Midge was a doll with a pedigree. She was released by Mattel, and she was part of their massively successful Barbie line. She even had a history, for the hardcore collectors and nostalgic parents or grandparents: Midge had been one of Barbie’s earliest friends for a full decade before being discontinued around 1967.
She’d been reintroduced in 1988, and then again in the 1990s for a 35th anniversary edition. During that time, her hook was that the boyfriend from her early days had proposed and wedding playsets were available. In 2003, she was a natural choice for Mattel to launch a new, somewhat older toy line: Happy Family, which would feature Midge, her husband Alan, a young child and an infant. For the first time, Midge was going to be the primary face of a doll line, going somewhere that Mattel didn’t want to lead Barbie: into family life.
One might think a company as well established as Mattel would put as much thought into design as their storyline, but that was not the case, and the failures doomed Midge.
First, there was the reason for Midge’s design in the first place. Back at the time of her introduction, Midge had been produced to counter complaints of Barbie’s overly developed figure. Midge was designed to demonstrate that Barbie was a teen or young woman, and had been given more rounded, youthful features. Successive updates, in an effort to keep to the classical characteristics, had generally retained the teenaged appearance of Midge.
This might not have caused too much of a controversy, but the design team had decided on an eye-catching method of bundling Midge and the newborn. A curved swell which attached to Midge and contained the infant was packaged along with the doll.
Some Barbie fans seeing the lead toy in the new line were horrified. Despite the family-driven packaging, her appearance made it difficult for them to see Midge as anything but a teen mom. The negative response caused some retailers to pull the magnetic “baby bump” version, and when Wal-Mart joined joined the list of stores that pulled the toy, Mattel took notice.
Unfortunately, that’s when another design flaw was found. With all of the attention given to Midge’s removable magnetic “baby bump” and the timed release of her, her husband Alan. the kids and supplemental toys like outfits and vehicles, Mattel designers neglected to include a wedding ring on the packaging images.
The lack was taken to imply that Mattel was intentionally promoting unmarried teen pregnancy. And while a previous design error had resulted in their best-selling Ken doll ever, Happy Family Midge’s controversies resulted in appallingly low sales figures. By the time the revised edition was on the shelves with the wedding ring and without her detachable belly, the damage had been done. Despite the millions of dollars of production and advertising poured into the toy line, it ended a little more than a year after launch. Midge wasn’t seen again for a decade, and when she reappeared in 2013 she was back to being Barbie’s teenaged friend who had never been married or had children.
Question of the night: Are there any storyline retcons you have found particularly inspired or terrible?