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Friday, April 10, 2009

Undercover Mom in Stardoll, Part 1: Barbie grows up

By Sharon Duke Estroff

Despite my kids’ insistence that I never tell a soul, I’m spilling the truth anyway - I played with Barbies until at least my 13th birthday. And most of my friends did too. We’d spend entire Saturday nights primping our dolls for hot dates with Ken, and showcasing our collections of tiny plastic shoes as if they were precious gems. Now, nearly three decades later, I’m still a girly girl at heart. So it seemed only natural to tap Stardoll.com - a wildly popular “virtual paperdoll community” with nearly 30 million members - as the site of my next Undercover Mom investigation.

Stardoll.com Day 1

It's not that I expected a full-fledged reunion with my old plastic pal. I knew that Stardoll would be its own girl. But I was admittedly stunned by the very grown-up feel of this fashionable virtual world. While I’d pictured Stardolls to be some kind of Barbie/Bratz/Sailor Moon cyberfusion, they were in a different league, altogether.

Unlike the wide-eyed whimsical avatars of many children’s websites, Stardoll avatars seem plucked from the pages of Vogue magazine - sophisticated and edgy; sexy and cool. There are male Stardolls too: some grungy and goateed, others bearing resemblance to Adam Lambert, the metrosexual American Idol contestant - all sporting six-packs and come-hither looks. Sure, Barbie has been criticized for her impossibly perfect proportions and Bratz for their defiant, rebellious streak, but they still manage to maintain a playful childlike quality that is decidedly missing from Stardoll.com.

Puzzled, I began to question my assumption that Stardoll is a Web site for children. Maybe it’s really designed for middle-aged moms wishing to be 20-somethings with too much time on their hands. But then I noticed the SpongeBob SquarePants and Littlest Pet Shop ads flanking the Stardoll homepage and the “about us” page stating that most Stardoll members are girls 7-17, and I second-guessed no more.

Mom Break: In the marketing world it's known as the KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger). You’ll find it on the racks of stores like Justice (formerly Limited Too) that sell padded bras for 6-year-olds, at the local cinema where 8-year-olds pile in to see Twilight, and in Barbie’s transformation from middle-school staple to toddler toy.
And you’ll find evidence of KGOY in every nook and cranny of Stardoll.com – from the distinctly adult-looking avatars to the mature designer clothes to the sophisticated loft living spaces.

But the silver lining is that Stardoll has made playing with dolls beyond kindergarten once again socially acceptable for 21st-century kids. The same girls who swapped their dolls for cellphones to be cool (but secretly would have traded their last wireless minute for a chance to put on a bona fide Barbie fashion show) can now save face while dressing the Avril Lavigne Stardoll for an imaginary concert or designing a punk-rock prom dress for their grungy avatar. Yes, glaringly imperfect as it might be, Stardoll has in its own way returned a few embers of Girlhood Past to the KGOY generation.

Screenshots

  • Oh so sophisticated avatars
  • Decidedly grown-up 7-year-old
  • "Ken," Stardoll-style
  • To go "goth"
  • Very fashionable physicist
  • Jonas Brothers as Stardolls

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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