Thursday, January 22, 2009

TY turns First Daughters into "Girlz" (with update)


Bratz dolls are some of the creepiest, most disturbing toys I've ever seen. With pouty lips, trowel-applied makeup and club gear, what message are these dolls meant to send to the young girls they target? They celebrate a strange and dangerous modern feminine ideal: one that is infantile and stereotypically female (pink and festooned with butterflies), yet overtly sexual and preternaturally carnal (bared bellies and bedroom eyes). These are the toys little girls are to use for aspirational play. It is a sad reflection of the "pornification" of American culture. For all of the mud slung on Barbie (some of it by me), the damage done by the Mattel classic I grew up with seems minor in comparison. Interestingly, thanks to a lawsuit by Mattel, owner of the Barbie brand, as of December 2008, Bratz dolls are no more. Unfortunately, their legacy lives on.

Stroll through the girls' section of your local Target or Wal-Mart and notice the glut of pink, purple and sparkles, next to low-slung jeans and cropped tees emblazoned with saucy sayings. And in the toy aisle, there are plenty of Bratzian dolls offered by competitors the Mattel behemoth hasn't gotten around to squeezing out of the market. Take the TY Girlz (Replacing a boring "s" with a super-hip "z" makes a thing more au courant, or "crunk" if you will. Of course, it also makes our kids illiterate...), which are far less overtly sexual and offensive than Bratz, but still representative of what the blog, Packaging Girlhood, calls "dollZ":

Well, you've heard from us quite a bit about the trend in dollZ to encourage little girls to play with teen dolls and everything marketers thing "teen" means. That is, Bratz and their followers party, have a passion for fashion, drink "juice" drinks in cosmo glasses, fly in jet planes, shop, and hang out in hot tubs. Read more...

Packaging Girlhood reports that TY is adding two new dolls to its line of glam Girlz: one for each of the young Obama girls. And rather than portray the pair for what they are: smart, poised and beautiful little girls with (I imagine) a variety of interests, the company is making their bodies more mature and accessorizing them with butterflies and hearts.

WELCOME MALIA AND SASHA to the world of teens. TY has made two dolls, Sasha and Malia, to match their other dolls. They're the same height, look very teen, and even have breasts. What's going on here? Read more...

(See video of the dolls here)

I agree with Packaging Girlhood that making the Obama dolls appear more physically mature than their real-life namesakes is reflective of a societal trend that matures young girls too early, but unhooked from that baggage, I actually find the Malia an Sasha dolls rather benign. The dolls appear older than the real girls, but still youthful. And despite the "girly" imagery in the video on the TY site, a creative little girl can make their Malia or Sasha do whatever she chooses, regardless of typical gender roles. I wasn't that fascinated with dolls as a kid, but when I played with, say, Barbie, I always made her an adventurer. She was always heading to the Grand Canyon or somewhere in her tricked-out RV. Ken rode "shotgun" and read the map.

The existence of the Sasha and Malia dolls, in fact, may be a good thing, viewed through the lens of race. Kiri Davis' re-execution of the infamous "doll test" proved that racial bias and self-esteem is reflected even in the choice of playthings. I am old enough (which is really not so very old) to remember when it was hard to find black dolls (or any dolls "of color"), much less ones designed to celebrate real role models. It is a good thing that my nieces can play with dolls that look like them (and that for the first time we have a First Family in which black children can see themselves). And I am glad to know that, no doubt, children of many races will want to have replicas of the little Obamas in their doll collection. Maybe a doll test done 20 years from now will have different results.

But our kids deserve a range of playthings that are free from all "isms"--those related to gender and race. And it is good that Packaging Girlhood is monitoring the messages that are marketed to growing girls. What pathologies will the next generation of girls be burdened with--the ones who have grown up on Paris Hilton and Bratz dolls? And what impact will this culture of early sexualization have on girls of color, who society already brands as naturally sexually aggressive and promiscuous?

I think the Sasha and Malia Ty Girlz are okay, but a lot of toys marketed at our children are not. We ignore them at our society's peril.


First Lady Michelle Obama agrees with commenter Renee about the commodification of "young, private citizens." And improbably, TY claims the dolls are not meant to represent the first children, but some other random Sasha and Malia. Riiiight. Read more...

Read Jessica Bennett's "The Pornification of a Generation" in Newsweek.

(Hat tip to Jezebel)


Renee said...

