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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

These Dolls Don't Play Nice

I was at the Hallmark store the other day getting birthday cards when I saw a rack of Ty Girlz – plush adolescent-looking dolls accompanied by an online code which grants the buyer entry into the Ty Girlz virtual world. I was curious about what Ty (the company that makes these dolls as well as the popular Beanie Babies) had created as their world, and why lately, I have witnessed an outbreak of teenager dolls (think Bratz, This is Me, etc.). I decided to buy one and do some of my own dollerific research.

Perusing my options, I wondered why all the dolls had such downright mean and sarcastic facial expressions. It seems we Americans think that teenage insolence is the coolest thing around, and further reinforce this idea—often culturally attributed to movies, music videos, and celebrities—by selling such dolls to 6 to 13-year-old girls. (I recalled a small girl I had seen the day before in a parking lot, strutting around in a mini skirt and high-heeled boots while holding her mother’s hand. It seemed to me the sale of those clothes benefited the manufacturer more than her.) In the end, I chose Rockin’ Ruby, a rocker chick in all-black faux vinyl or leather. Outfitted with a belly-button ring, choker (wow, a whole ’nother blog could be written on why it’s called that!), platforms, and oodles of makeup, she seemed like the toughest of the lot. (They each sported heels of some sort, makeup, and plenty of accessories though.)

As it turned out, Rockin’ Ruby had just been “retired” (no more of her type of doll will be made), but I could see from her goodbye messages in Ty Girlz world that her persona was a young woman on tour with a band, a teenager whose “positive” traits of independence and musical talent were actually just a hankering to party and dress like a celebrity bad-girl. The rest of the Ty Girlz were equally as into being flirty and glamorous (aka sexually suggestive and super-duper slim) according to their bios and appearances—but who can enjoy your own snazziness when you’re so busy worrying about how you look and which new clothes you need to buy? (You apparently also “NEED” to buy the rest of the Ty Girlz dolls to complete your collection, a direct marketing effort built straight into this world for girls.)

I apologize for judging the dolls based on their external features and certainly hope I am not promoting any negative stereotypes by discussing the personality types these dolls are meant to be, but it’s important to point out that someone purposely created their “looks” and “personas” in order to turn a profit. These skinny, lollipop-headed dolls make cool the anorexic/bulimic body figure, as if feeling bad about yourself, your life, and the state of the world, is normal or even fun and desirable. They imitate the insecurity many of us feel about our external appearances, activities, and relationships—and that makes them cool enough to buy? How confusing.

The Ty company, by involving real girls in their dolls’ virtual world, have infused these toys with a celebrity effect: that of being role models despite that they’re not real people in girls’ personal lives. The Ty Girlz world is a higher-pitched, curliqued version of the commercial MTV atmosphere. As I surfed the site, loud rock or dance music erupted from my screen to accompany chat rooms, fitting rooms, and bedrooms. All there is to do is shop (for clothes or furniture for your house), chat, and play games that all center around a gabby (even catty), sexy climate—and one that ultimately is simply there to endorse the Ty product. After playing some shopping, dressing, and dancing games (whose characters ask you aloud in a girls’ voice to help them “look perfect” or “look my best”), I became hopeful that the trivia game might offer a more interesting and 3-dimensional horizon to this world. When I found that it only featured Ty Girlz “facts,” I truly felt the narrow confines of the Ty Girlz universe: It would be like living in a mall, where every fashion, friend, activity, and thought is dictated to you. For all its colors, cell phone rings, zooming cars, makeover before-and-after shots, and easily-earned Girlz world money—all you have to do is stay and play, and your bank account fills again—its shallow interactivity would not normally hold girls’ attention. But feeling bad about what they look like, what activities they do, and how much money they have compared to their co-avatars sure might.

I am highly disappointed that today’s toys—objects that used to stimulate children’s imaginations—now tell girls not only how to play with them and who they should aspire to become but also who to be now. (One could criticize traditional babydolls for influencing girls’ hopes of eventual motherhood, but Ty Girlz and other such dolls pressure girls to be chic, sexually active, and exterior-focused in their current lives.) And while the Ty Girlz dolls may be accompanied by a bajillion play options that seem to expand or improve upon real-life make-believe—She’s not hard plastic! She’s a friend closer to your age! You can buy her tons of virtual outfits in any color!—her personality, fashion sense, wishes, and ambitions are built-in and pretty unchangeable. (Yes, Rockin’ Ruby’s shiny silver panties are woven into her skin and the rest of her clothes are sewn on—not to mention, the size of her head ensures that she will stick with her current top forever. Clearly, this IS the outfit she wants to be wearing.)

Even if I consider social or community aspects offered by the Girlz world that one might not have with a regular ol’ lone toy, in addition to the confusion between doll and self caused by the online avatar world, these dolls as playthings teach girls that appropriate friendship activities are to “dress up your room” and “give your girls makeovers.” (In imitation of today’s narcissistic ‘social networking’ friendship sites, the “All About Me” section is coming soon to The Girlz chat-room scene is equally as grim. The fact that—against a background of animated silhouettes clubbing—clickable pre-written phrases exist to aid girls too young to type gives me a clear signal that perhaps they shouldn’t be there, and that this is not a place where real friends are found. (Moreover, the fact that I signed up as a 25-year-old yet had full access to the chat rooms doesn’t make me feel any better about the security of girls who might be excited by a stranger’s flattery.)

One website cannot of course single-handedly make a girl devalue herself, no less contribute to how secure she is as she becomes a woman in her teenage years. But in a nation where girls’ (and therefore women’s) self-esteem is dropping, I would say that it certainly adds to—and profits from—the cacophony of voices telling females of all ages who and how to be.

But enough of my ideas—what do YOU think about these dolls? What are your opinions about doll ages (baby, girl, teen, adult)? Do you have TY Girlz or similar dolls with an online playspace? How are they the same and different than dolls that don’t have an online world? What do you think are the pros and cons of playing online? Feel free to disagree with anything I said or comment on a related question I didn’t mention—let your voice be heard! I look forward to reading…

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