Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Now We Can Get Back to Wholesome, All-American Barbie!

***All bolding-for-emphasis is mine***

I'm not particularly upset that the outcome of Barbie Doll-maker Mattel's lawsuit is that a judge has ordered the competing Bratz doll line to discontinue production, except for the effect this will have on the people who work for MGA. I do believe Bratz represent a highly-sexualized image not necessarily appropriate for young girls and I'm not a big fan of "fashion" dolls period.

But it's not just the clothes and lip gloss that appealed to millions of girls.

Wikipedia describes them as having "almond-shaped eyes" and "lush... lips." Here are some images:

Images from here

According to Fara Warner:
If Barbie® were a real woman, she would stand 6 foot 2 and most likely would be unable to stand because of her tiny waist and large bust. By contrast, if Bratz™ were real girls, they would stand about 5 foot 6 and sport bodies that look more like entertainers Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Lopez
My point is, that Bratz did not look like white-Barbie dyed light- or dark-brown, and that is definitely part of their appeal:
“Barbie® did advance as women advanced. She had a doctor’s outfit, she went into space. But she was still blonde and blue-eyed when a majority of girls in the U.S. and the world were not.
Focusing on the fact that these dolls are multicultural does lead to more troubling questions though:

1) Why did the manufacturer feel the need to dress and adorn these dolls in this way?

2) Have people (particularly moms) explored why it's so easy to call these dolls (dolls, for god's sake!) "freakish" and "hookers" and "slutz" and "trampy"?

The Bratz are market successes because they rely on stereotypes about "ethnic" women: they are sexy (and sexual) and made cutting-edge/trendy by their "exoticness" and their adherence to an alternative/rebellious counterculture (in this case, largely hip-hop).

Ironically, these are the exact reasons Bratz are repudiated. This mom, for example, was appalled by the "vinyl whores" who, when compared to Barbie had "less boobs, more junk in the trunk."

I am also bothered when people posit Barbie or Disney Princesses* as more "acceptable" alternatives. In a 2002 Detroit Free Press Article, Ellen Creager** claimed that "Barbie's" attempts to cash in on the Bratz appeal (discussed further down) besmirched her:
Mattel Inc.'s new My Scene Barbie has a big head, pouty pink lips, skimpy jeans and a navel-baring wardrobe worthy of an MTV diva.

But if ruining her reputation is what it takes to win back girls older than 7, Barbie's more than willing.

"The dolls are more reality-based," Mattel spokesman Ria Freydl said. "A girl can really relate to them."

Sure, if she's Christina Aguilera.
And, says Margaret Talbot,
You could never imagine a Bratz doll assuming any of the dozens of careers Barbie has pursued over the decades: not Business Executive or Surgeon or Summit Diplomat -- not even Pan Am Flight Attendant or Pet Doctor. Bratz girls seem more like kept girls... Whereas Mattel’s Scothon likes to talk about Barbie’s "aspirational" qualities -- how she might inspire "a girl to run for President and look good while she was doing it" -- [Bratz creator Isaac] Larian prefers to talk about "fashion and fantasy" and what’s "cute."
Ah, yes, Barbie, the feminist fashion doll!

Barbie and the Disney Princesses are just as problematic as Bratz, and Barbie, with her previously-impossible measurements and adherence to the blonde-blue-eyed-white-woman-as-THE-ideal is just as sexualized. For how many years did she play nurse to Ken's doctor, ahem?

But her sexualization is more acceptable--largely because it is cloaked beneath white skin and presumed to be reserved for one man. Barbie has been critiqued plenty, we all know. The basis of some of that criticism was her early devotion to the "cult of domesticity." The culmination of Barbie's life was to be marriage, in which she would reap the awards of her physical attractiveness--being "taken care of," having dreamhouses and luxury cars.

