By: Julita Fenneuff
September 7th, 2022
This article is part of our Summer 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Growing up in America, there is one iconic doll most girls are familiar with: a woman who seems to have it all, who is plastic, blonde and loves pink. Her name is Barbie.
To many girls, Barbie was exciting, new and pretty. She was everything young, easily impressionable girls growing up under impossible beauty standards wanted to be. A lot of girls weren’t even close to being in the double-digits when they got their first Barbie, but they idolized her. They wanted to look just like her. That mindset has impacted generations.
However, Barbie wasn’t the only doll on the scene, with Bratz making their first appearance decades after Mattel had established dominance over the doll market. Bratz were exciting, new and pretty too. But to some adults, Bratz were bad for kids. Many felt they were inappropriately dressed, wore too much makeup, or were just weirdly built. They weren’t realistic-looking in the slightest.
Something adults failed to note was that Bratz dolls were (and still are) no more unrealistic than Barbie. Yes, they have massive heads, eyes and lips. Their waists are the size of their necks. And they certainly aren’t wearing the girl-next-door outfits Barbie was wearing—they’re wearing crop tops and platforms. The scandal!
But consider Barbie, just for a moment. Her legs are more than twice the length of her torso. Her waist to hip ratio is off the charts, not to mention the fact that she has boobs. Galia Slayen of the Huffington Post writes, “If Barbie were an actual woman, she would be 5’9″ tall, have a 39″ bust, an 18″ waist, 33″ hips and a size 3 shoe.” And oh yeah—Barbie is white.
Bratz aren’t realistic, but neither is Barbie. Both have young girls looking in the mirror and asking, “why don’t I look like that?” Adults know that the kids who play with Barbies and Bratz don’t look like their dolls because Barbie is a young adult. But kids don’t know that. Kids get their first Barbie, and when they look at her, Barbie looks just realistic enough that they start to think of her as the standard. Then they start to think that maybe they should look like her too.
Bratz were just as damaging as Barbie, though their features made it slightly more obvious that the dolls were an exaggeration of a human body. Notably, Bratz expanded their dolls to be more than just a blonde white girl, and chose to utilize a more racially diverse group of girls. They also pushed the boundaries of what was stylistically acceptable for girls, making more of a fashion statement than Barbie. They are the girls with a passion for fashion, after all.
While Bratz finally started to allow young children of color to see themselves in their toys, they also had a hand in promoting the idea that girls should always be dressed to the nines and coated in makeup.
While Barbie tended to stick to light eyeshadow and lipstick, Bratz had vibrant eye makeup and shimmery lip gloss, not to mention that many of their supermodel-esque outfits had some parents up in arms. So, while Bratz did begin to diversify the dollscape and design their dolls to be a little more obviously unrealistic, their outfits still had young girls begging their parents for sparkly lip gloss or cheetah print tank tops.
Barbies and Bratz may have done enough damage on a generation to write a book on—and there have been several studies done on the matter—but they share something else. According to Mattel and MGA, the owners of the Barbie and Bratz brands, respectively, and a board of jurors, there are more than just a few similarities between the two dolls.
Barbie was put on the market in 1959, cornering the market on that style of doll, as no one had really seen a doll like Barbie before. Mattel kept their monopoly on the market for decades, until Bratz were released by MGA in 2001. Not only were Bratz an unlikely competitor for a doll that hadn’t had one for years, but they were there to make an impact. MGA sold $97 million worth of dolls their first year, and by 2003, their yearly sales went up to over a billion dollars.
Suddenly, Mattel was scrambling, and they desperately needed a way to keep this unlikely competitor out of their way. Their solution came in the form of an anonymous letter tip, which informed Mattel that Carter Bryant, an ex-Mattel worker, had created the idea when he was still employed at Mattel. He had signed an intellectual property agreement to cover the time he spent there, which stated that any of the ideas he came up with while he was working for Mattel belonged to them.
Mattel took Bryant to California state court in 2004. They couldn’t afford to have competition, but they disguised this as disgust that Bryant had essentially sold trade secrets. Bryant retaliated against the lawsuit with his own defense: he claimed the agreement he signed was so broad that it could not possibly be enforced, adding that he had come up with the idea on an eight-month break he had from working with Mattel. In Bryant’s opinion, the idea of Bratz was entirely his own.
Ultimately, the issue was settled out of court in 2008, with Bryant paying around two million dollars to Mattel—a mere 6.67% of the approximately $30 million he made while working for them. Now, Mattel had gotten the molehill out of the way, and it was time for the mountain.
Suing the creator of Bratz wasn’t enough to quench Mattel’s thirst for money and sales. This battle wasn’t just over dolls and trade secrets; it was over something much more insidious: the power to control the doll market and continue to influence young, impressionable girls. If one company was forced to stop producing dolls, the other would have an unmitigated influence on the girls who played with their dolls. Without a competitor, a doll company could set whatever beauty standards they wanted among girls.
All that considered, Mattel’s next target was MGA in its entirety, who they claimed owed them a billion dollars and the complete rights to the Bratz design. They argued that the Bratz design was created by one of their workers. To further drive their point home, Mattel also claimed that MGA had been actively participating in buying insider secrets and bribing their employees.
Suddenly, Bryant was a victim in this situation, with MGA painted as the no-good, idea-stealing, employee-bribing enemy. But this no-good, idea-stealing, employee-bribing enemy had their own complaints: MGA argued that Mattel had infringed upon their designs for the Bratz packaging and used it to sell their Barbies. The lawsuits were combined in 2008, and courtroom proceedings ensued.
