NEW YORK (JTA) -- Depending on whom you ask, Bratz are odd-looking multiethnic dolls with big eyes and skimpy clothes -- or they're, like, the coolest things ever.
The dolls -- with their "passion for fashion" demonstrated through midriff-baring tops and micro-mini skirts -- have been criticized by many parents as being overly-sexualized and therefore bad examples for little girls.
But ask a 6- to 10-year-old girl about them, and she'll say they're sooooo awesome. The sales of Bratz nearly rival that of Barbie -- topping more than $2 billion by 2006 -- and now, with the wide release last week of the first-ever Bratz feature-length film, they've secured their place as pop-culture icons for the pre-tween set.
Bratz were created in 2000 by Isaac Larian, an Iranian Jewish immigrant-turned-toy entrepreneur, who had set out to create an anti-Barbie. Legend has it that Larian was turned off by the swollen-head prototype a designer showed him, but his then-11-year-old daughter, Jasmin, was enthralled by it.
Thus, the first of the Bratz pack, Yasmin, was born. Soon afterward, her totally multicultural BFF (that's best friends forever!) followed, including Jade, Cloe and Sasha -- all of whom are characters in the live-action film.
Unlike Barbie -- with her WASP-y blonde hair, penchant for pink and lame steady boyfriend, Ken -- Bratz represents a different type of feminine ideal. They reflect the mixed messages that are fed to young girls today -- a "Girl Power!" mantra combined with a tarty, sexed-up image a la Britney Spears. With ethnicities ranging from Asian to African American to a unique blend of Jewish-Latina, the dolls trumpet their message loud and clear: It's okay to be yourself -- as long as you look totally hot when the boys are around.
Perhaps it is no accident that this new, aspirational doll had a Jewish creator. After all, back in 1959, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler -- the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants -- created Barbie.
Back then, "assimilation" was not the dirty word it is today; it was a goal. As such, Handler -- a savvy businesswoman who convinced her husband to turn his Lucite and plexiglass furniture-making hobby into a lucrative business -- created the ultimate American fantasy: the leggy, buxom blonde who remade herself as the notion of the ideal American woman changed with the times, from stay-at-home mom to the uber careerwoman who does it all and still looks good.
Still, despite Mattel's attempts to diversify the line, Barbie has had trouble keeping up with the times. Larian's dolls speak to the girls of the 21st century, a time when the melting pot has given way to the multi-ingredient salad bowl, when multi-ethnic stars like Jessica Alba rule the box office and a hybrid like Chrismukkah is practically a national holiday.
That Larian -- a Sephardic Jew who arrived in the United States at age 17 with $750 in his pocket -- is this new arbiter of kiddie cool also reflects the normalization of Jewish culture in American society at large where, today, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a national television show, bagels can be bought coast-to-coast and Yiddishisms like "oy vey!" are a part of everyday American dialogue.
But somehow muddled up in the Bratz phenomenon is the notion that image is everything. And many don't approve of the tarted-up image they see.
In her latest book, "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good," author Wendy Shalit takes Bratz to task for its overtly sexy image.
Decrying the come-hither fashions of Bratz Babyz -- a spin-off of the original Bratz line -- and the emphasis on looking "hot" in the Bratz books, Shalit agues: "If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she's probably still too young to be worrying about boys and looking hot."
"I think it's a very confusing time and Bratz is reflecting this confusion," Shalit told JTA. To really get at the root of the problem, she said, "we need to address the whole 'If you've got it, flaunt it' philosophy, which many mothers continue to believe in."
Even Sean McNamara, the director of the Bratz film, saw the challenges in transforming pint-sized plastic hoochie-mamas into wholesome, real-life teenage girls.
McNamara, the executive producer of teen TV hit "That's So Raven," was unfamiliar with Bratz when he was approached to direct the project, so he took a trip to his local toy store. "I was blown away," he told the Los Angeles Times. "There were two full walls of Bratz stuff. But when I saw them, I thought, 'These aren't cute dolls -- they look like sluts.' "
"Bratz," the movie -- while keeping its stars clothed and chaste -- bends over backward to hit home its message of diversity, often resorting to cliché.
Half-white, half-Asian Jade, for example, is a science geek who, under pressure from her parents to be a good little girl, totally rebels by secretly wearing the hottest fashions. Then there's half-Jewish, half-Latina Yasmin -- played by 25-year-old Nathalia Ramos, herself the daughter of a Spanish father and a Australian Jewish mother -- who inexplicably has a mariachi band in her kitchen and sings "La Cucaracha" with her grandmother (played by Lainie Kazan), whom she inexplicably calls Bubbe.
The movie centers around the four Bratz as they enter high school, totally sworn to be, BFF. Soon, however, thanks to the devious Meredith Baxter Dimly -- the Queen Bee who is not only the school president, but the daughter of the principal -- they are forced into cliques that tear them apart.
With Meredith employing the divide-and-conquer thing, Sasha soon hangs only with the cheerleaders, Cloe is a jock and Yasmin, the loner, gets saddled with the label of "journalist." (As if!)
Two years later, thanks to a massive food fight and an all-important talent show, the girls are brought back together. Without giving away too much of the plot -- which borrows liberally from far better teen movies -- the Bratz, with their awesome performance and their totally hip style, break down the barriers at Carry Nation High.
But with all the "likes," the "omigods," and the rampant commercialism -- after all, a love of makeup and shopping are what bind these girls together -- what kind of message is Bratz sending to young girls?
Isaac Larian, traveling in Africa at press time, was unavailable to comment. Back in 2005, however, he told Business Week magazine, "Kids don't want to play with Barbies anymore."
One has to wonder: Is that necessarily a good thing?