When Barbie Went to War with Bratz

How a legal battle over intellectual property exposed a cultural battle over sex, gender roles, and the workplace.

Orly Lobel

The New Yorker

Orly Lobel, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, has recently published “You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side” (Norton). 

Bratz dolls have swollen heads, pouty lips, spindly limbs, and chunky-heeled shoes. Their waists are barely wider than their necks. Their eyes and heads are so big and their noses so small that if it weren’t for their Penthouse makeup (icy eyeshadow, cat-eye liner, glistening lip gloss, and eyelashes as long as their fingers) and their come-hither clothes (crop tops, hot pants, microminis, and kinky boots), they’d look like emaciated babies, Kewpie dolls in a time of famine. Carter Bryant was thirty-one and working at Mattel in August of 2000, designing clothes for Barbie, when he created Bratz, though he later said—and his legal defense turned on this claim—that he’d got the idea for the dolls while on a seven-month break from Mattel, two years earlier. He drew some sketches of clothes-obsessed, bratty-looking teen-agers—“The Girls with a Passion for Fashion!” he called them—and made a prototype by piecing together bits and bobs that he found in a trash bin at work and in his own collection at home: a doll head, a plastic body, and Ken boots. He meant for his Bratz to come in pick-your-own skin colors and to have monetizably vague ethnic names. Two weeks before Bryant quit Mattel, he sold his idea to a Mattel competitor, MGA Entertainment, which brought out four Bratz girls in 2001—Jade, Cloe, Yasmin, and Sasha—the first dolls to successfully rival Barbie since she made her début, in 1959, in a zebra-striped swimsuit and stilettos, eyebrows arched, waist pinched.

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