Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Yasmin, Kennedy, and Lolita: How Bratz and My Scene inspired the next part of The Doll Project

I'll never forget the first time I saw Yasmin. With her caramel latte skin and full lips, she looked to me like she could be representative of a number of different ethnic backgrounds. She wore wide-legged pants, platform shoes and a kerchief on her head and looked like she came right out of a graffiti art mural, or an ad for JNCO's.

When I picked up the box and read about her friends, Sasha, Cloe, and Jade and their "passion for fashion," I knew Bratz would be the next line of dolls I would collect. There was something fresh, edgy, and current about them that Mattel's rival Generation Girl line just couldn't touch. This was in 2001.
Not to be outdone by this upstart toy company, Mattel introduced the My Scene girls. And I collected them, too.

Over the next few years, I saw the 10 inch fashionistas wearing clothes that were shorter and tighter every season. The makeup grew heavier. They wore black fishnets. They looked like they should be dancing on the set of somebody's music video.

And Mattel, not to be outdone by MGA, tarted up the My Scene girls as well, most egregiously with the Bling Bling line.

My new favorite series of dolls to collect jumped the shark. By the time the Bratz Babyz line was introduced, I thought the Bratz girls had all become teen moms. By this point, it wouldn't be hard to believe.

(Later, I realized they were supposed to be the Yasmin & co. as toddlers) By the time the My Scene Roller Girls line was introduced, they reminded me of Heather Graham's porn star character in Boogie Nights.

I began to find more and more of Mattel and MGA's offerings offensive. I felt even worse for the little girls the dolls were marketed to. What kind of message were they getting? Of course, we cannot deny the link between Barbie dolls and pinup girls; Barbie herself is based on the German Lilli doll, a novelty item never intended to be a plaything for children. But for the most part fashion doll companies have reserved Lilli's modern-day counterparts for collectors. Case in point, the Mattel Silkstone lingerie collector series.

But this distinction was never made for the Bratz and My Scene dolls. In a world that markets thongs to first-graders, should I have even been surprised? In a world where the lines are so blurred that British superstore Tesco placed stripper poles in the toy department because they thought they belonged there, (probably next to the newer Bratz and My Scene dolls), I suppose this sort of thing was inevitable.

Is this a case of life imitating art or art imitating life? Were the girls of My Scene and Bratz just following fashion, their rise to popularity unfortunately timed to coincide with the vogue for low-rise jeans, midriff-baring tops, casual outfits inspired by provocative lingerie, and a profusion of sequins and glitter?

Even if that were the excuse their manufacturers chose to use, there is still the matter of appropriateness. But people seem less and less aware of that these days. Look at this example from Simon Doonan's Eccentric Glamour book where he writes about an encounter with a group of inappropriately dressed aspiring models:

These gals do not understand that clothes have meaning.
They were told to "dress to express," and that is what they did, randomly and without any sense that they might have the option top express something other than slutty availability or a general commitment to the porn industry. I feel bad for them. They are ill equipped to survive in the big city because they simply do not understand the significance of any of their fashion choices. Unless I intervene, these gals are doomed to go through life dressed like a bunch of third rate hoochie dancers, all the while thinking that they look perfectly normal and respectable.
Maybe I can be the one to open their eyes. I decide to give it a shot...

"Don't you see, your clothing, what you choose to wear every day, it speaks volumes about you. It is a form of communication! You have to make sure that your clothing is in sync with who you are."

From the puzzled looks on the faces of these attention junkies, I realize that this is a notion that has never ever ever occurred to them before. They are marching through the world, shopping, shopping, shopping, impulsively wearing all kinds of freaky ensembles, and never once have they stopped to think that fashion might be playing such a powerful role in all of our lives.
I continue:
"What you wear says everything about who you are. Long before you open your mouth, people are drawing conclusions about you based on your appearance. If you dress like a stripper, Carrie, people will assume that you are a stripper, which is okay only if you are in fact a stripper."

