Saturday, 16 December 2006

Bratz dolls vs. Barbie dollsIn October, Caroline Overington published a story in The Australian that brought into the mainstream media a debate on the representation of young girls. The basis of the story was a report written by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze entitled 'Corporate Paedophilia:
Sexualisation of children in Australia'.

The retailer, David Jones, which was named in the Australia Institute report as an offender, complained bitterly and threatened legal action. But it is not only the retailers and tween magazines that are at fault, according to Margaret Talbot, whose story in the 4 December issue of The New Yorker, 'Little Hotties', charts the emergence of the Bratz line of dolls for girls. Since 2001, sales of Bratz dolls have risen sharply so that they now account for 40 per cent of the U.S. market, against Barbie's 60 per cent.

Bratz dolls have large heads and skinny bodies; their almond-shaped eyes are tilted upward at the edges and adorned with thick crescents of eye-shadow, and their lips are lush and pillowy, glossed to a candy-apple sheen and rimmed with dark lip liner. They look like pole dancers on their way to work at a gentleman's club.

"Bratz are really just trashy," says Tiffany Holmes, a Maryland mother of three girls (aged seven, six and three). "I mean, these are dolls that look like streetwalkers," says her husband, Christopher.

Bratz dolls don't have Barbie's pinup-girl measurements—they're not as busty and they're shorter. But their outfits include halter tops, faux-fur armlets, and ankle-laced stiletto sandals, and they wear the sly, dozy expression of a party girl after one too many mojitos.

Not being, myself, father of a girl in this age group, I was dismissive when I first saw Bratz merchandise in my local post office. I thought it Japanese manga-inspired trash from China that the store was trying to push onto an unwilling public. Until I read Talbot's article. Then I realised that this is what sells in the target demographic. I also realised that it fits in with a pattern of K.G.O.Y. (Kids Getting Older Younger) that is actively pursued by marketers.

What Bratz dolls are both contributing to and feeding on is a culture in which girls play at being "sassy"—the toy industry's favored euphemism for sexy—and discard traditional toys at a younger age.

"Many parents," writes Talbot, "find this aesthetic weird, even repellent, but somehow hard to dodge."

Bratz girls seem more like kept girls, or girls trying to convert a stint on reality TV into a future as the new Ashlee of Lindsay or Paris.

Parents may try to fight against this trend — which Rush and La Nauze say resembles what paedophiles want to do to kids when they 'groom' them — but the incredible growth of Bratz in the past few years is a strong signal that this is what young girls want. Maybe there's not much to worry about. Apparently, when Barbie was first launched in 1959, mothers' reactions were similar.

Many girls loved her, many mothers did not—and the disapproval they expressed sounded a lot like the disapproval you hear mothers expressing about Bratz today. Either the complaints that children are becoming too knowing too early are to some extent perennial, or companies keep pushing the bounds of what parents find acceptable, and parents are limited in what they can do to push back.

Rush and La Nauze may try to explain the problem but they miss the fact that what we may consider sexualisation is merely childrens' way of coping with a world in which image and style is more and more a matter of self-expression. And to keep up with the pace of change, they are choosing models that seem to them to be adaptable. From their report:

When these three sources of children’s sexualisation are considered together – as children actually experience them – it is apparent that young children today, particularly girls, face sexualising pressure unlike that faced by any of today’s adults in their childhood.

This last statement may simply be untrue. What is incontestable is that the increased role of media of all kinds has encouraged debate at a level that was unthinkable in the late nineteen-fifties. It may be a debate that we need to have, but in the end the children will simply make up their own minds.

Talbot points to a hundred-dollar, high-end substitute called American Girl that has failed to keep pace with either Barbie or Bratz. It "will never be a mass consumer brand", she decides. Bratz may be "peddling the toy world's version of gangsta chic" but that seems to be what little girls want to play with. And no wonder. As long as TV and magazines continue to transfer mainstream cultural products into the living rooms and bedrooms of pre-pubescent girls, they will continue to want to emulate what they see.

It seems to me that what we need to focus on is the source of these products, not the media through which it is communicated. Bratz is an avatar designed to be acceptable in the world girls are surrounded with. As such, Bratz and the "corporate paedophilia" targeted by Rush and La Nauze are merely symbols of a deeper social malaise, it seems to me, where overt displays of selfhood are being channelled by capital into a kind of proletarian pornography.


kimbofo said...

This is a brilliant post, Dean. I've seen those Bratz dolls and they are truly horrible, but then I always preferred teddybears to dolls!

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks, kimbofo. I really appreciate your comment.

Actually, this story really wrote itself. As soon as I started reading the story in The New Yorker, my mind went berserk. Words like 'paedophile' are so striking, don't you think? As soon as we see them, we want to learn more. It's like bait for sharks.

kimbofo said...

I was never really aware of the sexualisation of young girls until I had a niece and started frequenting clothing shops for kids in search for outfits to send her. She's only 2 years old, but some of the stuff they sell here in the UK makes my mind boggle. Does a toddler really need to wear crop tops and hip-hugging jeans? Does she need to wear t-shirts with "sassy" slogans on them?