Little girls love to dress up. How far should commerce be allowed to encourage them?
The issue has been given a new poignancy with the imminent debut of a pair of Goth-style figures called Scarlet and Crimson, who are being touted, by their owners, as an antidote to Barbie and Bratz.
The characters will initially appear in books published by Simon & Schuster, but make no mistake, a toy franchise and brand partnerships are in the offing.
In their way, Scarlet and Crimson embody some fine, upstanding principles. The book stories will apparently revolve around their friendship and reflect a central message that life “is not about what you look like, it’s about who you are”.
In this, they are indeed positioned as an admirable antidote to those multi-billion dollar assets, Barbie and Bratz.
Barbie, the world’s oldest teenager (b. 1959) has, with her statistically impossible WASP body, richly enhanced the earnings of various clinics specialising in breast-enhancement and eating disorders. We may even have her to blame for Pamela Anderson. Bratz, by contrast, with an edgier modernity (b.2001) – suggested in her multi-ethnicity, tubbier frame and trendy names such as Yasmin, Chloe, Cameron, Jade – closely resembles Kelly Osbourne in personality and appearance.
Neither Barbie nor Bratz, while reflecting an aspirational reality of sorts, may be said to represent an ideal role model for impressionable kids.
Enter the refreshingly different Goth couple, whose appeal will be squarely aimed at 10-14 year-old girls looking for “non-blonde, non-pink and non-frilly” values.
But wait a minute. While there may be less of the materialist girl and more of the spiritual in Scarlet and Crimson, the Goth persona is not without its own set of problems. As a BBC website puts it: “Some religious leaders believe that the Goth lifestyle is delivering young people into the hands of satanism, witchcraft and devil worship.”
These religious leaders certainly don’t represent the mainstream, but they are picking up on some fairly negative connotations among the public.
Image, however, is only part of the issue. There is also the matter of what the owner intends to do with it by way of a brand franchise.
Here, the game has long since moved on from the physical reality of plastic dolls, their wardrobes and their equally plastic boyfriends to the much more exciting possibilities of the virtual world and social network sites.
Getting to the older girl…
One key advantage of a digital makeover for brand owners, such as Barbie’s Mattel, is that it extends the age of appeal – from 5-8 into early adulthood. Chuck Scothon, head of Mattel’s girls brands recently admitted as much when he said the BarbieGirls.com site is attracting girls in the 8-15 range who may be outgrowing Barbie herself. “The online world,” he is reported as saying, “and the content that girls engage with is very much a new toy. [It’s] a great way to play fashion and beauty and hair-play, but doing it in a fun and relevant way for an older girl.”
This is a fine line to tread for brands thinking of getting involved. Bratz, notoriously, has been accused of sexualising children.
The principal danger, as child advocacy groups increasingly see it, is that a precocious fascination with the virtual near-adult world of avatars and B money (in the case of BarbieDolls.com) will lead to a retrojection of adult (sexual and commercial) values among the vulnerable in a much more pervasive way than any plastic doll in the past.
Brand owners are likely to be careful about sexual imagery on sites; inevitably they will be less vigilant about the amount of commercial noise.
… means trouble with the younger one
That can lead to trouble, as Ganz – owner of the Webkinz site – found to its cost late last year. It was vigorously attacked by a child advocacy group after the site, previously free of ads, began to run them for Dreamworks’ Bee Movie and Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks. In addition, children’s avatars were encouraged to collect virtual clothing such as bee suits. The campaign was effective: Ganz climbed down.
Coolabi, the licensing company which is promoting the Goth girls, is clearly sensitive to such charges. While striking a deal to develop a range of branded cosmetics and toiletries aimed at 10- 14- year old girls, it is at pains to point out that such products are carefully vetted and de-eroticised. Apparently, it’s all about sleepover kits and lip gloss rather than lipstick.
In practice, that fine line may be very difficult to police.