A Brief Cultural History of Bratz (2024)

As a child in Ecuador, Bratz brand creative Mar Cantos prowled toy store aisles in search of Cloe, Yasmin, Sasha, and Jade. It wasn’t their icy-hued eyelids, pillowy lips, and heads bobbling disproportionately over impossibly svelte bodies that made the dolls so attractive to her—and she was too young to truly appreciate their passion for fashion through the plastic encasem*nt. Instead, their varying skin tones and hair textures captured Cantos’s imagination—features that Barbie, the 50-year-old doll dominating the toy industry at that time, had yet to embrace.

But for adults, buying into Bratz wasn’t that easy. When former Mattel designer Carter Bryant pitched his “bratty teen” doll to Micro Games of America Entertainment two decades ago, CEO Isaac Larian thought they looked “ugly.” MGA had only recently eclipsed its start-up origins at the turn of the millennium, and a fashion doll broached new territory. Bryant unveiled his drawing to the CEO when Larian’s daughter, Jasmin, was just 11 years old. Her father asked for her opinion, and with “sparkling eyes,” she came to a conclusion: “It’s cute.”

Larian, who still alarms his daughter with his penchant for risk-taking, invested in the dolls based on his daughter’s reaction alone (Jasmin would also later inspire the doll name “Yasmin”). He oversaw the production of an ethnically inclusive “Bratz pack”—a reflection, Jasmin claims, of the racially diverse MGA team itself—and peddled the girl group to big box stores around America. On sales calls, one retail corporation considered the dolls too risqué for its more conservative consumer. However, it wasn’t Bratz’s Coyote Ugly-esque crop tops that posed an issue, but their skin tones; blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cloe, they maintained, was the only doll they were interested in buying. “They come together,” countered Larian. “You either buy them all, or none.”

And so began the reign of the Bratz dolls, which turned 20 years old on May 21. With their ethnic ambiguity a key factor in their relatability to children of all races, the dolls grossed $2 billion in sales in their first five years on the market. In 2004, sales figures revealed Bratz had outsold Barbie in the U.K., and by 2006 they had accounted for 40 percent of all doll sales. For the next four years, MGA and Mattel engaged in a fierce war—disputing plagiarism and ownership (Mattel alleged the Bratz concept belonged to them since Carter Bryant was Mattel’s employee) in a series of legal battles. Simultaneously, the moral panic surrounding the Bratz pack’s influence reached a fever pitch.

“Barbie is being replaced by Bratz dolls, which ooze contemporary ‘heat’, with barely there clothes and explicit date themes,” read a 2008 report called “The Senate Inquiry Into the Sexualization of Children in the Contemporary Media Environment.” “The dolls look like streetwalkers,” a father grumbled to the New Yorker in 2006. “You know those ‘pumping parties’ where people go for plastic surgery on the cheap? They look like pumping-party victims.”

Dr. Jillian Hernandez, a Black and Latinx aesthetics scholar, community arts educator, and curator was first made aware of Bratz dolls when her daughter asked for one in the early 2000s. During that decade, The puss*cat Dolls gyrated while scantily-clad, and Kim Kardashian settled litigation around her sex tape’s public release—but it was Bratz’s perceived hypersexuality that really made her uncomfortable. Years on, Hernandez would balk when complimented for her own “Bratz doll” look. Forced to confront her own biases through Bratz, Hernandez realized just how many “racist and sexist ideas about gender deviance and the body” she had actually internalized.

“I came to realize that Barbie is also a sexual representation,” she explained. “However, Barbie’s body is perceived as acceptable due to her whiteness, while Bratz’s is viewed as unacceptable due to their racial difference.”

Jasmin Larian claims much of the backlash was fueled by Mattel, and in 2015 the dolls—plagued by misconception and conflicting creative direction—were put on a production hiatus. “They would try to smear the brand by recruiting the American Psychological Association and all this stuff, but at the end of the day, these girls were ground-breaking and pushed the boundaries,” she said.

In 2017, Las Vegas-based makeup artist Malaysia Herd, known online as OhhMaly, watched several beauty influencers tackle the “Bratz Challenge.” Videos posted to YouTube showed some participants embracing the Bratz aesthetic with winged eyeliner and contoured lips, while others painted enlarged eyes and dramatically outlined the dolls’ signature pouty mouth. The 25-year-old’s proclivity for cartoonish experimentation placed her in the latter group. Herd uploaded a quick snap to social media and headed out to run errands. Within the hour, the picture gained viral traction, her follow count doubling in less than 48 hours. Pre-Bratz challenge, Herd’s makeup tutorials would accrue around 1000 views—her Bratz video has half a million.

“I was mainly drawn to the challenge because I love a big doe-eyed makeup look and this took it to the extreme,” she said. “I absolutely loved these dolls growing up. The fashion and makeup never missed!”

In the caption of many #BratzChallenge clips—Herd’s included—Mar Cantos is credited as inspiration. Frustrated with New York’s ego-driven fashion scene, the then 22-year-old photographer-producer returned home to Ecuador to mull her next move. There, she rediscovered her doll collection. Free to create without the shackles of a commercial agenda, Cantos began to style and shoot her Bratz dolls before eventually digitizing them to take on characteristics of popular celebrities. “Out of nowhere,” she said, “the whole thing flipped.”

“People all around the world were recreating the looks I did on my dolls for themselves,” she added. “It was so wild, so much content, so much free press for a ‘dead’ brand at that moment.”

Now, Cantos works as Bratz’s social media content creator, digitally Bratz-ifying everyone from viral poet Amanda Gorman to disabled trans model Aaron Philip for the brand’s 500,000-strong Instagram audience. It’s a direction that indisputably aligns with the brand’s initial ethos.

