brucekluger.com

    USA Today, December 11, 2006

    Dolls lose their innocence
    Thongs, high heels and caked-on makeup. "Penthouse"?
    No, your child's dollhouse.

    By Bruce Kluger


    Memo to holiday shoppers: As you roam the
    doll aisles in coming weeks, looking for the
    perfect gift for the little girl in your life, don't
    panic if you suddenly think you've wandered
    into Victoria's Secret—or, worse, a lap-dance
    bar. It happens to the best of us.

    This month, doll shelves are brimming with sex
    and glitz, as the latest lineup of 10-inch tarts
    strut their stuff into the hearts of girls every-
    where. Mattel's slinky "My Scene" collection has
    ramped up the glam for the holidays with its
    "Fab Faces" dolls, mini-minxes with pliable mugs
    (make them pout!) that come with boas, tiaras
    and accessories "no diva can live without."

    Play Along's coquettish Dream Dancer dolls (kid sisters to the hot-pantsed Sky
    Dancers) should also be a big hit on Christmas morning, flashing their long legs as
    they spin on their signature swivel bases. (Can you say pole dance?)

    And, of course, there's MGA Entertainment's notorious Bratz dolls, those high-
    heeled, dewy-eyed baby fashionistas of the preschool set. Looking for all the world
    like tiny hookers—exposed midriffs, painted faces—the Bratz line is doing the bling
    thing for Christmas with its "Diamondz" collection, adding 10-carat sparkle to an
    accessories cache that already includes mobile phones, glitter mini-skirts and (sigh)
    thonglike underwear.

    You've come a long way, Raggedy Ann.

    Sex indeed sells, as anyone who's ever been seduced by a flesh-soaked Calvin
    Klein ad or undulating iPod commercial can tell you. That's to be expected by
    grown-up consumers. We're easy that way. But as toymakers continue to target
    increasingly younger audiences with the same come-hither come-on, we have to
    ask ourselves, what is all this doing to our kids?

    "Children are sexual beings, but in an ideal world they grow into their sexuality
    gradually, and in an age-appropriate way," says Jean Kilbourne, author of the book
    Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. "Now,
    there is so much pressure on them at a young age to model an adult version of sex
    that is way beyond their comprehension."

    As the father of two girls, I've seen firsthand the way sex has slithered into the
    dollhouse—and our lives—and like most parents, I find myself stuck between a rock
    and a hard sell.

    When my youngest daughter, Audrey, for example, asked for her first Bratz doll at
    age 4, I cringed. (The one she wanted, Cloe, dressed like someone I dated in
    college. Trust me, that's not a good thing.) And yet before I knew it, I was caving in
    to that age-old entreaty—"But everyone else has one!"—and plunking down my 20
    bucks.

    My guess is that I'm not the only parent whose resolve evaporates in the aisles of
    Toys 'R' Us. Bratz is, after all, a $2.5 billion worldwide property. If not me, some
    other sucker.

    Even so, you don't have to be a social scientist to see how, for every plastic vamp
    we allow to sashay through our kids' bedrooms, we are only encouraging a larger
    sexual trend to take root in their culture. From the boy-crazy characters in tween
    movies to the barely-there costumes on Dancing with the Stars, sex has become
    something our kids are growing up with rather than growing into, and this uninvited
    tutoring is often occurring below the radar.

    Fortunately, parents are beginning to fight back. Hasbro was planning to trot out a
    chorus line of figurines modeled after raunch rockers The Pussycat Girls (Don't Ya
    Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?)—that is, until a Brooklyn mom kick-started
    a letter-writing campaign complaining that the torrid troupe was "definitely not for
    kids." Hasbro eventually scrapped the idea.

    The battle is also escalating among the competing manufacturers themselves. AG
    Properties, which markets the more "wholesome" Holly Hobbie characters (sweet-
    faced kids, furry pets—you get the picture), recently commissioned a survey of
    1,010 mothers with preteen daughters to determine how they feel about the army of
    sultry sirens invading their kids' playrooms. The results were nearly unanimous:
    90% expressed a desire for a wider selection of dolls that were positive role models
    for young girls, while 85% said they are fed up with the "sexpot" playthings available.

    For me, the turning point came last year with the release of Hasbro’s Trollz, a 21st
    century upgrade of the goofy little Trolls of my generation. Unlike their preciously
    ugly Sixties forebearswith their non-gendered naked bodies, sweetly deformed
    faces, and Don King-like shock of fuzzy hair (available in a variety of colors)the
    refitted Trollz promised to be slick, stylish and trendy. The “z” in the name was a
    dead giveaway that Hasbro was sending this new pack of chickies down the same
    consumer catwalk as the Bratz.

    While this packaged sexism wasn’t any more outrageous than the locked-and-
    loaded boy toysTransformers, Bionicles, Power Rangersthat clog store shelves
    and bathtub drains across the nation, one difference between Trolls and Trollz
    struck me as profound: The old version practically dared kids to love something
    that was funny looking. The new dolls announced that it was all about looking good.
    Not cool.

    So where does all of this leave Christmas shoppers?

    Like everything else with parenting, we need to be discriminating. For my money
    (literally), I remain a big fan of the American Girl doll line, if only because it has the
    audacity to teach little girls U.S. history instead of fashion tips. And yes, I've even
    taken a shine to the legendary Barbie, who despite her tiny-waisted, ballistically
    busted notoriety, has in recent years been making efforts to give parents a choice.
    To be sure, Babs sports some pretty risqué ensembles in her "Bling Bling"
    collection, but she also stars as a Dancing Princess and Rapunzel in a separate
    fairy tales line. And in her storybooks, she volunteers at an animal shelter and
    raises money for starving kids. Not bad for a 50s-era airhead.

    But whatever we do, let's be sure not to throw the baby doll out with the bathwater.
    Even at 7 and 11, my daughters still occasionally seek comfort from the old gang in
    the toy chest, proving that, every now and then, combing through a small head of
    hair is just what the doctored ordered.

    To quote Cyndi Lauper—herself, something of a vamp—sometimes girls just want
    to have fun.


    (Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)