The Bratz universe was humming along as usual this week at the Toys "R" Us flagship store in Manhattan. Like bees to honey, little girls buzzed about shelves lined with those famous pouty dolls with huge heads, plush lips to put Angelina to shame, and bared, toned midriffs.
There was much to choose from: Bratz Babyz. Bratz Kidz. Fashion Pixiez. Magic Hair. Bratz Spiderman 3. Bratz Shrek. The Bratz RC cruiser. Alarm clocks, CDs, video games. "I love it!" one girl cried, actually jumping for joy. "Look at all the makeup!"
These are the Bratz lovers — young girls who, negative reviews aside, are the target audience for this debut weekend of the new "Bratz" movie. What they'll see is a more wholesome look to Yasmin, Jade, Sasha and Cloe, the main characters behind the billion-dollar global franchise.
Then there are the Bratz haters, including some (but not all) parents, who say that film or no film, the Bratz doll message is troubling: friendship may be good, but what's really important is to be chic and, above all, sexy.
Few dolls seem to inspire as much opinion as the Bratz, created in 2001 by Isaac Larian of MGA Entertainment Inc. The blogosphere is littered with references to the dolls as tarts or prostitutes. The American Psychological Association got into the act earlier this year, mentioning Bratz in a broader report on the sexualization of girls: "It is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality."
Some parents, alarmed by the sexy clothing and pouty looks, simply ban the dolls. "We don't allow them in the house," says Helene Lewis, of Moorestown, N.J. "It's the name, the look, the whole feeling about them. There are already enough negative influences out there."
But Lewis recognizes that banning something outright might lead her 5-year-old daughter to want it more. So she tempers her response: "We're going to avoid it as long as possible."
At the Toys "R" Us display this week, Vera Dias-Freitas was going through the same balancing act. "It's hard to say no, now that all the kids are getting it — it's peer pressure," she said, as her 7-year-old daughter Emily weighed her options. "What bothers me is that they give off an aggressive attitude. And why do they have to be sexy?" said the mother from Framingham, Mass. "The heels, and the low-rise jeans — it's too much."
Some, though, say young girls simply love to dress up their dolls — and it doesn't mean your 5-year-old will demand stilettos and spaghetti straps next time she leaves for preschool. "I like the dolls," said Mary Ann Savage of Fenton, Mich., as daughter Kylee, 8, exulted over the Magic Makeup kit. "At this age, they all want to dress up and wear makeup. My daughter's a total girly-girl."
Though producers of the "Bratz" movie say they expect mainly a "tween" audience — roughly ages seven to 13 — many fans of the dolls are as young as four and five. And perhaps younger for the babies, who wear diapers that look more like bikini bottoms, with midriff showing, and bottles stylishly attached to a chain necklace.
Psychologist Sharon Lamb, who often gives talks on the sexualization of girls, says one seventh-grade class gasped when she showed them a Bratz Baby.
"The baby looked just like a blowup sex doll in a bikini," says Lamb, co-author of "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers' Schemes." She's also concerned by some of the social scenarios Bratz dolls are placed in, which she calls "'Sex and the City' scenarios for little girl dolls — hanging out on corners, at parties, in hot tubs."
Lamb said the "Bratz" filmmakers had no choice but to outfit the girls more modestly than the dolls, "because if they dressed real girls in those outfits they'd look sleazy." But she added that parents "need to look at the whole package. Girls will still want to buy Bratz dolls or padded Bratz bralettes. It's the whole Bratz package that they're buying and supporting."
The film's producers see it differently. Avi Arad, who co-produced the film and made a career in the toy industry, says criticism of the dolls is unjustified.
"I don't think parents are looking at (the whole) picture," Arad said. "In all fairness, this is a huge brand. You couldn't be that successful if most parents really hated it." MGA Entertainment says worldwide revenue for all Bratz products — dolls, CDs, video games, DVDs, etc. — came to $2 billion for the 13-month period straddling last holiday season.
What critics don't understand, Arad says, is the stylistic reasons behind the doll's design. "A big head allows more hair play," he says. "The lips are for styling." As for the film, he says the aim was to create a truly multiethnic group of characters who learn to value friendship over the need for social acceptance.
"If parents give it a chance, they'll walk out and say, 'I like these kids,'" says Arad. Besides, he says, what's wrong with a little passion for fashion? "I see kids today folding down their skirts because it's fashionable to have a little belly," he says. "It doesn't make them bad girls. It doesn't reflect their beliefs." (And he points out that the costume designer, Bernadene Morgan, is a grandmother.)
Nonetheless, at least one young girl has no intention of seeing the film, and has never played with the doll. "I think they're really immodest," says Hannah Brown, 13, who's entering the eighth grade in Spartansburg, S.C. "Third-graders will see these dolls wearing halter tops and spaghetti straps and really short miniskirts, and think it's OK for them, too. It's not."
But Lauren Kaufman, whose daughters own several Bratz dolls, thinks Yasmin and cohorts get a slightly bum rap.
"My kids just think they're cool dolls," said the mother of two from Scarsdale, N.Y. "As for their values, they get them from me. I really don't worry about that."
And as for the movie, she says, "yes, we'll probably go see it."