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Barbie and Bratz

Jill Lepore Is Wrong About Barbie And Bratz

Going by it’s title, it seems Jill Lepore’s recent article in The New Yorker, “When Barbie Went to War with Bratz,” is about the years-long legal battle between Mattel and MGA Entertainment over Bratz dolls.  It’s an important legal battle in toy history:  Carter Bryant created Bratz, but was a Mattel employee when he started planning the dolls.  Bryant left Mattel, sold the dolls to Isaac Larian at MGA Entertainment, and then got sued by Mattel, who argued that, because Bryant conceived the toys while still a company employee, Mattel technically owned the rights.  The verdict, at first, landed in Mattel’s favor before an appeal led to a win for MGA.  Dr. Lepore gets these basic facts right, soundly reporting the words of those involved with the case.  However, her editorializing about the sculpt and social messages of Barbie and Bratz themselves couldn’t be more off-base.

From the get-go, Lepore characterizes Bratz dolls as “emaciated babies,” and goes out of her way to turn up her nose at the toys’ enlarged eyes and lips.  The author then proceeds to describe these dolls (and Barbie) as “freakish,” depicting Bratz as, effectively, hypersexualized alien creatures.  This is not only wrong, but incredibly insensitive to the children, many children of color, who have come to treasure these dolls.
Lepore won’t tell you that Bratz’s core audience has been non-white kids who recognize themselves in the skin tones, physical features, and clothing styles of these dolls.  As a professor of English at a New York City community college, I teach the adults who, as kids, found sisters in Bratz.  “My mom tried to get me Barbie,” one Latina student told me, “But I told her no.  Get me a Bratz doll instead.”  And I’m not just speaking of young women, here, either.  My trans and even cis male students have also connected, in some powerful way, with Bratz.  Regardless of gender, they were children of color, largely from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and neighborhoods.  When I use action figures and dolls in my classes (which I do frequently), these students almost always tell me stories of how they couldn’t relate to Barbie, but Bratz felt like a doll made for them.  It is tough for me to adequately convey the importance of my students’ words, here.

I, like surely most, do not want to suggest an embrace of stereotype.  All I mean to offer is that I have spoken to literally hundreds of adults of color that have personally connected with Bratz in their formative years, embraced the dolls, and felt validated by their common physical ground.  Kids, especially kids of color, then carry this forward into adulthood, letting Bratz inform their use of make-up, changing the ever-modulating fashion game for the better.

This matters.  Barbie has always spoken to a mostly-white (though, yes, there have been Barbies of color), largely Capitalist future.  Bratz speaks to the non-white present.  Where Barbie says, “Look at who you could be,” Bratz says, “Who you are now is beautiful.”  Today’s Barbie – whether a pilot, a president, a doctor, or a firefighter – embodies careers of financially successful adults.  Bratz dolls find beauty in teenage struggles.  They are unabashedly themselves.

However, to Dr. Lepore, who they are is shameful.  She chooses to read these dolls’ looks as sexually promiscuous and somehow dangerous.  Their necks are too long. The eyes are too big.  Their make-up is too suggestive.  It is irresponsible of Lepore not to take a moment and ask herself whether the real problem here is not how the dolls are, but how she sees.  This catastrophic misreading almost feels like a redux of Dr. Lepore’s skewed take on A-Force, which earned an epic and spot-on response from creator G. Willow Wilson.

Here, though, no doll is safe.  If Dr. Lepore picks apart the appearances of Bratz dolls, she does the same to Barbie.  She appears protests that neither Barbie nor Bratz adequately portray women’s bodies.  I do not belittle this complaint, as their has been an entire movement surrounding Barbie’s negative influence on female body positivity.  Dr. Lepore echoes the important questions raised by this critique, but she does so without acknowledging some of the answers to those questions offered in the half-century since they were first raised.

