Sparkles, spunk & sex appeal: how Bratz became today’s cool-girl blueprint

Photo courtesy of MGA Entertainment.

Almost twenty years later, the iconic toy brand’s biggest fans are now grown-up it-girls and IG baddies living their #bestlives — not only are these women pulling Y2K fashion and beauty inspiration from the fashion dolls’ aesthetic nostalgia, but also the inclusive, girl-powered ethos and bad-bitch attitude best embodied within the brand’s multimedia empire.

In 2001, the world was introduced to the Bratz brand via a half-minute TV commercial featuring animated versions of the almond-eyed, big-headed “Bratz pack” dolls helping a group of young girls get ready for some unknown, presumably child-friendly fête. For its target demographic, the clip depicted an imaginative dreamscape of shopping sprees and bedroom discos. Yet, when revisited as an adult, this fantasy looks quite different: bizarre, humorous, and perhaps most unexpectedly, totally in-tune with the aesthetics and attitudes of 20-something-year-old baddies almost 20 years later.

Both the real and cartoon girls in the advertisement were donning threads not unlike the styles gifted to today’s alt it-girls from coveted indie brands still profiting off Y2K trendiness. Think the patent pleather trousers and cropped corsets of I AM GIA, the kitschy, colorful tanks and tube tops of O-Mighty, Tunnel Vision’s spunky vintage, or UNIF’s entire footwear collection (which literally includes a stacked platform silhouette called “Brat”) — and associated with such aesthetics, Depop princesses like Internet Girl’s Bella McFadden, or influencers in the vein of Destiny Joseph and Sydney Lynn Carlson. Indeed, Bratz were the blueprint, and thus, a comeback was inevitable — the real question was simply one of when.

Destiny Joseph.

Looking back, I recall the first wave of Bratz content trickling onto social media as if it were just yesterday, although it was actually mid-2018, when FILA Disruptor IIs weren’t yet stale, and every art show I stumbled into was an unspoken competition of who could show up looking most like an Ashanti/Ja Rule video extra. I noticed that “extremely online” women seemed increasingly inspired by the doll franchise with every passing day — profile icon selfies were swapped with vintage Bratz artwork, girls on IG began captioning their latest outfit pics with “I’m a real-life Bratz doll,” and hundreds of memes were created at the expense of childhood innocence, consisting of screencaps from the Bratz TV show photoshopped with pro-weed or anti-fuckboy text. In one instance, sometime late last year, I even remember someone saying they used to make their Bratz dolls “scissor each other” in a landmark tweet that went viral. I realized this — this rise of Bratz as nostalgic icons of snark and sex appeal — was the moment I had been waiting for. My favorite childhood brand was cool again.

Photo courtesy of MGA Entertainment.

However, the phrase “cool again” is rather subjective; a far more spot-on wording would be “socially acceptable.” If it’s not already obvious, my adoration of the Bratz brand never wavered once, even into adulthood, but was instead silenced as I grew too old to be playing with dolls without tween ridicule. And this isn’t about me, anyway — it’s about an entire girl generation who was considered “little” between the years of 2001 and 2009, infatuated with fashion and Toys “R” Us offerings that capitalized on wistful possibilities of an adolescent future: belonging to a close-knit girl group; globetrotting sans parental supervision; being hot and dressed in drip 24/7.

On a surface level, said aspirational drip alone could be credited for Bratz’s second rise to popularity. From conception, the dolls and the universe of merchandise that followed — video games, numerous DVD movies, a feature film, a catalog of pop albums (available on Spotify, if anyone else cares) and more — wholly reflected Y2K aesthetics, which continue to linger in 2020 as COVID-19 havocs trend forecasts and even the most forward-thinking folks continue to follow a religion of athleisure and two-toned dye jobs à la Dua Lipa.

But the decision to synchronize the Bratz image with of-the-moment pop culture was, of course, purely strategic on behalf of its parent company, MGA Entertainment. And in the beginning, that strategy worked. Just four years after its initial launch in 2001, Bratz captured about 40 percent of the doll market with $2 billion in global sales. Sure, it was Mattel’s Barbie that still dominated the other 60 percent with its classy-not-sassy image — but MGA’s intention was to rival rather than duplicate. In 2016, Jasmin Larian, the toy company’s creative stakeholder, daughter of its owner Isaac Larian, and founder of Cult Gaia (a newish, influencer-coveted designer womenswear brand) offered Broadly a succinct and accurate analogy: “Barbie is more Rodeo Drive… [Bratz is] more streetwear Melrose: mix and match, make your own clothes.”

