More than a doll, baby

A plastic powerhouse, Bratz is Barbie's sultry rival, conquering little girls with her plethora of products - the latest, a movie.

By Elizabeth Fox
Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/2/07

There's a new empire spreading across the world today, and it's led by a powerful plastic conqueror with a proclaimed "passion for fashion" - the Bratz doll.
What else could explain why about 700 people - most of them 6- to 9-year-old girls - surrounded the Franklin Mills AMC last month for an advance screening of the new Bratz movie? (Named, aptly enough, Bratz: The Movie.)

"They are, like, my favorite toys in the whole wide world," said Chastity Arvelo, 7, of Mayfair.

"They come with really nice outfits and you can change them whenever you want," added Maggie Mulhern, 9, of Holmesburg.

The dolls in question, created by MGA Entertainment as competitors to the still-dominant Barbie, are similar to Barbie in stature, but have bigger heads, huge sultry eyes, heavily made-up features, and indeterminate, multiethnic appearances.

The live-action movie, which opens Friday, is the latest strike in an onslaught that includes a video game, TV show, magazine, home decor, athletic equipment, board games, clothing, fashion kits, and straight-to-DVD animated movies.

Bratz: The Movie tells the story of four friends - Yasmin, Cloe, Sasha and Jade (all based on actual Bratz dolls) - who enter high school and have to defend their friendship against the various cliques trying to pull them apart. There's singing, dancing and shopping galore, with a heavy emphasis on the all-important Bratz fashion sense, which tends toward the racy.

Christopher Byrne, for one, appreciates these steps to grow Bratz beyond plastic dolls. "MGA has managed to build a really strong franchise of products for the kids who want to be involved with the Bratz but want to express that in other ways, with apparel or furniture," says the contributing editor at Toy Wishes Magazine and author of Toys: Celebrating 100 Years of the Power of Play.

"They've taken these things that girls aspire to having and made them Bratz-oriented."

The film's director, Sean McNamara, prefers to highlight its other messages: friendship, girl power, and family values.

"I set out to make a film that was very family-friendly, that mothers and daughters could go to and really enjoy through the clothes and the self-expression," McNamara said in an interview at the Philadelphia Four Seasons a day after the screening. "And it's not just the clothing that's self-expression, it's being a photographer or being a cheerleader, being a songwriter, being a person who makes costumes and wardrobe."

In fact, the movie is so family-friendly that its fresh-faced, ethnically diverse actresses are modestly dressed, respectful of their parents, and so completely focused on friendship and positive activities, and not on boys, that not one of them has a kissing scene.

"There's so many other bad influences out there," says Logan Browning, one of the film's four teenage starlets, who plays Sasha. "My dream in life is to impact the world in some way that someone can relate to me, and this movie is perfect. Little girls are going to look up to us and just have a positive outlook on life now."

Susan Linn, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, doesn't see it that way. "The dolls provide a really terrible model for girls about what it means to be a young woman," asserts the author of Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children From the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising, and cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Though she hasn't yet seen the movie, she says the dolls "exude an in-your-face, commodified sexuality. There is this message about consumerism and materialistic values that they promote to really young girls."

She says that Bratz has "taken a hit" over the years from educators and parents concerned about children, and "they are trying to mitigate that with this movie. But that doesn't change the fact that the movie is designed to sell the dolls, which are still sexualized."

So what will parents think of the movie?

"The moms love it," says Nathalia Ramos, who plays Yasmin. "There's this one line where Cloe goes, 'My mom is my hero,' and all the moms in the audience just go, 'Awww.' It's empowerment for girls and it's empowerment for mothers, too."

Byrne says that winning over moms will be critical. "I think there is an understanding that mom is really the gatekeeper on a lot of this stuff," he says.

McNamara, too, acknowledges the importance of appealing to moms. "I think there are some people who think because of the way that the Bratz dolls are dressed, they're a little nervous about showing their kids [the movie]," he says. "I think getting the moms is going to be one of the hills that we have to climb."

As Byrne and Linn see it, for kids it will be the high school setting and not the family values that holds the appeal.

"High school is this aspirational period," Byrne says. "Girls between 6 and 9 are really fantasizing about being big girls - choosing your own clothes, having your own cell phone, and that magical day when you turn 13."

And what happens when they turn 13? Well, most of the kids gathered at the movie screening will likely have outgrown Bratz. And perhaps, if they mature into fresh-faced, modestly dressed, respectful teenagers, like the film's idolized quartet, they may even come to see the dolls in the same jaded light as Francis, father of Maggie Mulhern.

Considering Bratz fanaticism, he says with a sigh, "They're all plastic toys