrived, Barbie sales reached their highest point ever.
Mattel's Teflon resiliency over the past 40 years does not signal doom for the Get Real Girls, who, despite their hipster spunk and pumped-up swagger, are still far from perfect. But it does suggest a different way to interpret victory. For the girls to crush Barbie, they don't have to eradicate her. They just have to beat her up a bit, punch a few holes in her sales. Even a tiny dent would be historic, the first such inroad of its kind.
Sparring with the girls might just build Barbie's character--after they break her plastic jaw.