Contrast that to the basis for much of the Bratz criticism. Bratz detractors claim they "look ready to stand on a street corner." Now, a cynic like me would point out that these critiques have something in common; both imply that a message is being relayed to girls to rely on their looks and their bodies to get money from men for survival. The difference is, one way is idealized--long defined as normative--and the other, criminalized, classified as deviant. Thus, while Barbie is "despised by feminists and child educators for being a tool of racism and sexism, and a contemporary epitome of the cult of thinness," she is "idolized... as a model of aesthetic perfection and a cultural icon of heterosexual femininity."

(Speaking of "Barbie vs. Bratz," isn't it amazing how "disputes" between even fictional women can be cast as catfights? LOL/sob.)

And Disney, with its dead mother/evil stepmother issues and "aspire to be a princess who needs to be rescued by others!" isn't exactly the company I want shaping my goddaughters' world views.

Please don't think Mattel is overly concerned with protecting children from The Menace of the Bratz!! They tried to cash in on the Bratz's success with their ill-fated "Flava" line, viewed as offensive by many.

And what do you think MyScene Barbies are all about?

Barbie was no longer queen of the fashion doll circuit, so Mattel had to do something.

Look, in the interests of fairness, all I want are a few things:

1) I want psychologists, after YEARS of feminist critiques, to think about why they aren't as alarmed about Barbie as they are about Bratz.

2) I want mothers who point out the "vacancy" of the Bratz's lives to fashion a similar critique about the MyScene dolls who are, according to their website, primarily concerned with fab faces, shopping, and bling.

3) I want people to analyze why a doll based on a German "sex doll" who once opined that "Math class is tough!" and came with a weight loss guide that advised, "Don't Eat" is THE model for "fashion" dolls. (That's a bit rhetorical, huh?).

Seriously, Bratz did not spring from nowhere. Little girls get messages everyday about how the most important aspect of their person is physical beauty, about how women LOVE to shop and put on makeup. As I've been Christmas shopping for my six-year-old goddaughter, I've seen sweaters with feathered necks and fronts (Bratz are trashed for their feather boas), ultra-skinny jeans, high heels, lip gloss and manicure sets, and enough sparkles and glitter to decorate a high school prom.

The Bratz aren't some anomaly. They are reflective of much about our culture and pulling them off the shelves won't change the root problems. And the whole suggestion that Barbie is somehow a more-acceptable-tool-of-the-patriarchy is weird to me (and sorta misses the point, doesn't it?). How much of our problem with Bratz comes from the fact that this particular cultural reflection comes in different "packaging?"
*Guess which Disney Princess the Hot Air blogger's daughter has a problem with? Jasmine, cuz she kissed Aladdin and she wasn't married!! Slutty brown girl!

**"Barbie Bares Her Belly to Compete with Bratz," 27 November 2002.


Jay said...

Interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks.

I dislike and discourage Barbie but I've banned Bratz because of the overt sexualization - the makeup and the attitude - not the body type. To me Barbie seems almost asexual, although your piece has me wondering why that is and what it says about my own internalized racism. I've rolled my eyes at the parents who actually like Barbie and abhor Bratz.

Kimberly said...

Very interesting Elle. I'll admit, having boys I haven't thought much about Barbie in a very long time. But you point out some very valid issues on both sides.

It's no wonder our children seem to be "growing up" (sexually) so much sooner nowadays. Heck, my mom and I were appalled that my brother's 2 year old walks around saying she's sexy. And her parents think that's cute. It's not cute to me.

Hawa Bond said...

While watching some random cable news channel, I came across a story that left me in utter disbelief.

A young teen (I believe she was 12 or 13... now known as tweens?) was banned for wearing a chastity ring to school. The ring was literally the size of a slightly wider wedding band, but the school argued with the message the ring was sending.

One of the girl's favorite music groups wears the ring to promote "waiting for marriage" and the girl wanted to do the same.

I'm still stuck on the kind of "message" the girl was sending. The statement from the school officials never really answered the question surrounding their absolute horror about the ring. Of all the symbols that come through school, this girl was singled out for something honorable.

