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Looking Beyond Bratz Brawls

Lynda Waddington

Your instinctive reaction was right: Bratz dolls are harmful to girls, an APA study says.

There is a major bone of contention in my household — a familial femur to pick, if you will. It pits children against parents in disputes that have often ended with tears of frustration on both sides.

I refuse to buy Bratz dolls or any of the Bratz label accessories or toys. In case you haven't already had the distinct misfortune of viewing one of these toys, Bratz dolls have wardrobes that include miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas and are being marketed to girls as young as four. Don't like the "action" figures? Take your pick from Bratz Babyz, Bratz Kidz, Fashion Pixiez, Magic Hair, Bratz Spiderman 3, Bratz video games, Bratz alarm clocks, Bratz compact discs and, of course, the Bratz remote-controlled cruiser. If none of that strikes your fancy, there is always the new Bratz motion picture.

Despite three years of whining by my now 7-year-old daughter for one of the toys and numerous themed birthday party requests featuring the pint-sized sexpots, I have held firm in my belief that no good could come of playing with the glittery, scantily clad hunks of plastic from China. Research is on my side.

The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls released a report in February that not only highlights sexual societal messages being sent to pre-teen girls but singles out the Bratz dolls by name: "It is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified sexuality."

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The report found evidence that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising and media is harmful to girls' self-image and health development.

"We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development," said Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the APA Task Force and associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

  • Cognitive and Emotional Consequences: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person's confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and Physical Health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women-eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexual Development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls' ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown, co-authors of "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers' Schemes," say that "when it comes to the portrayal of girls in popular culture there is an abysmal lack of imagination."

When I was young my Barbie dolls — and, yes, I owned quite a few along a wealth of blow-up furniture and a cardboard townhouse designed by my brothers and me — play acted the things important to my life at the time. I can clearly remember pretending Skipper (who was always my favorite) going to high school, making great grades and heading off to college. The dolls, then, were an extension of my own dreams, acting out the things I hoped to do.

With fantasy and imagination such an important part of how children play with dolls, I worry about what these particular dolls — and the sub-toys they've spawned — not only ignite in my children's imagination, but what they limit. Would my favorite gal Skipper have made the same choices if she spent hours at the hair and make-up salon, was worried about her leather mini riding up in chemistry, or wrestled with elaborate plans on how to steal Ken, the only guy in Barbie-world, from her best friend?

"The issue is that the way marketers and media present sexuality is in a very narrow way," said Lamb, who also served on the task force, in an interview with the Washington Post. "Being a sexual person isn't about being a pole dancer. This is a sort of sex education girls are getting, and it's a misleading one."

According to the task force report, parents can play a major role in contributing to the sexualization of their daughters or can play a protective and educative role.

"As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings-ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls," said Zurbriggen. "The goal should be to deliver messages to all adolescents-boys and girls-that lead to healthy sexual development."

In some ways my adolescent years don't seem very long ago. In other ways, I'm quite sure I marched the earth with the dinosaurs. While my children are growing up watching MTV and music videos, my friends and I became bored after seeing Dire Straits complain for three days that they wanted their MTV and the Buggles endlessly proclaim that video killed the radio star. And, proving that cute can only take you so far, we also quickly tired of Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman. At that point in MTV history — the beginning of my 8th-grade year — the only thing the cable station and the videos were actually selling was the music. Although, in retrospect, I'm sure my parents would have told you otherwise.

My mother, a nurse who worked the night-shift at a convalescent home, sat quietly throughout Madonna's "Like a Virgin" before asking me if I thought many women regretted having intercourse just for the sake of "getting it over with." Not sure what to say, I remember just sitting there. She got up, patted me on the head and told me to think about it.

At the end of the day – whether days of Madonna or Bratz – all we really want is our children to do as my mother directed and think about it and find value in themselves.

There is a great deal of noise, so make sure your voice rises above or is heard more often than the television, Internet, advertisements, song lyrics, music videos, electronic games, clothing retailers and, yes, even toy manufacturers.

Topics and Tags:

Pop Culture, Psychology, young women, youth