Mattel reiterated their same defense, while MGA argued that Bratz would have been nothing without the hard work MGA had put into developing, designing, marketing, and selling the dolls. They argued that even if MGA had stolen the Bratz from Mattel, the Bratz themselves were nothing without the effort of MGA, and they were entitled to the success they claimed they had created.
The jury quickly came to a unanimous decision regarding MGA’s treachery, agreeing that Bratz owed its entire existence to Mattel, and that MGA had both infringed upon Mattel’s copyright and had actively tried to bribe Bryant to betray Mattel. MGA was ordered to pay $100 million (a tenth of the billion dollars Mattel claimed belonged to them) and all rights to the Bratz were to go to Mattel, with the dolls being pulled off shelves.
Though Mattel won, MGA wasn’t bothered. They did pull Bratz off the shelves, but only for a year, during which time they were filing appeals to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2010, the court stated that even though the idea may have belonged to Mattel in the beginning, it was MGA’s investment into the Bratz brand that made the dolls what they are today. They said most of the jury verdict and damages award should be negated and the case should be retried.
This was all MGA needed. Ahead of the retrial, they added onto their lawsuit the claims that Mattel had engaged in deception and fraud, and had partaken in the exact thing they accused MGA of doing: lying and baiting MGA employees. All either company could do was hope the retrial went in their favor.
Finally, MGA got their first win. The jury found that not only did Mattel not have ample evidence to prove any theft of ideas, but they had in fact been engaging in shady behavior, specifically stealing trade secrets from MGA by using unfair business practices including using spies to do so. Mattel was ordered to pay over $309 million in damages to their rivals, and MGA was to keep all rights to the Bratz dolls. Despite the myriad of lawsuits and endless legal battles between the two, both companies are still alive and profiting.
To this day, the war between Bratz and Barbies wages on. At some point, the heart of the issue—stealing the idea for Bratz—was lost, and now the companies of the two dolls are in a constant battle that has nothing to do with dolls and everything to do with power and money.
Both sides are bitter and vengeful, continuously accusing the other of dirty business tactics and shady behavior. Mattel, rich and bitter, has used private investigators and spies against MGA on more than one occasion, something that has not escaped those still working for MGA. It’s a dirty fight, and at this point, it has nothing to do with the theft of intellectual property and everything to do with the desire to stay on top.
Through all the turmoil and legal troubles, the losers in this situation aren’t multi-million dollar corporations– they’re children. Bratz and Barbies are not only everywhere—they’re everything they shouldn’t be. They’re damaging to the self-esteem of little girls everywhere.
No little girl should want to look like a doll. Every little girl should have the understanding that they aren’t going to look like the doll they’re given when they’re four years old, because no real person looks like that. Barbies and Bratz were never created for kids; they were created for adults, evidenced by the fact that Mattel had already been sued by a different company in 1961 for copying the ideas of a German doll called Lilli which was created for adult men.
Lilli, the inspiration for Barbie, was straight out of a Playboy-esque comic strip, where she was treated as a sex object. She was created by men who wanted to sculpt what they thought was the ideal woman, which was then imitated by other toy creators who wanted to sell these ideas to kids— namely, Mattel. Barbie was a direct rip-off of Lilli, which was noted by Lilli’s creators in their lawsuit against the former. The matter was ultimately settled out of court, with Mattel purchasing the rights to Lilli in 1964.
Barbie was created in Lilli’s image but marketed to little girls. Bratz took the sex appeal that made Barbie so unique and entrancing and channeled that into their own dolls, who may not look identical to Barbie the way Barbie looks identical to Lilli, but share the same features nonetheless. Selling sex appeal to children is something most people would deem immoral, but both Mattel and MGA continue to benefit from their doing so.
In looking at the paper trail left behind by multiple lawsuits, it’s clear that while yes, to some extent, these issues arise from theft of intellectual property, they are furthered by greed for both money and power—money and power these companies want to use to make girls cripplingly insecure. And now, those kids are suffering from the unrealistic standards set by these dolls.
According to Mattel and MGA, there is one archetype for the perfect woman. Big eyes, perfect lips, tiny waists, large breasts and larger-than-normal heads. She likes boys and makeup and shopping. She dresses in itty bitty skirts and crop tops that no child should wear, but every girl who owns a doll wants to. Young girls don’t understand how unrealistically beautiful Barbie is. They think her makeup or her clothes make her pretty. They don’t understand that she was created to be a level of perfection that the average woman cannot obtain.
Reading about the dramatic, drawn-out lawsuits between MGA and Mattel and considering the similarities and differences between Bratz and Barbies is entertaining. But in all of this, one thing to remember is that whether it’s Mattel vs MGA, Barbie vs Bratz or Barbie vs Lilli, what matters is that these dolls are against young girls.
Kids are targeted with advertisements for these dolls, and they grow up playing with dolls whose beauty is just impossible. They need dolls that look like them—dolls that look human. Bratz took one step in that direction by adding color to a world of completely whitewashed dolls, but that doesn’t change the fact that their dolls were just as unrealistic looking as Barbie.
Nowadays, there are Black Barbies, Brown Barbies, size-ten Barbies, Barbies in wheelchairs and Barbies who go to space. MGA is in the process of putting Bratz back on the shelves after years, and hopefully they will follow a similar trend. The problem is, young girls needed these dolls decades ago. They needed them before their dolls encouraged a culture obsessed with weight, body image and perfection. Bratz and Barbies may both have been stolen from their competitors, but what they stole—the innocence and youth of little girls—is far more damning.
Julita Fenneuff is a senior majoring in professional and public writing with a minor in Spanish. She has a deep interest in pop culture and wants to make a change with her writing. In her spare time she enjoys reading, playing video games, and spending time with her pet bunny.