While I believe it is important for black children to have black dolls to play with I really dislike the idea of commodification without consent. Knowing that these companies are white owned further makes the recent spate of products designed to cash in on the Obamas offensive, I think it bothers me because whiteness has always assumed a right to our bodies. Perhaps if a portion the profits were being given to the girls I would not mind as much.

Tami said...


I understand your point. I think, though, that by making the choice to be President of the United States and First Lady, Barack and Michelle have consented (on their daughters' behalf, too) to be a public family. In this case, for me, the commodification takes a back seat to HOW they are being commodified.

Anonymous said...

C'mon! These dolls are sweet and cute looking just like the real Sasha and Malia. To me they honor the Obama kids not exploit them. And although Ty Warner is a white guy he is from Chicago and maybe this is his way of paying tribute. I'm from Chicago too and I don't think the Obamas are hurting for cash. Ty, Inc however is, they have laid off over 150 people this year including a friend of mine who loved working there. Maybe more good will come if Ty can use proceeds from the sales of these girlz to put people back to work.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Bratz have not gone away. The results of the lawsuit is that Mattel now owns the rights to them. Expect them to be re-introduced soon.

Claudia said...

I agree Tami that these dolls are fairly benign. After seeing the "Bratz" headline, I was worried at first. But the dolls seemed to be dressed as conservatively as Sasha and Malia are in real life.

I have to be honest, I was actually looking for dolls like this around Christmas time. My daughter only has a few dolls (definitely no Bratz or Barbies!) and we've named her latest one, Sasha. So I guess I would be the target audience for this product?

Like you, I'm also glad that there are people out here who are asking questions and being critical of toys that send the wrong messages (that "z" really seems ridiculous) but this particular product would be okay for me.

Tami said...

Anon 2,

You're right. I should have known better. The Bratz brand was far too popular to just disappear into the pop culture dustbin. Of COURSE, Mattel will have these dolls back on shelves.


Anonymous said...

Here's the thing:

When it was other politicians out there this past season, it was open season. Not a peep from most (incl. "us") unless it was to add to the fray.

These people are going to be in the eye of the public for the rest of their lives. Like other 'ticians.

On this particular topic. The toys are cute. But if the business owner would have been better off to have sought some type of consent before going on to make them.

Tami said...

Anon 1.25,

I don't agree that there has been no outcry over merchandise created for other politicians...or even the Obamas themselves.

Back during the heat of the election, there were some absolutely horrible items (far more concerning than these dolls) created in Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama's images. I recall hearing outcry about them all--mostly because they were overtly sexist or racist.

Yes, the Obamas are now in the public eye. That's why I think I don't think permission is really an issue here. Public figures get commodified, no matter their race, gender, sexuality...whatever. But I do think, even when it relates to public figures, we should evaluate the way they are commodified and point out when it reflects "isms" and biases.

Anonymous said...

I never understood that, and I would not complain if the company was ordered to discontinue the dolls.

The first Daughters dont looks like that. One is shorter than the other, They are 2 shades darker and they do not have the *same* fashion sense.

These dolls look alittle TOO generic. YOu could not tell who they are unless they had those names.

To be honest with you, I feel VERY sorry for these girls. Being a public family is NO EXCUSE to exploit the image of children.

Kjen said...

Overall, if I didn't know that these two dolls were supposed to be the Obama daughters I would say that they were totally benign.
But the dolls bring home a point I am increasingly uncomfortable with - Obama commodification. From t-shirts, to commerative plates, to action figures (ok, that was actually kind of funny), the culture has absorbed the man and embrace his favorite slogans emblazoned on some product they can own. A process that normally takes decades has been reduced to weeks.
Sorry for the long response. But there is something about this general assumption that people have the right to your image and the right to reproduce/and profit from it any way they see fit that doesn't sit well with me.

Anonymous said...

"I'm from Chicago too and I don't think the Obamas are hurting for cash. Ty, Inc however is, they have laid off over 150 people this year including a friend of mine who loved working there."

Hey, he's gotta defray costs for that $40 million investment in that Penthouse suite of that silly Donald Trump Spire building downtown. It's a shame really. I wanted to work there too.

Anonymous said...

Wow, a relationship with Simon Marketing (the company that perpetrated the McDonalds Monopoly scam circa 2000), and possible mob ties? Maybe that explains why the Beanie Baby empire is so secretive.


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