News & Politics

Bratz Dolls: Worse Than Barbie?

How a saucer-eyed, saucy-dressing line of dolls made Barbie the far lesser of two feminist evils.
How had I let this happen? It was Christmas 2005 and my then 5-year-old daughter had unwrapped yet another Bratz doll, adding it to the pile of scantily clad playthings that well-meaning family and friends had given her. Just the year before, Barbie had ruled the over-commercialized day. But now my little fashionista (with her three or four voluntary outfit changes a day) only had eyes for Bratz. And not only does that continue to this day, but she's also hardly alone: The Bratz are the No. 2 doll in the country (second to you-know-who) and are clearly winning the buzz war, with their very own live-action theatrical release now playing. When's the last time you caught the blond, leggy one at the multiplex? I can't believe I'm saying this, but I wish she'd come out of the Dream House and make a comeback already -- at least with all those different versions of her (remember Astronaut Barbie? Teacher Barbie?), she showed a little aspiration beyond just looking good in a sparkly dress or leather pants.

All of which begs a lot of questions: What is with these incredibly popular little dolls who just so happen to embody that Britney-esque spirit now imploding in a gossip magazine near you? Are they worth worrying over? Could they be destroying the next generation of females with their future-Maxim-cover-girl look? And most of all, how did they manage to turn Barbie into a good girl, a near feminist icon even, in comparison?

For a while there I'd managed to mostly ignore the Bratz, with their absurdly big eyes on their absurdly big heads. They were undeniably cool, this multicultural array of dolls dressed to the nines in funky clothes that would have made any club girl proud. I reasoned that they were meant for older girls who were more likely to dress that way -- not my little one. What I forgot was that while little girls adore their mothers, there comes a time when they really want to be like older girls. In this case, older girls as embodied by these dolls -- never mind that they look like little hookers.

"They don't look trashy to me. I think trashy is in the eyes of the adults," said Isaac Larian, CEO of Bratz's maker, Micro Games of America, on Nightline earlier this month. Then there must be something wrong with a whole lot of us because we all see dolls that look, for lack of a better word, a little slutty. And I know I sound like I'm 1,000-years-old when I say things like that, but as a mother who's pushing 35, the line between prude and rational is getting thinner.

Now don't get me wrong. Through the years I had my own issues with blond Barbie, with her unattainable proportions and a gazillion accessories, from her vapid representation of all things fake to the impossible expectations of female beauty that she helped institute. But when it came down to it, I knew her well. I have fond memories of my own collection as a 4-year-old in Trinidad, and years later, playing with them in my Bronx apartment. I'm sure the attention and exaltation I gave her contributed to my self-esteem issues as a little black girl who would never have hair like that unless I sewed it on. I had a few of the parade of black Barbies that came on the market, but even as little kids we knew that they weren't "the real thing" and that white Barbie was the one we had to have.

So there is a part of me that wants to accept the multi-culti groove that the Bratz have going on. I should be embracing Sasha with her brown skin, even though her hair is just as impeccably straight and long as the rest of them. I should love the "exotic" looking Yasmin and friends. But something in me resists. Maybe it's that I think they've set feminism back 20 years with things like their TV show and video game, in which they run a teen magazine with money they pick up from the ground or make from photographing each other. Despite the fact that they parrot all manner of girl-power phrases along the way, they are still espousing a kind of emptiness that is particularly dangerous coming from relatable-seeming dolls. Or maybe it's just the queasy feeling I get when I look at the Bratz baby dolls who are inexplicably dressed in baby tees or bikini tops with their diapered bottoms. Even at her most Malibu, Barbie wasn't nearly as sexualized as these dolls are, with their overly made-up faces.

Or maybe it's because I see my almost 7-year-old daughter pulling her cute little-girl dresses and shirts tight in the back, trying to create a waistline while she juts out her hip and strikes a pose, and I realize that no matter how much I keep her away from sexual content on TV and in movies, I can't take it out of her world completely.

The knockdown, drag-out fight between the makers of the two dolls will continue, both in toy stores and in the courtroom. Mattel says the Bratz designer came up with the concept while he worked at Mattel, and the makers of Bratz and the makers of Bratz, MGA Entertainment, say that Mattel's My Scene Barbie is a rip-off of the Bratz. As if that very girly fight wasn't embarrassing enough, MGA also alleged that Mattel tried to corner the market on doll hair.

But in my daughter's eyes, the war is pretty much won. "Face it, Mommy. Bratz are just cooler," she told me recently, and I missed Barbie, in all her blond glory, a little more.


Abby West is an associate editor at Entertainment Weekly with more than 10 years experience in newspapers and magazines. She's currently working on a compilation of poignant and helpful stories from the loved ones of those with bipolar disorder. She lives in New York with her family.
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