fbpx

Features

The unlikely history of Bratz

text

WRITING: BRIANA ARMSON
@bareezalay

We trace a history of Bratz dolls, from their origins in 2001 to today as they thrive online thanks to a vibrant, intersectional online community of fans.

Growing up, the white brick wall in my family home’s kitchen was an amateur art gallery. In my preteen years, it displayed coloured-pencil portraits of anime-eyed girls who were a continuation of the fiery characters I drag-and-drop built on the early ‘00s website, Dollz Mania. Or maybe they were hopeful predictions of my future self.

The more I remember them, the more I realize the big-headed heroines that mean-mugged my family as we ate dinner were versions of Bratz dolls, the ironically disproportioned avatars of 2000s-era youth. Like the Spice Girls but edgier, Bratz delivered a version of Girl Power that was sassy, stylish and gave no fucks. Decades later, the dolls are thriving in a socially conscious digital world much for the same reason. What’s more, they’ve come to embody unapologetic self-confidence and progressive thinking, sparking discussions about the importance of racial representation and nuanced conceptions of feminism.

If you follow a certain subset of nostalgic Instagram accounts, odes to Bratz are not hard to find. They come in the form of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. And memes.

How did we get here? Follow along, as I trace their unlikely journey from being ‘slutty Barbies’ to digital era feminist icons.

The birth of Bratz

Bratz dolls were born in 2001 as the brainchild of ex-Mattel employee Carter Bryant. Bryant was a clothing designer for Barbie when he conceived of—and ultimately sold—the idea to competitor MGA Entertainment, resulting in what would become the toy manufacturer’s most successful venture.

Touted as “the girls with a passion for fashion,” Jade, Cloe, Yasmin, and Sasha were individually boxed with a bevy of items showcasing their respective senses of style: snap-on shoes, backpacks, mix-and-match separates and hair accessories (who could forget the Spinelli-esque hat perched atop Jade’s head?). Bratzheads learned the idiosyncrasies of each member of the Bratz pack through descriptions on the back of the box which all sound like an excerpt taken verbatim out of my diary in the year 2001: “My friends call me ‘Kool Kat’ because I love cats! And because I’m cool!!!!”

As well as being fashion-forward in an encouraging, experimental way, the core four was refreshingly diverse. Each doll had a markedly different skin tone and hair colour, and their racial ambiguity left room for wide-spread representation. Sasha, Yasmin, Cloe, and Jade formed a tokenless multiethnic friend group in which there was no leader. Their bobble heads, frosty makeup, and chunky shoes—in all its quintessential 2000s glory—was a reverberation of the times.

Thanks to its wide appeal, Bratz’s first edition was a total triumph. The line grossed $97 million in global sales in its opening year. Revenue rose to two billion by 2005, with a multitude of spinoffs, from a live-action feature film to an animated show to Bratz Petz, a line of dopey-looking plush catz, dogz, and unexpectedly foxz, stemming from the core four’s initial success.

In the years that followed, Meygan, the group’s first redhead was added and nicknamed “Funky Monkey,” which meant she came with a little stuffed pink orangutan along with her PJs.

Type “Bratz” into a number of community-driven forums and you’ll find a minefield of scathing comments.

Trouble in Bratz Land

The success of Bratz had Mattel, the maker of Barbie, on high alert as it encountered the 1959-born fashion doll’s first-ever threat to her unchallenged monopoly. The fact that Bratz creator Bryant jumped ship from Mattel to MGA muddied the waters, and ultimately spawned an onslaught of (still ongoing) legal battles and lawsuits surrounding intellectual property. Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, another kind of Bratz conflict was brewing.

As much as the Bratz and their bravado was loved by the public, they were equally criticized. Parents and scholars were outraged by what they deemed to be oversexualized children’s toys, and the American Psychological Association concurred in its 2007 Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.

Whatever meaningful information was unearthed by such studies was distorted by a frenzy of Bratz slut-shaming. Type “Bratz” into a number of community-driven forums and you’ll find a minefield of scathing comments, such as “Has anyone ever noticed how Bratz look like sick little sluts?” and “Why did my mom ever let me play with these? They look like mean h 0 o k e r s.” Criticism also surrounded the potential for Bratz to impede a healthy body image, and the cartoon-based context of the dolls’ overexaggerated features was lost on many.

