Since parenting so often feels like one long exercise in humiliation, in which you think you know everything until your children arrive to prove you wrong, I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find myself reconsidering my deepest beliefs about girls and their dolls, in the face of a merchandising watershed.
Like many moms of my era, I was one of those who righteously banned Barbie, the doll that launched a thousand women's studies dissertations, on the grounds that we didn't want our daughters' role model to be a giddy shopaholic who said, "Math class is tough!" and had a figure that defied the laws of gravity. That stance lasted until my older daughter was about 6 and a wise friend told me I was being an idiot by turning Barbie into forbidden fruit. Sure enough, when Sleeping Beauty Barbie arrived, she was played with happily for 48 hours and then put to sleep on the shelf in favor of the paintbox and the Beanie Babies.
Fast-forward a few years. Barbie is now poised to be toppled as the most popular girls' toy by a rival that makes Barbie look Amish: the Bratz doll, a brilliant invention of MGA Entertainment that you can tell instantly, from the very name, taps into the deep desire of daughters to drive their mothers insane.
Enter the world of Bratz dolls, and you can see that their bedrooms are not pink with daisy pillows on the beds, though girls can get a disco ball and a Plugged In Lip CD Boombox. Introduced in the summer of 2001, the dolls are cool, urban and multicultural, with names like Roxxi and Nazalia and Jade and Fianna. They have big heads and big hair, and faces that make you wonder if Angelina Jolie licensed her lips. The designers have even solved the problem of those infuriating little Barbie shoes. The Bratz feet are huge, and when you remove a shoe, the whole foot comes off with it, mildly grisly but much more practical. The dolls are a sisterhood, a rainbow coalition, and they come with killer accessories, like the sushi lounge with a karaoke stage, or the Lil' Gym with treadmill and exercise bike.
So what's not to like? After "The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie" (the name of an actual Occidental College course), was there not a need for a doll that "looks like America"? Absolutely, but diverse is one thing, dissolute another. Most critics focus on the clothes, which lean past trendy to trashy: torn jeans, bare navels, platform shoes, microskirts with chains. It's easy to imagine that behind those pouting lips lies a pierced tongue. But that's not really the issue. You could strip them naked, re-outfit them from Cinderella Barbie's closet and still have a problem.
It's all in the expression. Heavily made up, they look jaded, bored, if not actually stoned. You may want to play with them, but they don't want to play with you. And this matters, because when you watch little girls play, you realize that it's not just about fashion; it's about fantasy. Barbie joins the circus; Barbie teaches the teddy bears to read. You get the feeling that the Bratz dolls would come to life and protest if you told them they were entering a spelling bee.