My Bratz Problem - and Ours
You've gotta look hotter than hot! Show what you've got!... Ready or not! -lead song from Bratz Babyz: The Movie, September 2006
On television, cartoon baby girls shimmy in their underpants as our wide-eyed toddler multitasks, sucking on her pink floral pacifier and learning to flirt at the same time. She may not be potty-trained, but soon she will know just how to flutter her eyelashes and sway her hips suggestively. She has studied, over and over, her favorite part of the Bratz DVD, where strobe lights flash and the "Babyz" coo about looking "hotter than hot!" and showing "what you've got."
"Ready or not"? One ventures to guess - not.
These days when you walk into a toy store, it's not clear whether you actually made it to the store or accidentally landed in a red-light district. A friend recently had a baby, so I went to buy a doll for the baby's older sister, since everyone knows that it's crucial to pacify the older sibling. At the precise moment, no doubt, that the girl was feeling appalled by the arrival of her baby brother, I was reeling from shock at the store's section for girls. For one thing, I was greeted by the melodious strains of "When I get that feeling, that sexual feeling . . ." piped through the speakers. In the doll section, only dolls in tight-fitting, provocative outfits stared out at me, all wearing heavy makeup and self-satisfied, flirty expressions. The young sprite browsing next to me, who looked about seven years old, wore a purple cropped top and peep-toe wedges with heels two inches high - an outfit that seemed to mock the very idea of finding a suitable doll for a little girl.
Bratz Babyz, makes a "Babyz Nite Out" doll garbed in fishnet stockings, a hot-pink micromini, and a black leather belt. To look "funkalish" (what-ever that means), the baby also sports a tummy-flaunting black tank paired with a hot-pink cap. Dare one ask what is planned for "Babyz Nite Out" and what, exactly, she is carrying in her metal-studded purse? Is it pacifiers, or condoms? It might be both: "These Babyz demand to be lookin' good on the street, at the beach, or chillin' in the crib!" The dolls are officially for ages "four-plus," but they are very popular among two- and three-year-old girls as well.
I've always found the most disturbing thing about Bratz to be their oversize baby faces. Many of the "Babyz" on MGA's website are posed very seductively, showing off their slick lips and teeny-weeny underpants. The Bratz Babyz doll "Phoebe" is garbed in a fluffy pink fur with matching lingerie, and her twin, "Roxxi," is stuffed into red-hot lingerie and a black leather jacket. In days of yore, you actually had to undress dolls to see their little white bloomers. But these days, right out of the box, the Bratz Babyz "Nita" shows off heavy red lipstick and bright toenail polish to match red panties, while "Cloe" has pink lipstick to go with pink panties. Since these dolls bare the chunky legs of babies who are still crawling, to me they are not "fashion forward" - just plain creepy.
Younger girls are already under the frightening influence of the Bratz doll companion books. "Ages three and up" can use fifteen "stylin' glitter body stickers!" that come inside BRATZ Yasmin: The Princess Rules! and do some coloring of Yasmin's makeup and outfits for "daytime and night." Presumably, the littlest preschoolers will not be able to fill in "When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I'll put on_________" or take the quiz about what to do when "the boy of your dreams has just asked you out... Do your pals . . . help you put together a look he'll just die for?" But perhaps a parent or an older sibling can fill in the blanks for them. (For instance, "When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I'll put on my big girl pants - no more diapers!")
The book BRATZ Xpress Yourself! teaches girls to express themselves, for example, by writing "about the boys yon know.... These are cool boys I know:__________... This is the most surprising thing (name of boy) once did:___________... The Hottest Boy Award goes to________..." You get the idea. The BRATZ Holiday Shoppin' Spree: A Guide to Totally Hot Shoppin' is a cool, sparkly paperback shaped like a purse, which enables a littlie girl to keep track of what she wants to buy her friends and her "crush." If she shops for herself, she might want to keep "Jade" in mind (according to Bratz literature, Jade wears only "the hottest fashions"). And - this is crucial - she should never to forget to take a quarter, to call a parent "when you're all shopped out!" It would indeed be poignant for a little girl to be stranded, with a present for her crush in one hand and her new hot clothes in the other.