For one, Barbie was never meant to be a Xerox of the female form.  Former Mattel CEO Jill Barad has said that the inspiration for Barbie’s look, past the initial spark from Germany’s Bild Lilli, came in part from fashion dolls, which, prior to Barbie, only existed in the form of life-sized mannequins or miniature paper cut-outs.  When a miniature vinyl doll is used to model clothing, the neck needs to be elongated because, while it is easy to shrink a plastic human body down to 11.5 inches, it is not as easy to make layers of clothing thin enough to sensibly fit on those bodies.

Have you ever seen an action figure with a cloth cape or jacket?  These items make the head look practically swallowed by the torso.  Not wanting the same for Barbie, designers extended the neck to a length that was never intended to be in scale to humans.  Similar decisions were made with the doll’s other features in order to serve one purpose: to make the clothes look better on the doll.  Saying that Barbie doesn’t adequately represent a human body is like suggesting Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon don’t exactly replicate the female form.  Well, yes, but that was never the intent.

All of this said, representation, regardless of intent, still matters.  I’ve argued this many times, and I don’t shy away from that just because Mattel claims a purposeful move away from body accuracy.  Unlike the Picasso painting I mention above, Barbie and Bratz are mass-produced products, and they can shape the minds of those who idolize them.  This is the social reality of Barbie and Bratz, and social reality is reality.  However, this is what makes the Barbie Fashionistas line so revolutionary.  Early in Mattel’s history, Barbie executives wanted to make different body types for Barbie, the cost just tended to be too expensive.  Now, given Barbie’s success, Mattel has finally made good on this promise, producing Barbies that represent a variety of body types, from curvy to petite.  Dr. Lepore omits this point completely, though, electing to instead inaccurately condemn Barbie.

Bratz, though, are on a different mission.  Instead of body type, they present a diversity of ethnicity, make-up application, and physical attributes that matter to the communities most excluded by toys.  As noted above, that diversity is important to kids within those communities, and it positively affects consumers outside those demographics, too, as they gain exposure to an underserved representation of beauty on toy shelves around the world.  To “slut shame” that beauty, which Dr. Lepore comes dangerous close to doing at times, feeds a racist legacy people of color have had to hear for far too long.  To be perfectly clear: I am not calling Dr. Lepore a racist.  Not at all.  I don’t know her.  We’ve never met.  What I know of her, I know through her writings, which are nothing but scholarly and important to the study of pop culture.

But, based on her article, I am suggesting that Dr. Lepore is disconnected from the intent of Barbie and, perhaps more so, Bratz.  This is most evident from Dr. Lepore’s notion that Bratz represents the female archetype featured in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which premiered the same year as Bratz’s release.  I doubt Bratz collectors would agree.  To them, this is not a doll that has translated a white female character into plastic.  From my own research, I glean that said collectors see, far more frequently, Bratz drawing on fashion and role-play that pushes against beauty politics set by white society.  While Carter Bryant and Isaac Larian’s whiteness may complicate this discussion, MGA has now employed a talented group of designers of color to continue this advocacy of beyond-Barbie beauty.  Instead of hamfistedly roping in outside texts, the rich histories of Mattel and MGA should inform examination of their products.

Dr. Lepore ends by reducing her take to simply this: “Mattel owns Barbie.  MGA owns Bratz.  And corporations still own the imaginations of little girls.”  I argue that this is a facile analysis of a complex series of products and consumers which, in the case of Barbie, reaches back to 1959.  The article ignores the scores of Bratz fans, specifically fans of color, who have felt seen by these dolls.  Lepore ignores the spectrum of beauty, in which self-expression takes many forms, and none should be shamed.  And she ignores Mattel’s attempts to fashion Barbie into an inclusive, fantasy product.  Corporations do not, in fact, own imaginations any more than Dr. Lepore owns the criteria for beauty.

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Jonathan Alexandratos

Jonathan Alexandratos is a New York City-based playwright and essayist. His most recent play, We See What Happen, was created with Nashville Repertory Theatre, and is the immigration story of Jonathan's grandmother, as told by superhero action figures. Jonathan's book of academic essays on action figures, Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages, is due out in May from McFarland.

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