As a child, I hated Barbie. She epitomised the bubbly blonde adorableness to which every little girl in my Queensland primary school aspired, an ideal that a scrawny bad-tempered half-Pakistani misfit like me could never hope to attain. I had only one Barbie of my own and I unleashed all my pent-up rage upon her - slashing her hair, dressing her in rags, and locking her in the room of the doll’s house I referred to as “the dungeon”, where she was to reflect upon her vanity, her shallowness, her blondeness, until she had reached a sufficient level of remorse to be worthy of parole.
Nothing would have warmed my angry little heart more than knowing that a streetwise multi-ethnic girl gang was going to come along and kick Barbie’s skinny white arse so hard that she (or at least, Mattel’s marketing department) would be reduced to a snivelling, pathetic wreck, forced to engage in desperate attention seeking stunts such as dressing like Paris Hilton and dumping Ken for an Australian surfie, only to “leak” rumours of a reconciliation 18 months later.
Unfortunately, the girl gang in question, the Bratz dolls, look like a pack of sulky hookers, and my daughter and her friends are as enthralled by them as my classmates ever were by Barbie. These days, Barbie is for babies, no matter how trashy her clothes and how exotic her love life. Bratz dolls are way too cool to be bothered with Barbie’s so-last-century pink dream home and camper van. They hang out in spa salons and sushi bars and Eurotrash nightclubs. They are fashionably pissed off at all times, and while Barbie in hookerwear looks like a sad housewife desperately trying to revive a dying marriage, Bratz dolls in similar gear look every inch the part.
They are also quite deliberately “ethnic”, covering a range of complexions but with their exact ethnic identity never spelt out. Their creator, himself an Iranian Jew, has said that they are designed so that little girls of a range of ethnicities can identify with them, with Latina girls seeing them as Latina, Indian girls as Indian, and so on. There is a blonde Bratz, Cloe, but even she somehow manages to look like a Mediterranean girl with an expensive bleach job. With Bratz dolls, we see at last the triumph of non-Anglo femininity over years of Barbie tyranny. I just wish they could look a bit more cheerful about it.
Bratz aren’t the first multi-ethnic dolls, of course. In my daughter’s pre-Bratz years, I filled her bedroom with an array of dolls whose skin tone ranged from olive to dark chocolate. Even her Barbie house was occupied by one very happy Ken and a harem of multiracial Barbies, inherited from the daughter of my ethnic studies lecturer. There was even a “Minangkabau Barbie” that an Indonesian postgrad had brought back from fieldwork. (No matter her skin colour, however, Barbie remains a blonde at heart.)
My daughter’s most adored dolls were bought in Pakistan, from a village craft co-operative that enables women to generate independent income, and they are works of art as well as toys. Zohra and Maryam are handmade cloth dolls, dressed in traditional costumes from the delicate silver jewellery in their hair to the leather slippers on their feet. These dolls were much coveted by our Indian neighbour’s young daughter, who would tap on the door to ask “Can we play brown dollies?” A girl after my own heart, Parvati would fling any blonde doll that gatecrashed the game clear across the room.
Parvati’s passion for brown dollies reinforced my belief that children need toys that reflect the reality of their own families and selves. But the Bratz dolls add two other important elements: fantasy, and participation in a shared children’s culture.
I wish that my daughter’s fantasies didn’t intersect quite so exactly with Bratz marketing. The Bratz girls have “a passion for fashion”, and rather skimpy fashion at that. They shop. They own cool gear. They get their nails done. They do not run cross-cultural gender empowerment programs, or become secretary general of the United Nations, or any of my other personal fantasies for my daughter’s future. But, as she forcefully tells me, that’s the point.
And while my daughter loves her Pakistani dolls, it’s her Bratz dolls that give her entry to contemporary girl culture. Girls pool their Bratz collections for shared games, swap around clothes and accessories, sigh over the latest products. It’s marketing, of course, and it drives parents nuts. But it’s important in that now not only are “ethnic” dolls owned by a few “ethnic” girls (and white girls with politically conscientious parents) - they are owned and desired by girls of all ethnicities. I doubt they even notice the dolls’ “ethnic” look, but they would certainly notice if the doll world suddenly reverted to monoethnicity. It’s the mainstreaming of multiculturalism, and on balance it has to be an improvement on my Barbie-traumatised childhood.