Would they prefer if her alternate plan is to sleep around as much as she can before she gets married? Hmph... (I'll see if I can go find a link and come back with it...)

Hawa, author of
Fackin Truth Blog (Personal Blog)
Cleanse Master Remix (Health Blog)

elle said...

Good morning y'all and thanks for the comments!

Hawa, I look forward to that link.

Anonymous said...

I never thought about the difference between the Barbie and Bratz dolls but this has really made me think. Often times white sexuality or just attractiveness is viewed as "cute" or "pure" . More innocent. However, it seems that the sexuality of Hispanic or Black women is always viewed as more deliberate and aggressive. It's a stereotype that I never realized was played out in these dolls and how others viewed them

Brian said...

You could never imagine a Bratz doll assuming any of the dozens of careers Barbie has pursued over the decades:

Fascinating. I'll have to pass that message along to all the young women in my classes who physically resemble the Bratz dolls (though they tend to dress more like they just rolled out of bed or are headed to the gym, depending on the time of say the class meets). I'll have to let all the non-blue-eyed, blonde-haired, fully nourished women that they should just go ahead and get chonga-ed up and hit the streets. Ugh. I get so tired of the stupid.

Renee said...

I will be honest, other than feeling sorry for the workers that are going to loose jobs, I cannot say that I am sorry in anyway that Bratz will no longer be sold. I think that they send a terrible message to young girls. I guess I owe Barbie one.
I should also admit that I have a strong dislike for Barbie as well and a perfect day for me would involve both of those dolls being taken off the market. The harm that the doll has done to generations of women is beyond measure.

Unknown said...

This post is extremely thought-provoking.

I've also always viewed Bratz as "worse" than Barbie, and I think part of that is that I'm young enough that I don't remember the days when Barbie was only a fashion icon and not also a doctor/teacher/president/whatever, but old enough that I was way beyond the target market for Bratz by the time they came out. Your point about it being ridiculous to call Barbie a feminist is very true but, again, in my own personal Barbie experience, I really did have my Barbies going around saving the world and climbing mountains or whatever, and I do think part of that is because there were Barbies who did things besides just shop (which sadly seems no longer to be the case). I'm not a psychologist but I guess I always found Barbie so obviously alien and remote I never thought of her as any sort of model for my life, and I think part of my own reaction to the Bratz dolls is that they are in some ways more "relatable" (i.e. by being relatively "young" compared to Barbie) which I may have subconsciously assumed could be more damaging, the way that super skinny Disney princesses didn't bother me when I was a kid because they were cartoons, whereas airbrushed models on magazine covers did because they were theoretically attainable. But, my own experience may not be generalizable and I am not a psychologist, so I don't know if the relative "relatability" affects the impact of sexualized toys on kids.

I also think there is something kind of creepy about the fact that the Bratz dolls are explicitly meant to be pretty young (there are even Bratz babies which are not much less sexualized) whereas Barbie is an adult (and the younger incarnations, Skipper etc are pretty nonsexualized--though where does that leave girls who develop curves by the time they are Skipper's theoretical age?)

I think this is a complex issue and I hope I haven't come across as saying everyone who dislikes Bratz more than Barbie does so for the same reasons I do, or that even these are actually all the reasons I do (there may be some I am not aware of). I also kind of want to punch the woman who complained about the "less boobs, more junk in the trunk" because while Barbie's boobs are actually totally physically impossible, Bratz booties are not even that big (actually looking at a picture closely, they... don't really have any junk in the trunk at all, which makes me REALLY wonder about the stereotypes that woman had in her mind when describing them) and furthermore, while Barbie's boobs have always been held up as damaging because of the unrealistic body they promote, the Bratz butts seem to be held up as damaging because of how "sexual" they are which I find incredibly grossly offensive, frankly. It reminds me of an article I once read about a trend of making mannequins with bigger butts in which one mannequin designer or something described it as "vulgar." Oh man thinking about this still makes my blood boil like three years later. Um excuse you mr. mannequin designer, you do not get to call me vulgar because of my genetic make-up, okay? nor do you get to assume anything about my sexual choices because of said genetics, or judge me for said sexual choices. I do think in this instance, there is a definite racialized element to the "vulgarization" of the butt, though the assumption that all girls with big boobs are "sluts" (how I loathe that word) seems to cross racial boundaries. And both of these are especially damaging to girls who hit puberty early and are suddenly told all sorts of things about themselves based on body changes that are trying enough without having to deal with society's judgmental eye.

