Bratz dolls don’t exactly have a reputation as the most inspiring toy on the shelf, but Canadian artist Wendy Tsao is changing that—one doll at a time. As part of her Mighty Dolls project, the Vancouver-based Tsao is taking previously owned Bratz dolls and transforming them into a tribute to influential women.
She’s stripped the “fashion dolls” of their garish makeup and designer outfits and modelled them after real-life women we’d want our daughters (and sons) to look up to. So far, she’s done girls’-rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, Canadian astronaut and neurologist Roberta Bondar, and British primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall, among others.
As she writes in Bored Panda: “The dolls we find in toy stores today are often licensed Disney characters or the heroines of Hollywood blockbuster movies that capitalize on the pull of fantasy, fictional characters to young consumers. But there are real-life people who are heroes too, with inspiring stories of courage, intelligence, strength and uniqueness. Could children learn about and be inspired by them through toys?”
Tsao isn’t the only one resorting to dramatic make-unders from discarded dolls. Tsao was inspired by Tasmanian artist Sonia Singh and her Tree Change Dolls. Singh also recycles old dolls and transforms them into realistic women, and then sells the remodelled dolls on Etsy. Have a few old dolls lying around? Singh posts how-to videos so parents and kids can do their own doll make-unders at home.
The timing of Tsao’s creations closely coincide with the Bratz dolls’ re-emergence on store shelves this past summer after a two-year absence. Bratz’ parent brand MGA Entertainment has been in a 10-year legal battle with Mattel, the company behind Barbie. Back in 2013, MGA pulled Bratz dolls out of large retail stores like Walmart while the battle played out in court. As of July this year, they were back in stores. Bratz also has a new digital presence, with its own YouTube channel and stop-motion webisodes.
“We have doctors, lawyers, journalists,” insists MGA founder Isaac Larian. “Now, more than ever before, Bratz empowers girls. They can create worlds.” Unfortunately, that message of rings a little hollow considering the dolls still feature their signature—and controversial—large bobble-heads, mascara-laden eyes, traffic-stopping lips and tiny waists. They don’t exactly look like positive role models to me.
Not to mention, the first episode of their new web series features a scene where the girls can’t fit their giant heads into a selfie. I would imagine the life goals of this plastic squad may not exactly be in line with the brand’s purported message of empowering young girls. In fact, the Bratz line has always reminded me of the Spice Girls, with their tiny outfits, big shoes and their lacking-in-any-real-substance message of “girl power.” But, nowadays, a Kardashian comparison would probably be more apt.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with kids playing with fashionable dolls, but I think our daughters deserve more. In 2007, the Bratz line came under fire from the American Psychological Association for being overly sexualized, especially considering its young target audience. I don’t see a difference in this latest crop of dolls. For the record, Larian sees nothing wrong with Bratz, finding it “humorous” that people would object to the appearance of a plastic doll.
However, the demands of consumers have changed since Barbie and Bratz ruled the “pink aisle.” For one, some major retail outlets, like Target, have stopped separating toys and clothing by gender. And later this year, a new line of female superheroes will hit stores—made by none other than Barbie manufacturer Mattel. The toy giant says it worked hard on making the dolls appeal to girls by not making them “too girly” and by modelling them after real girls’ bodies. Independent dolls that challenge gender stereotypes, such the Lammily doll, and the IamElemental female action heroes, are becoming increasingly popular alternatives.
We aren’t quite at the point where our kids can find a Malala or Jane Goodall doll as easily as they can find a crop-top-wearing doll who looks like her face was created in a paint factory. But maybe, just maybe, that day is coming soon, thanks in part to innovative artists like Wendy Tsao.