Popular media has become so fraught with double-entendres, double standards, and mixed messages that it is becoming more and more difficult to determine what is age-appropriate. It has led the of sexualization of girls. The American Psychological Association (APA), in their report on this very subject, says that sexualization occurs when

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;

  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;

  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or

  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

Also, it is important to note that "all four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization." And we must keep in mind that "when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them."

As for Bratz and My Scene dolls, the researchers say:

"Although these dolls may present no more sexualization of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality. The objectified sexuality presented by these dolls, as opposed to the healthy sexuality that develops as a normal part of adolescence, is limiting for adolescent girls, and even more so for the very young girls who represent the market for these dolls."

And this part really helped me to link both aspects of The Doll Project together:

"related research suggests that viewing material that is sexually objectifying can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect, and even physical health problems in high-school-aged girls and in young women."
In addition to these issues, the researchers also found that sexualization leads to self-objectification:

"Psychological researchers have identified self-objectification (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996) as a key process whereby girls learn to think of and treat their own bodies as objects of others’ desires. In self-objectification, girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.Though portraying oneself solely as a sexual object to be looked at is sometimes viewed by girls and women as exercising control over their sexuality (e.g., at some social networking Web sites), presentation of the self in this way can be viewed as a form of

YouTube's motto is "broadcast yourself," and cameraphones and webcams make it possible for girls to quickly disseminate provocative self-portraits to an unseen global audience.

And there are plenty of recent stories of teen celebrities whose reputations have been scandalized because of cameraphone photos. Youthful indiscretions are now given a public audience. Producers of videos like the Girls Gone Wild series are profiting from them. And intentionally or unintentionally, toy companies like Mattel and MGA have helped to plant the seeds of self-objectification in the little girls who play with the dolls they made.

So I could think of no better model that My Scene's Kennedy for the "Broadcast Yourself" series. She has the distinctive Barbie face, with the unsettling addition of bedroom eyes, and cherry red slightly parted lips. Combined with her girlish ponytails, she channels a myriad of forbidden fantasies and desires. I decided to use a different doll's body, which I couse for its suggestive pose and sheer red nightie. Perched atop her head are red Lolita sunglasses. The only light in the room emanates from her computer screen. It illuminates her body.

She is using the built-in webcam on her little laptop to share images of herself with the world. She makes a digital slide show for her social networking pages using a song by The Pussycat Dolls. The lyrics of the song are about wanting fame and attention, and being called sexy by boys. She knows no better way to express herself that to take photos that expose her breasts. She is not thinking of the consequences of her actions, especially what kind of influence this could have on her little sister Ana.

Related Reading:

LITTLE GIRLS: Pink, Purple & Bling from The Revolution of Real Women Blog
Pushing Buttons from (cameraphone scandal story)
Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (PDF)
Hot Tots, and Moms Hot to Trot by Judith Warner
Study: Girls would rather be sexy than smart
Too sexy too soon?


  1. it's incredibly disturbing, but more than anything, sad that we are sexualizing girls from such a young age.

  2. Here's what's sad: that we are referring to girls as "tarts" and judging them as promiscuous based on clothing alone--- and that we insult their intelligence by suggesting they take orders from a fashionable piece of plastic.

  3. Roxy, I wasn't trying to suggest that girls take orders from dolls. I am using dolls in my art to embody the negative messages society is giving them. Perhaps that wasn't clear in what I wrote. For a while I gave up on The Doll Project because I felt like some people just didn't get it. That is why it took me so long to respond to your comment.

    The Doll Project isn't about passing judgment on anyone but the media. I am trying to call attention to the disturbing and the absurd by using satire. My intent was never to insult anyone's intelligence.

    Of course the problem with satire is that sometimes people take it literally, then take offense at it. Or worse, they take it literally and use it as a shining example of the very thing it is supposed to be skewering, like the girls with eating disorders who use The Doll Project for thinspiration. (I made that sad discovery while tracking my stats online.)

    But I have come to accept the fact that my work will not please or be understood by everyone all the time.


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