This newfangled, urban vibe is what captivated Bratz’s earliest fans — including the ones who were too young to memorize A-lister ensembles or Baby Phat editorials. “As a kid in the 2000s, I didn’t pay as much attention to celebrities — but playing with my Bratz dolls practically daily is something I do remember, so I think there’s a stronger link of nostalgia to it,” says Katie Orlowski, an Australian stylist best known as StealTheSpotlight on YouTube, where some of the biggest fashion and beauty vloggers have turned to creating Bratz-inspired lookbooks and makeup tutorials. Orlowski’s first Bratz-centric lookbook, which was uploaded well-ahead of the curve in fall 2017, is the most-watched video of its kind, with nearly a quarter-million views.

“When Bratz first launched, it felt like this ‘edgy’ new alternative that was more experimental. After all these years it still has the same connotations. People aren’t seeking the simple girl next door looks anymore — they are ready to be more adventurous and the dolls are perfect source of inspiration for that.”

“I think there’s also something to be said for the attitude linked with Bratz,” Orlowski continues. “Barbie had always reigned supreme with a more cookie-cutter image, so when Bratz first launched, it felt like this ‘edgy’ new alternative that was more experimental. After all these years it still has the same connotations. People aren’t seeking the simple girl next door looks anymore — they are ready to be more adventurous and the dolls are perfect source of inspiration for that.”

Orlowski is right; there was something deliciously experimental and rebellious about Bratz, especially when compared to its biggest competitor. In fact, the women embracing the brand’s aesthetic today — attractive alt princesses who have perfected their hot-girl wardrobes, cheeky social media presences, overlined lips, and the provocative art of the ever-coquettish mirror selfie — fit these undertones quite glove-like.

But these lilliputian displays of adult femininity tonally represent behaviors that Bratz’s biggest critics — both parents and the mental health community — feared would materialize in younger girls, causing self-esteem and body image issues; and during its heyday, the Bratz brand was behind some of the doll market’s most controversial characters. For instance, the American Psychological Association notably launched a “Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls” in 2007 that cited concerns over the alleged “adult-like” sexuality of the Bratz dolls and other popular media. Around the same time, a parental organization called Dads and Daughters flamed MGA for releasing a “blind date”-themed doll, arguing that the toy encouraged girls to sneak out of the house and meet up with strangers.

Nia Lee.

Some mothers were upset, too. Describing her own as a “total fashionista,” 19-year-old micro-influencer Nia Lee — who’s also created a popular Bratz lookbook on YouTube — says her mom always encouraged Lee to opt for the edgier doll line when visiting the toy store as a young girl.

“My Bratz collection was huge, and my cousin and I loved trading the clothes so we could always have new things for our dolls to wear,” Lee says. “But a lot of my friends’ moms saw that I was playing with Bratz and looked down upon it. They would tell my mom that the dolls weren’t innocent enough, that their clothes, like crop tops, were too revealing — I remember they even claimed the dolls gave off a ‘bad girl’ vibe.”

Critical discourse surrounding the ramifications of the Bratz dolls’ physical appearance is, of course, valid. However, such conversation undermines the idea that the multifaceted Bratz brand generally embodied far more commendable attributes than damaging ones — and it wouldn’t be too extreme to label the product line as, in a basic sense, thematically feminist.

One of the most discounted qualities of Bratz was its approach to racial inclusion, which was, at the time, pioneering. As the popular Barbie product line featured dolls of different ethnic backgrounds, Barbie, herself, was a white figurehead — thus, the brand played into the threadbare idea that people of color are, at best, simply supporting characters in a white individual’s word. On the contrary, Bratz defied racial tokenism by valuing diversity from its fruition with an ensemble cast of four main dolls: Yasmin, a caramel-skinned, hazel-eyed brunette inspired by Larian’s Iranian daughter; Sasha, a cocoa-colored, music-obsessed black girl; Jade, a trendsetter with porcelain skin, ebony hair and an Asian heritage; and Chloe, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed sports lover.

L-R: Chloe, Sasha, Yasmin, and Jade, the original “Bratz Pack” characters (featured on the eponymous animated TV show).

Also fascinating is that when Mattel launched their own urban-chic doll series, called My Scene, to compete with Bratz in 2002, its attempt at diversification felt lazy and artificial; only two of the four main dolls were people of color, while its African American doll, Madison, suspiciously appeared mixed-race with light skin and green eyes. And though the My Scene dolls personified Y2K trends in a fashion similar to its greatest opponent, bandwagon nostalgia for Mattel’s series is imperceptible when compared to that of Bratz, an arguably more resonating brand.