Doll owners of the 2000s were relegated to two camps: pro-Bratz or pro-Barbie, and Barbie die-hards were quick to make their presence known in puritanical statements such as this, found on Yahoo Answers: “I’m 13 and I was raised with Barbies. Pretty, girly, innocent, BARBIE <3.”

text
Hayden Williams
"I could see a part of myself in all of their personalities and style."

Bratz transcend—online 

No matter whose side you were on, Bratz unquestionably brought discourse surrounding female sexuality, body image, and racial diversity in the toy world to the public arena in which there was previously little to none. Exorbitant amounts of time and money have been spent trying to determine who owns Bratz, but the spirit of the dolls has remained free and unbridled with the help of its flourishing online community. Even dwindling sales after a failed rebrand in 2015—leading to the dolls being discontinued the following year—couldn’t stop their life force, revealed by last year’s #BratzChallenge, which spread across the internet like wildfire. 

The viral phenomenon, which had everyone under the sun beating their faces to replicate that of 2000s-era Bratz, followed hot on the heels of the 2018 Bratz Collector— designed by British fashion illustrator Hayden Williams. Williams helped return the brand to its roots by imbuing his line of dolls with Bratz’s trademark chutzpah, which comes as no surprise given he is a pillar of the Bratz online community.

text
@BratzBoyInTheZone
text
@BratzBoyInTheZone
"The fact they released a black doll on their first launch and it wasn’t added in at a later date means we weren’t an afterthought."

Williams fondly recalls the moment Bratz entered his life. He spotted the core four in a Toys “R” Us holiday brochure initially, then in TV commercials that charmed him with their unique blend of dolls, real people, and animation. “They truly stood out from the other fashion dolls,” he tells me. A trip to Woolworths landed a young Williams his first Bratz doll and he dreamt of one day designing his very own collection for the brand.

Fast forward to 2017 and Williams is aboard his first-ever flight to Los Angeles, travelling to MGA headquarters after catching the attention of CEO Isaac Larian. At the helm of the Bratz Collector line, Williams brought the dolls back to their 2000s-era pinnacle and reminded fans why they fell in love with the brand 17 years prior. In addition to smoldering, almond-shaped eyes and pouty lips, he made sure to include plenty of mix-and-match separates—a Bratz fundamental.

Williams continues to pepper his Instagram feed with illustrations of Bratz-ified stars (like hot girl Megan Thee Stallion) to the delight of his one million plus followers—one of whom is Sean Harris a.k.a. @bratzboyinthezone.

Harris is part of the Instagram-based community of Bratz fans that style and photograph their dolls in clothes they design and construct by hand. A devoted collector since the brand’s inaugural launch, he started @bratzboyinthezone in 2015 and began posting his signature designs two years later. “I wanted to start making my own clothes for my Bratz so they were unique to me, which would make them stand out from other Bratz collectors’ posts online,” says Harris.

Harris recalls every member of the Bratz pack striking a chord with his childhood identity upon their release. “I could see a part of myself in all of their personalities and style,” he shares. Nearly two decades later, he is busy creating looks and photographing them for his loyal online following—like the denim ensemble he crafted for Felicia (introduced to the brand in 2005) that evokes memories of Destiny’s Child in its heyday. The self-professed Bratz fanatic says of his inclusive and diverse online community,  We are a welcoming bunch of people who embrace difference.”

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by 𝐁𝐑𝐀𝐓𝐙 𝐃𝐎𝐋𝐋 (@gothicbratzz) on

Desire a.k.a. @gothicbratzz is another Instagram-based artist that cherishes the accepting nature of the Bratz community. Desire, who became active on Instagram in 2018, has developed her own brand of dark and whimsical imagery, featuring desaturated, blunt-in-hand self-portraits in which she accentuates her doll-like face with Bratz-inspired makeup. “I get to show off my doll features and my style of makeup without people judging or making fun,” she says.

Using the Bratz beauty aesthetic as a vehicle for self-expression has encouraged Desire to fully embrace her appearance and in turn, inspired others to do the same. “So many young black girls say that I remind them of their Bratz doll, and that’s what I was aiming for—showing young girls that follow me that you should love your features, whether it’s your hair type, skin colour, or big eyes,” she shares.

