Bratz dolls, makeunders and society: when beauty and class collide

Bratz dolls, makeunders and society: when beauty and class collide

The Barbie effect

Site: Yeong Sassall

What do acetone, manicures and the anti-Barbie movement have in common? More than you think, says Oliver Watts

No matter where in the world you are getting a manicure - from a classic French polish in New York, to a bedazzled Hello Kitty in Manila - the smell, the sweet lingering note, of the salon is the same everywhere; acetone is a universal solvent.

This smell came to me when I was following the trending story of the Tree Change Dolls. Sonia Singh, a Tasmanian artist, received media support from Buzzfeed to Vogue. What they responded to was the seemingly ethical action of stripping vintage Bratz Dolls of their colourful faces and then repainting them more simply.

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I imagined the artist picking up an acetone soaked rag and rubbing off the features of the doll. It occurred to me in a childlike dream that if the doll was alive, what a violent act it would be. When they woke up and found themselves recast as perfect little 'girls next door,' wouldn't they have been outraged? It was a nightmare scene halfway between the Toy Story 2 collector's scene (where the collector renovated 'Woody') and the more disturbing 'dip' in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the villain would execute toons in a vat of acetone mixture.

It was disconcerting to me that the character of the original Bratz Dolls was so easily disregarded by the media outlets. What was being celebrated in these many posts was the so-called ethics of 'natural beauty' and the 'makeunder'. Natural beauty was equated with morality and goodness, and indeed a healthier lifestyle. Singh's dolls were photographed swinging from trees and active in a way not merely connected to fashion. In Singh's own words, "these lil fashion dolls have opted for a 'tree change', swapping high-maintenance glitz 'n' glamour for down-to-earth style."

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The Lammily doll works in a similar way to produce dolls for girls that are not so connected to fashion and lifestyle, but more directly mirror their own lives. I can understand the importance of a doll being a peer to its owner, but on the other hand we shouldn't underestimate the possibility that young girls, through fantasy and aspiration, might want to dream of playing with fashion and subcultural genres (like Bratz dolls' versions of gothic and Harajuku fashion). Indeed, if you look at the young fashionistas on the street, with their Tumblr fashion and hybrid styles, they owe more to the Bratz doll than the Barbie.

But my primary point is that natural beauty is a look in itself, and possibly just as 'fake' as any other style. What I think the fashion blogs liked about the Tree Change Dolls was in fact that they mirrored back the look of high fashion, like the pared-down catwalk model. The blogger Binarythis did a good job explaining this problem of the 'makeunder,' where you are merely replacing one look for another

It reminds me too of the episodes in reality programs where a Jersey or Geordie girl is taken kicking and screaming to a high-end city boutique for a makeunder. It is very clear that the audience is meant to side with the more natural look, and that the Geordie girl is being pilloried for what is seen as unbecoming and ridiculous taste.

What isn't made obvious, and in this way I can extend Binarythis's article, is the subject of class. In middle class and upper-middle class worlds, the natural look is accepted and celebrated. In other subcultures other rules apply. Cultural theorists and sociologists have highlighted that it is often cultural markers and learnt taste that are the most powerful constructions of class.

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Pierre Bourdieu's book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste goes the furthest in describing this mechanism of class. In his words, "cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education." On the essay site Aeon recently, an essay about how bad teeth became a permanent sign of lack of breeding and wealth is a touching reminder of how cultural markers are directly linked to class. From Bourdieu's position the mechanism of taste is universal and leads to a reflection that cultural markers are powerful gatekeepers to class and social mobility (especially in an age that publically suggests that there is no thing as class).

Perhaps the most provocative idea to a Vogue reader is that the Geordie Shore girl does not want a French polish because within her subculture she would lose all her social power. Cultural markers, within whatever group, work well to tie a group together, and a French polish would be laughable and invisible in the context of Jersey Shore.

The point is that these markers ultimately are arbitrary and part of a wider system. It is challenging to move beyond one's natural (cultural) world and to accept that other people's markers of taste work just as well as ours. In which case, you have to be careful when ascribing a more natural existence or a greater moral authority to a French polish over Jerseylicious acrylic claws; acetone is acetone no matter what class or country you come from.

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