“I think, at the time, Bratz introducing dolls that represented girls from different backgrounds with different personalities had a huge positive impact on young women,” says Orlowski. “For me, they were always presented as powerful female figures and it was important that they showed our generation that we can all embody that, rather than highlighting only one stereotype to take on that role.”

“Even though the characters had a ‘passion for fashion,’ the movies showed how the girls would always help each other out and stick by each other’s side,” she says in an email. “The dolls truly gave off an ‘I don’t need no man’ vibe, bad bitchezzz only.”

Indeed, the Bratz characters exemplified the idea that girls could wear as many hats as they’d like — and that there was no problem with rocking those hats with style. This fact was demonstrated consistently throughout the brand’s films, TV series, and video gameplay in which the four characters were written into storylines of both relatable teenage drama — balancing prom season with final projects or auditioning as a band for the school talent show — and fanciful adventures, like journeying to London and Tokyo, or starting a successful teen magazine. Motifs of female friendship, ambition, and independence were central to each Bratz narrative, revealing the brand to be an uplifting source of girl-powered motivation.

Lee fondly remembers how the dolls even helped her recognize the importance of sisterhood as a child. “Even though the characters had a ‘passion for fashion,’ the movies showed how the girls would always help each other out and stick by each other’s side,” she says in an email. “The dolls truly gave off an ‘I don’t need no man’ vibe, bad bitchezzz only.”

Fast forward to today, a world in which many former Bratz lovers are riddled by the doll line’s seemingly sudden fall to irrelevance. It’s true, that most of us simply aged and grew out of touch with our favorite childhood toy — which explains why embracing that nostalgia today feels so good. And for some of us, our kid dreams appear as more attainable than ever, thanks to secondhand shops and grown-up autonomies.

“The Bratz aesthetic represents a style we dreamt of having when we were young, so now that we are finally old enough to fund our own wardrobe there’s finally nothing stopping us from living out our childhood dreams,” says Orlowski. “And one of my favorite things about early 2000s coming back in trend is that all our thrift shops are already filled to the brim with clothes and accessories from that era, making it an affordable and more sustainable trend to take part in.”

Still, lesser-known to the casual Bratz fan is the billion-dollar legal war between MGA Entertainment and Mattel that spurred the product line’s first hiatus in 2010 — just about the time many young girls were becoming early teens no longer interested in toys and make-believe. The 15-years-long battle was perpetual, complex, and mostly involving inquiries of intellectual property (the inventor of the Bratz still worked at Mattel when he designed the doll; thus Mattel claimed the toy idea was theirs under contract). And during those tumultuous years, Bratz was stuck in a whirlwind of paralyzing chaos consisting of numerous courtroom showdowns, unsuccessful branding overhauls, poor consumer reception, and disappointing sales.

But through it all, MGA maintained ownership of the brand, and with such volition, plotted its biggest Bratz comeback. In late 2018, British fashion designer and illustrator Hayden Williams was enlisted to redesign the beloved Bratz for a special Collector series modeled and branded as facsimilia of the dolls’ earliest editions; the ones that dedicated stans claimed were, unlike previous 2010s redesigns, faithful to the classic Bratz image and ethos.

Collector Bratz. Photo courtesy of MGA Entertainment.

For the toy’s parent company, the decision to turn to an up-to-the-minute, millennial creative like Williams — whose collaborations include artwork for style icons like Rihanna and Naomi Campbell to a ’90s-inspired collection with MISSGUIDED — translated as the brand’s final recourse to connect with not just with Gen-Z tweens, but adult devotees who still craved the cool-girl nostalgia of the Y2K Bratz via more than a social media identity and field trips to Goodwill.

And that attempt seems to have worked: “Hayden Williams really has outdone himself and brought us back out favorite girlz,” one fan raved on Amazon, where the comeback dolls are exclusively sold. Attached to the user review are photos of a Sasha doll standing inside a clear, asymmetrical plastic box, the exact kind I remember eagerly tearing apart on birthdays and Christmas as a 10-year-old. She’s dressed in that year’s most memorable trends — an athleisure leather baseball cap, a full-length colorblock puffer, camo pumps, and a fishnet top. She looks like now; now looks like her.

Sydney N. Sweeney is a writer, editor, and critic based in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on culture, music, identity, and pop nostalgia.