Frowned upon by feminists but fought over by 5-year-olds, Barbie has been a victim of controversy as much as fashion ever since her birth, 50 years ago this month.

The charge sheet against the pint-sized piece of plastic is long. She teaches the supremacy of looks over substance; she stereotypes outdated gender roles; she celebrates an impossible body ideal; and she spreads platinum hair, plastic limbs and a nauseating shade of pink into households from Honolulu to Hamburg.

Yet could it be that Barbie, far from being a relic from another era, is in fact a woman for our troubled economic times?

For a start, she may benefit from having a strong, reassuring brand in a downturn. Although global Barbie sales fell by 9 percent in 2008, battering profits at Mattel, her maker, Barbie topped the 2008 survey by America's National Retail Federation of the most popular girls' toys, relegating even the Nintendo Wii to fifth place.

And she has just seen off her hipper rivals, the Bratz. After a long legal battle, a federal judge recently ordered their maker, MGA, to transfer the trademark rights to Mattel. Barbie is once again the queen of the toy shop. In previous recessions toy sales held up reasonably well, as parents cut back elsewhere.

As the recession deepens, Barbie's conservative values are also back in vogue. Amid concern about rampant individualism and excess, she evokes a simpler, gentler era. And since staying in is the new going out, little girls will have more time for old-fashioned play.

Barbie also embodies career flexibility, a valuable attribute in difficult times. Having started out as a fashion model in a black-and-white-striped bathing suit, she tiptoed into other professions as fast as they were invented.

She was an air hostess in the 1960s as mass aviation took off, an aerobics instructor with leg-warmers in the 1980s, and even a black presidential candidate four years before Barack Obama.

Time for a new Barbie, dressed as a distressed-debt investor?