Barbie had a moment, Bratz might be next. Why do people care about their childhood dolls in 2023?

Why conversations about Bratz and Barbie dolls matter in 2023. (Getty Images; illustrated by Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News)
Why conversations about Bratz and Barbie dolls matter in 2023. (Getty Images; illustrated by Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News)

Here come the Bratz! It might have been the summer of Barbie, but the Mattel brand won’t stand alone in its resurgence in pop culture during “the year of the doll,” according to Jasmin Larian Hekmat, Bratz creative director and the daughter of MGA Entertainment co-founder Isaac Larian.

While the two brands have fought each other in the past over expressions of femininity and diversity — and the ability to shape those ideas for young consumers — experts express hope that people might be ready for the co-existence of both.

Natalie Coulter, associate professor in communication and media studies at York University, Canada, believes that the rising interest in both childhood doll brands might even represent a “renaissance of girls culture,” where the interests of young girls and women are embraced and thought about critically. She tells Yahoo Life that this would be a divergence from the way that dolls, pink and all things girlhood have been “disparaged” and “patronized” in the past.

The most notable example of this is, of course, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film, which led to an uptick of stereotypically feminine fashion and beauty trends — deemed “Barbiecore” — while also challenging ideas of the patriarchy and poking fun at Mattel’s perpetuation of it. Now, the dolls will be further explored by CBS Studios, which is developing a series based on the book You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel V. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side by Orly Lobel.

“I tell the story of how [Mattel] was so litigious against anybody who wanted to just challenge Barbie’s image,” Lobel, a law professor at the University of San Diego, tells Yahoo Life.

While Lobel’s research doesn’t call for a takedown of the dominant doll brand, it offers an opportunity for people to understand how Barbie had played a roll in limiting the evolution of feminism and how Bratz attempted to fill in the blanks.

What do dolls have to do with feminism?

Lobel recalls being a part of an experiment run by her mother, a psychology professor, where a young Lobel was videotaped while playing with both “girl toys” — such as Barbie and tiaras — and “boy toys.”

“When viewers saw me playing with the boy toys, they thought I was more likely to be intelligent and a leader and more likely to succeed. So I had those intuitions of how much our toys and the marketing or consumption as kids and parents of what toy companies are feeding us really matter,” she explains, which she considers now as a mom to three girls.

Dee Williams, a 19-year-old doll collector and photographer who goes by "Dolly Comics" on social media, tells Yahoo Life just how playing with Barbie and Bratz dolls impacted her understanding of femininity.

“Barbie was such a big inspiration for me, not because of her blonde hair and small waist, but because she had so many careers. This Barbie was a nurse like my mom, this Barbie was a pilot and so on. It was very moving to see [a female doll] in all these roles that were male-dominated,” she tells Yahoo Life. “The Bratz pack was who I wanted to be fashion wise. The individuality that Bratz served and the diversity was very needed.”

Studies show that Barbie, specifically, has had a notable impact on body image in young girls and the perpetuation of gender roles, while other data confirms that general doll play is part of social and cognitive development. Now, in the resurgence of the Barbie craze, it’s time to recognize what Mattel did with that impact.

Where do Bratz fit in?

“During a time when there was limited diversity in the doll space, Bratz entered the toy aisle with a whole new attitude,” says Hekmat of the 2001 release under MGA Entertainment. “We were targeting kids ages 9 to 12, with the goal of instilling unapologetic confidence and showing a diverse representation of who and what girls can be.”

Like Mattel and Barbie, MGA Entertainment used topical interests to bring cultural relevance to the Bratz brand. It wasn’t a new strategy, according to Emilie Zaslow, chair of communication and media studies at Pace University and author of Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture. “Since the 1960s, corporations have found that incorporating the iconography and rhetoric of social change movements can increase profit and make consumers feel more positively toward their brands,” she tells Yahoo Life.

The issue that arose with the newer doll, however, was that Mattel had staked its claim in championing women and girl power in that space. Barbie’s parent company had “no intention” of diversifying its product, says Lobel, nor would they allow another company to do so.

“There were all these voices calling for more diversity, more ethnically representative, multi-ethnic dolls. More bratty, contemporary, empowered fashion dolls,” Lobel explains. Once Bratz launched as that, it became "the first ever in decades doll that really presented a competition to Barbie."

More importantly, it became the first doll that represented diverse consumers.

Hekmat herself recalls falling "in love" with the Bratz dolls when she first saw them "because they weren’t like every other stereotypical, white, blonde doll already on the market at that time. Bratz had attitude and sass, and I loved that the dolls had skin tones like me, different hair textures and were a group of friends."

"Over many years, students of color have talked about how important Bratz were in their lives and in understanding themselves and seeing themselves," Zaslow adds.

This too was why Bratz's latest collaboration with Kylie Jenner faced some criticism, as fans were expecting a more diverse doll. Hekmat maintains that the makeup mogul is a perfect fit. "Bratz is all about expressing yourself and celebrating your individuality, which Kylie Jenner does so well in all her endeavors and iconic looks. She took something she was passionate about and went for it all in and built an empire. That’s what being a Bratz is all about; following your passion and making dreams come true," she says.

Why does this matter in 2023?

"It is the right moment for telling the story of feminism that is 21st century," says Lobel, noting that acknowledging the role that these corporations played in the shaping of it is an important step.

To the companies, it may be a reclaiming of the Barbie and Bratz brands in the name of girl power. To consumers, it's an opportunity to be critical about what that means. "It's important for all girls and women to understand the complexity of the manipulation, how we're being marketed to and the choices that we're making based on our understanding of the way in which feminism is being sold back to us."

It's also important that the cultural importance of dolls, play and feminism be validated.

"Barbie was given the same kind of respect this summer that Star Wars has had. It’s an intellectual property that has longevity, that has a story, that all different generations and different people can grab on to; as opposed to something that's not valid because it's for girls," Coutler says. "It's almost part of a bigger renaissance of girls culture."