The illustrations in these books are much more disturbing than the Bratz dolls themselves (which is saying a lot): the girls have extreme come-hither looks; their hips are thrust out to show off their exposed midriffs; and some even touch their rear ends suggestively. When I called MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz, its representative was very coy about what age group these books are targeting. Still, peddling so many "hot" products to young girls seems inherently problematic - even if you dub it "funkalish" instead of sexy. This suggests what we might call the funked-up principle: If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she's probably still too young to be worrying about boys and looking "hot."
Bratz already puts out a magazine that's like Cosmo for eight-year-olds, spotlighting a "flirty denim skirt," a "divine golden halter top," and Paris Hilton's "alluring outfit that can't fail to impress!" - all in the August-September 2006 issue. After the editors field a heartrending question about divorce from a nine-year-old, who fears that her father prefers his girlfriend to her, since he spends so much time with the girlfriend "What should I do?" - they then go on to their main business, asking their readers questions like, "Are you always the first in your group to wear the hottest new looks?" and "Do you love it when people look at you in the sireei?" Though surely the editors do not mean to imply this, if I were the nine-year-old, I might come away with the impression that I had to dress sexy to win back my father's attention.
In the same issue, two girls from Washington who built a "Bratz town" have mailed in their photographs, which are jarring. One blond pixie named Maggie, who looks about seven or eight, is wearing a cropped pink top and low-rider jeans that show both her tummy and her blue bikini underwear. She has a wide, innocent smile and adorable bangs, and she stands next to a backdrop of Bratz dolls in slinky lingerie. All this is unsettling - especially since it makes you worry that she may be showing her underwear on purpose. "My birthday was da bomb!" Maggie writes. "If you remember, my fave Bratz girl is Jade and my fave color is green - just like Jade!"
Two women I interviewed for this book had friends who photographed their baby daughters in bikinis, spread out on the hood of their cars. They imagined that the adult pose was "cute," and they had brought the photos to work. I hadn't heard of this, but around eight years ago, when a friend's daughter turned one, a fellow partygoer pronounced the birthday girl's fuzzy pink coat "sexy." When everyone giggled, I realized that I must be old-fashioned, but "sexy" and "baby" are two words I don't like to hear in the same sentence. This attitude - "You're never too young to be sexy!" - predated Bratz by several years. Something in our underlying idea of female empowerment became corrupted long before it became commercialized.
Walking into that toy store made me feel ancient at age thirty, for when I was little we played with Cabbage Patch Kids. With their soft fabric bodies and one-of-a-kind visages they were all the craze, and I named mine "Patsy." I fretted for several months until Patsy's official "birth certificate" arrived at our door, thus confirming that she did in fact exist. She smelled of vanilla, had beautiful brown yarn hair, and was very lovable.
In fact, I loved my doll so much that a tiny part of me began to wonder if she was real. At seven, I was old enough to guess that she probably wasn't. But on the other hand, there was that birth certificate, which looked so official. (It even came with a "seal of authenticity," which clearly meant something.) In the end I devised an experiment to resolve once and for all whether Patsy was real. I would toss her, and if I felt a twinge of guilt, then clearly she had to be real - well, at least a little. The moment is still vivid in my mind: I look a deep breath, steadied my nerves, and quickly bashed her against my yellow floral-print wall. Patsy still smiled (she was always such a good sport), but nonetheless, she no longer looked her best. For my part, I felt truly awful seeing her crumpled on the floor: "Oh, Patsy. I'm so sorry! Are you OK?" And then it hit me: Oh my gosh, this means she is really real.
These days, the way dolls are dressed, the question is not so much "Is my dolly real?" as "How much does she charge per hour?" In April 2006, Hasbro, the second-largest toy maker, announced plans to launch a line of dolls modeled after the Pussycat Dolls, for girls as young as age six. Since the Pussycat Dolls perform highly sexualized song and dance routines, you can certainly understand Hasbro's thinking: Wouldn't it be terrific if six-year-old girls could model themselves after these pioneers?
Tags: Parenting and Families
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