When Girls' Dolls 'Leaned In,' and Why It's All a 'Sham'

Closer look at intellectual property war between Barbie and Bratz reveals much deeper stuff
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 19, 2018 5:55 PM CST
Barbies, Bratz, and Toymakers That 'Own' Little Girls' Minds
This file product image provided by MGA Entertainment shows part of its 2010 collection of Bratz dolls.   (AP Photo/MGA Entertainment, File)

Barbie dolls have dominated the toy landscape for girls since their 1959 intro—which made it a big deal when Bratz dolls hit the scene in 2001 and started stealing market share, spurring a years-long legal war between Barbie maker Mattel and Bratz creator MGA, a Mattel competitor. As Jill Lepore explains in her New Yorker deep dive, the brainchild behind Bratz was Carter Bryant, who created the Barbie's bigger-eyed, more provocatively dressed counterparts while he was working at Mattel (he says he thought of the concept while on a seven-month break from his employer). But, as Lepore explains, underlying the intellectual property battle is a fascinating look at body image, sex, and gender roles, all capitalized on over the years by corporations that hijacked (sometimes with success, sometimes not) evolving views on social issues and had their dolls "lean in" for profit.

Lepore's analysis delves into the history of patents, copyrights, and inventions, putting forth the challenging question of "What does it mean to own an idea?," and whether creativity is truly best served by corporations holding tight rein over one. It also addresses whether anyone can ever truly own the features of the "idealized" female body, and how the Barbie and Bratz changes over the years—including attempts to diversify aspects of the dolls, such as their ethnicities and career choices—paralleled changes in society, specifically regarding male and female workplace interactions. To this day, all of these issues remain hot topics, with no resolution to major issues in sight, per Lepore. "Empowerment feminism is a cynical sham," she writes. "Mattel owns Barbie. MGA owns Bratz. And corporations still own the imaginations of little girls." Lepore's full take on the Barbie-Bratz backstory here. (More Longform stories.)

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