Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Playing with Fire

News reached me this morning of the unveiling of a new Barbie doll – S & M Barbie. OK, so that’s not the official name for her – this doll is apparently based on the DC Comics superhero, the Black Canary – but the connotations are obvious. Christian groups have already lambasted the toy – aimed at the “tween” market of girls aged 6 to 12 years old – for the message it could be sending impressionable youngsters. This doll has naturally inherited her predecessor's pneumatic figure and golden locks, but she seems to have developed a more racy sense of style, donning leathers and fishnets. The sexual allusions to sado-masochistic sub-culture are not difficult to identify. Instead of being an honest and faithful tribute doll to the Black Canary character, this is clearly Mattel’s attempt to "sex Barbie up" using any means necessary. It’s pretty low, but what should we expect from Mattel, who have been peddling this skewed representation of womankind to young girls for almost 50 years? I’m sure we’re all aware of the fact that were Barbie a real homosapien, she would be forced to move around on all fours. I guess that’s the bugger about having the perfect measurements – you have to sacrifice something, and if it’s a choice between big gazungas and mobility, pass Barbs the zimmer frame! It seems slightly ridiculous to dress a Barbie up as a superhero in light of her unfortunate handicap, especially when compared with the original DC version of the Black Canary doll, who looks like she could pack more than a serious punch and would probably beat Ken at an arm wrestle, never mind Barbie.

In all seriousness, the emergence of this new doll sadly doesn’t shock and is just the latest example of how the girls’ toy market is becoming progressively more seedy. Mattel is currently at loggerheads with rival toy manufacturer MGA whose hugely popular Bratz franchise has been outselling Barbie for some years now: the ‘Black Canary Barbie’ is clearly a retaliation. In a very amusing article in The New Yorker, entitled “Little Hotties”, Margaret Talbot notes that Barbie is now well into middle age and pitches her against the new uprising: the glamourous, youthful Bratz. It sounds like child’s play, but the implications of it are cause for concern. These new dolls are part a growing consumer culture whereby children are increasingly being sold to and their parents bypassed. Its worrying enough that this could happen in the first place but when you delve into the question of what they’re being sold, the waters are murky indeed.

Unlike Barbie, at least the Bratz dolls are actually upwardly mobile. Unfortunately that’s where any reference to reality ends. They have distinctly large heads (echoing the ‘lollipop’ trend that is currently sweeping the celebrity circuit), and over exaggerated cartoon-like features daubed in garish make-up (even Bratz Babies are heavily made up and wear their dummies as jewelled adornments - scary). They claim to be a ‘fashion doll’ like Barbie, and the dolls do come in a vast array of different manifestations: goth, ghetto-fabulous, evening formal. You name it – the Bratz have worn it. The common thread that links each of the ‘collections’ is the sexualized nature of these toys. Skirts are short, tops are cropped, heels are platformed. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in the American media. TV psychologist Dr Phil said they “look like hookers”, while the American Psychological Association (APA) established the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007), stating: “Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas. Although these dolls may present no more sexualisation of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4-8 year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.”

I'm not for one second suggesting that the little girls that play with these dolls are fully aware of the comment they are making about female sexuality and body image, I think selling this image of womanhood to young girls in any form is extremely irresponsible. While kids might be oblivious to the ‘sassiness’ of these play-things (as Talbot rightly points out this is simply a euphemism for ‘sexiness’), adults aren’t. I found it distinctly odd (and somewhat disturbing) when a male friend of mine joked that he was planning to see Bratz: The Movie for a bit of eye candy (however much he insisted he was joking). And this is the problem – marketing adult notions of sexuality and gender to children is plain wrong. They may not understand it, but they will grow up accepting these representations as normal. Passing the buck by reasoning that they are too young to understand these notions is downright cowardly.