Desire has long felt seen by the Bratz brand. Growing up goth meant lines like Rock Angelz and Pretty ‘N’ Punk (both circa 2005) resonated with her “alternative” sense of style and brought representation to a subculture that was largely non-existent in the realm of children’s toys—not to mention Bratz’s inclusion of non-white dolls from the jump. “The fact they released a black doll on their first launch and it wasn’t added in at a later date means we weren’t an afterthought,” she says.

Desire recalls the ripple effect of Bratz’s entrance into a mostly white doll world. “I could see some of my own features being represented in doll form. Up until then, I only saw Barbies, and as a black trans woman, I can’t really relate to Barbie.” Desire is one of the many transgender members of the Bratz online sphere, and she attributes the continued relevancy of the Bratz aesthetic to enthusiastic engagement from the LGBTQ+ community.

"I absolutely love how extra Bratz dolls are—I mean, these girls wore heels camping!"

Terria Xo affectionately refers to herself as a “trans Bratz doll” and runs a bubble-gum pink Instagram account showcasing her Bratz-incarnate appearance: waist-length hair with pink frontal highlights, glossy lips paired with pencil-thin brows, and a wardrobe loaded with Y2K brands like Baby Phat. “Whenever I go shopping I think to myself, ‘Can I see a Bratz doll wearing this?’ If the answer is no, I usually don’t get it,” she explains.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Terria Xo (@xoterriaxo) on

The other self-descriptor in her Instagram bio reads “Native pop princess” as Terria is of Laguna Pueblo descent and was raised on the tribe’s land in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Despite Bratz never releasing an explicitly-deemed “Native” Bratz doll, she still saw herself represented as an Indigenous trans woman. “Because most of their dolls were depicted as people of colour, the fashion is highly influenced by what I saw in my communities and what the ‘It girls of colour’ were wearing in the 2000s,” says Terria.

As a child, Terria found playing with Bratz to be “a gateway to femininity” and looked to their over-the-top girlyness and daring fashion sense for inspiration. I absolutely love how extra Bratz dolls are—I mean, these girls wore heels camping!” she shares. “I love the almost satirical level of high femininity and the influences Bratz fashion takes from streetwear.”

Like Desire, Terria has found a home in the kind, accepting, friendship-focused community of Bratz lovers. “For a long time, as a visibly queer kid, I was ostracized and pushed out by my peers, so Bratz were often my only friends,” she says. “But now, I have a whole online community of friends that are just as infatuated with the nostalgia Bratz dolls invoke and it’s amazing!”

For those of us who don’t walk through life looking like a Bratz doll already, Joel aka @monsterlool draws Bratz-style portraits—and is currently accepting commissions. “Bratz changed the game when they came out,” says the French doll collector and digital artist. “Everyone who had these dolls as a kid always tells me ‘I wanted to look like them’, and I like to make it happen for people.”

In addition to his coveted Bratz drawings, Joel creates glamourous images with his dolls in which he sews custom outfits, styles hair, creates sets, and finishes with a dose of “Photoshop magic.” The results are masterpieces such as his perfectly replicated “No Scrubs” homage, with outfits from the video worn by Bratz versions of Left Eye, Chili, and T-Boz of ‘90s girl group, TLC. Joel crafts what he believes Bratz fans would like to see, as well as custom lines he hopes happen in real life someday.

text
@MonsterLool
text
@MonsterLool

As its 20th anniversary approaches, it remains unclear whether or not the Bratz brand will keep producing dolls. And while Bratz may go on hiatus, get discontinued, or fluctuate in and out of the meme milieu, I doubt its legacy will ever leave our collective consciousness—just ask some of the foundational members of its ever-growing online community. “I don’t think another doll brand will deliver the same impact that Bratz has brought to pop culture,” suggests Harris. “They will live on and continue to inspire us creatively into the future.”

Researching this piece has caused Bratz dolls to permeate my life via every digital channel possible, but I have no complaints. Their unapologetic energy radiates through my computer screen, reminding me that the dream girls of my childhood imagination are more relevant than ever—and that size or inanimateness has no bearing on their power.

Bratz forever.

More like this:
Inside Sopranos Out of Context, a Twitter account revisiting the show’s most iconic quotes