While much of Bratz’s early trajectory was set against a beauty backdrop of big-breasted, rail-thin and predominantly white women, unlike willowy Paris Hilton or the surgically voluptuous Playboy bunnies, the dolls were petite with notably small chests. Moreover, their faces exhibited undeniable ethnic markers: almond-shaped eyes, full lips. They were not always considered attractive by conventional, Eurocentric beauty standards. In conversation with the New Yorker in 2006, Iranian-born Larian emphasized MGA’s refusal to “label” the dolls: “Don’t call them African-American. Don’t call them Hispanic. Don’t call them Middle-Eastern. Don’t call them white. Just convey the difference.”

“The major influence they have had is in placing girls of color and their style in the mainstream, and that is definitely making a huge impact on beauty standards,” Dr. Hernandez said.

Achieving this standard has certainly propelled women in the direction of body modification, something that Dr. Hernandez believes Bratz may have had “something to do with.” Austin-based plastic surgeon and Realself advisory board member, Dr. Johnny Franco, claims “doll-like” features have grown in popularity in recent years. This includes the dolls’ “v-shape” face, lifted brows, plumped lips, and enhanced cheeks. A contoured jaw, he claims, is particularly sought-after currently.

“Doll-like trends have been driven most commonly by social media,” he said. “Filters and photo editing have given patients an altered sense of normal.”

“As advanced as apps and filters are, they focus on allowing people to alter the main points of the face or body [until they become caricatures],” added double-board certified plastic surgeon and Realself advisor, Dr. David Shafer of New York’s Shafer Clinic. “So they lock onto the eyes or cheeks or lips and then exaggerate or enhance these features.”

Nonetheless, this exaggeration has contributed to an increasingly “globalized” look—much like that of the Bratz dolls themselves. The almond-shaped “fox” eye, achieved by the tugging of the skin around the temples with a thread or face lift, is one of the key features that renders Bratz ethnically ambiguous. Replicating this aesthetic is nothing short of appropriative, said Christine Chiu, co-founder of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery and star of the hit reality show, Bling Empire, who readily recalls being mocked as a child for the shape of her eyes.

“Influencing the beauty ideal” was never Bratz’s intention, Jasmin said, but it is certainly a testament to the dolls’ stronghold on pop culture. “Heroes become the standard. I think the Kardashians were very inspired by Bratz dolls and they became cultural icons, which fed into the same kind of aesthetic.”

In a 2017 episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kendall Jenner told younger sister Kylie she “looks like a Bratz doll.” It’s a comparison also made by Justine Veras, graduate of University of Florida’s Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies MA program, who notes that white women tend to borrow the popular features of communities of color. Veras was drawn to Bratz dolls as a child due to how they seemed to reflect the Black and Latinx women around her, remembering how Bratz appeared “sexualized and racialized” next to their more “innocent” counterpart, Barbie, because “Bratz and women of color aesthetics are intertwined.”

“There’s an undeniable correlation between Kardashian-Jenner Instagram beauty—wide hips, big lips, all hypersexualized women of color aesthetics—and Bratz,” she said, adding they emit a “cool, ‘bad’ girl energy” with their style. “Bratz continues to represent a resistance to and a deviance from normative culture that I think gives them allure.”

“Bratz were always the outcasts of the dolls, and that says a lot,” Cantos agreed. “The girls who are setting the current beauty standard are girls that most likely had Bratz dolls growing up.”

Propelled by the widespread revival of Y2K trends (low-rise jeans, fur-lined coats, and knee-high boots included,) Bratz have been re-elevated to style icon-status. As such, the past three years have seen 1.7 trillion views of user-generated Bratz content—12 times that of Barbie. It’s this commitment by the Bratz consumer that brought Jasmin Larian back to the family business. Despite the success of her womenswear brand, Cult Gaia, Jasmin assumed the role of Bratz creative director in 2020. (Last week, Cult Gaia was dropped by several stockists after she expressed online support for Israel amid the military occupation of Palestine. Later she took to her Instagram to add that “in a perfect world, Israel should be a place for all people and all religions.” Larian couldn’t be reached for comment).

Whereas the dolls’ politicization has been often projected onto them, now the brand is making political statements of its own volition under Jasmin’s instruction. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Bratz released a statement repudiating police brutality. They made another condemning the racist attacks on the Asian-American community. It was unprecedented vocality from a toy company whose demographic remains seven to twelve-year-old girls, but sent a clear message: the Bratz girls are finally stepping into their power. (Although, Bratz aren’t the only ones attempting to stay relevant amid the current sociopolitical climate.)

Consequently, Jasmin’s priorities for the brand have been focused on collaborating with Bratz community leaders like Mar Cantos, who often tell her Bratz “saved” their lives. And in turn, those community leaders and digital creators should be given a sufficient amount of credit for reviving the brand to become the new iteration of Bratz that we see today.

“I think the shifts in social and independent media have created space for an embrace of Bratz that was absent in the cultural sphere 20 years ago,” Hernandez said. “Many young people are using social media influence to create platforms for remembering and reclaiming them [for representing] the realities of women of color.”

Recently, Kimora Lee Simmons reached out to Jasmin in hopes of tracking down one of the original Bratz Pack for her daughter’s birthday. A 10-inch doll may seem like an unconventional gift for a soon-to-be 21-year-old, but to a Bratz obsessive, it’s an opportunity to reunite with an old friend. For that reason, in honor of the girls’ own 20th birthday, Jasmin, Cloe, Yasmin, and Sasha will now be re-released onto the market for the first time in seven years. “When nothing else was speaking to [fans], that’s what this brand was doing,” Jasmin, who considers the dolls “real people,” said. “I want to make sure that the brand is heard now.”

A Brief Cultural History of Bratz (2024)
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