I really can't believe I wrote that much about Bratz & Barbie. Great post, indeed.

elle said...

Hey all, I'm going to try to respond to some thoughts y'all have put on my mind (Isabel, I've been walking around threatening to Hulk Smash since I read your last comment. It's a very nice stress reliever :-).

And because I had insomnia that night, I read so many Bratz and Barbie articles and am going to include some of the other stuff I read here with no citation (horrors, I know, but I'm not up to it and I have a final at 10:30)

I am as bothered by MGA's design of the dolls as I am by consumer's responses. I think Larian tapped into the desire of little girls to have a doll who looks like them. But his response is a model that embodies many of the hypersexualized stereotypes brought to us most recently by BET and MTV but that have existed for a long, long time.

People read other stereotypes into/onto Bratz as well--their faces, I read, were "attitudinal" or made it look like "they don't care about anything."

Larian tapped into something else that I've seen other WoC write about--I'm thinking of BlackAmazon right now--about how we don't get to be girls. We are forced to be grown up way too fast by many circumstances. And a big part of being a grown woman, as it is taught to little girls, is getting to wear makeup or dress "sexily."

But the consumer response, as Kai noted on twitter highlights issues of race and sexuality-- particularly, what some of you have mentioned here (and what I was trying to say :-) about how WoC's bodies and sexuality are viewed as aggressive, problematic, vulgar, always "overt" as compared to white women's "demure," "cute or pure," (thanks, mzbitca) more acceptable sexuality. I was particularly struck by Jay's comment that Barbie seemed almost "asexual" to her.

Somewhere along the way, despite feminists' protests, Barbie (doll and brand) has acquired a veneer of respectability or something--the response to the multiethnic, similarly-clad My Scene Barbie Line has been nothing like the response to Bratz, from what I've read.

Okay, I have to get ready for work, but I'll be checking in!

elle said...

I really can't believe I wrote that much about Bratz & Barbie.

Tell me about it!

yourfriendselectic said...

Wait.. how on earth can Mattel do that? I won't weep for Bratz dolls but isn't this a case of grossly un-competitive behaviour?

And, as others have pointed out, Mattel ended up copying Bratz dolls in their less successful MyScene Barbies which replicate everything bad about Bratz. If anything, Bratz ought to sue Mattel for copyright infringement.

I take issue with the idea that Barbie is preferable because she was adaptive and had 'careers'. Even if there are some career Barbies somewhere, a cursory exploration of the current Barbie website will quickly dispel any feeling that today's Barbie is portrayed as an astronaut or president. Nope. She's a mermaid, a mother, a princess waiting for her price, a fairy. The closest she gets to a career is a 'baby doctor'.

However, what I do think is disturbing about Bratz is that they are "cool" and encourage and feed off the worst aspects of popular culture aimed at youth and young girls in particular. The kind of popular culture that encourages 5 year olds to worry about their weight, try on make-up, and aspire to be like sexualised, men-pleasing music video women.

Bratz dolls, unlike most dolls, even Barbie I think, are promoted shamelessly as being so utterly vapid, concerned *solely* with fashion and being cool and popular and attractive to boys (the only dolls with a passion for fashion!). The fact that fashion and shopping and etc is supposed to be the only thing they do does not, of course, send out a good message.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...