Goodbye, Barbie. Hello, Bratz.
If the doll industry is any measure of today’s commodified standard of beauty, assimilation is out and multi-ethnic is in. Forty-eight years have passed since Barbie came to represent the ultimate American fantasy: a leggy, blonde-haired, teeny-waisted preeminence of elegance, with a flamingo pink sports car and Ken by her side. Despite Mattel’s attempts to recreate and diversify Barbie’s identity to reflect social trends and more eclectic “girl” activities, Barbie has had trouble keeping up with the times, even if she does wear a tallit.
Nearly half a century since Barbie’s birth, the Bratz dolls—all of whom are now characters in a live action film—have turned Barbie’s beauty inside out and created a whole new ideal: a multi-ethnic ideal. In the Bratz doll posse, Jade is half-White, half-Asian; Cloe and Sasha are African-American; and Yasmine—the first Bratz doll created, front and center in the photograph below—is half-Jewish, half-Latina.
A recent JTA article explains that these dolls with their ‘girl power, be yourself’ personas, have captured the attention of young girls who see the Bratz identities as far more reflective of their own social realities than Barbie.
There’s a lot that interests me about this shift, not the least of which is that both dolls were created by Jews. Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Bratz was created by Isaac Larian, an Iranian Jewish immigrant-turned-toy-entrepreneur with an explicit agenda to create an anti-Barbie. For Jewish girls growing up in the 1960s, Barbie may have embodied their goyisha (non-Jewish) yearnings, fed their eagerness to break away from lingering social stigmas of shtetl life and shmate-wearing mothers, and perhaps honed their desire to be something “other,” and someone “pretty.” But in today’s world, being Jewish isn’t as “uncool” as it once was. It seems to me that a doll’s half-Jewish, half-Latina identity represents the normalization of Jewish culture in American society and reflects an expanded notion of what Jewish identity looks like; Yasmine’s appearance certainly defies the Ashkenazi-centrism that the American Jewish community generally experiences and often perpetuates. It still feels slightly uncomfortable, though, that “Jewish” and “Latina” are positioned as independent categories as suggested by Yasmine’s “halfness.” Why can’t Yasmine be marketed as a Latina Jew? Or a Jewish Latina? Must her identity be so pointedly bifurcated? Is “halfness” really an accurate expression of multi-ethnic experience?
In spite of their diverse identities, these dolls still don’t fully live up to their anti-Barbie potential. Although “white and blonde” have been abandoned as a doll ideal, mini-skirts, spaghetti-strap tank-tops, and long flowy hair (except for Yasmine’s hair which has a familiar “Jewish” curl—no accident, I imagine) still reign. In 2007, I suppose it’s cool to be “half-Jewish, half-Latina” as long as your lips are plump and pouty with shimmery lipstick that suits your skin tone, and as long as you wear tight, skimpy outfits to sexualize your tiny body. Apparently, you also have to be a “Brat.”
While the image of ideal beauty has gotten a bit more colorful, fashion, body image, and behavior—at least in the doll world—have generally remained static. So just how far have we come? I challenge the next anti-Barbie doll inventor to give a female doll a faux-hawk and a striped tie.