Bratz doll before and after: before has bright pink, thick lips, purple eyeshadow, and stylized brows; after has smaller lips, no lipstick, smaller eyes and unplucked brows.

Why doll make-unders make me uncomfortable

In various corners of the internet, a trend has been building: doll make-unders. Have you seen these? 

On the left, before: a doll with large eyes with eye makeup; full, bright pink lips; and stylized eyebrows. To the right, after: the same doll now has smaller, round eyes; thinner, light pink lips, thicker, straighter brows; and lighter hair.

I’m particularly interested in the re-making of a particular kind of doll: the Bratz doll. Back in January, the work of Tasmanian artist Sonia Singh was making the rounds. She takes discarded dolls and redoes their faces and makes them new clothing, making them “ready for outdoor adventures.” The make-unders were met with nearly universal praise; everyone loved these dolls as soon as they were rid of their trashy, heavy-handed makeup. Their lips got thinner. Their eyes got rounder. It all made me pretty uncomfortable.

When I saw that another artist, inspired by Sonia Singh’s work, is re-fashioning Bratz dolls with make-unders so as to resemble feminist heroes, my discomfort crystalized into something more concrete. What kinds of girls get to be feminists?

A collage of pictures: on the top left, Frida Kahlo, hair braided, with a scarf; bottom left, a Bratz doll, in characteristically heavy makeup, a silver bodysuit, and pink bomber jacket; and to the right, the re-fashioned doll - lips thinner and light brown, eyes smaller and rounder, hair in braids adorned with flowers and wearing a white shirt and long red flowered skirt.

A Bratz doll re-fashioned as Frida Kahlo by Wendy Tsao. (Image: West-Info)

I understand people’s discomfort with Bratz dolls. Like most fashion-type dolls, Barbie being the most (in)famous of these, they present beauty ideals that are mostly unattainable: impossibly large eyes, perfect makeup, thin bodies. And I concede, even, that the dolls are part of a larger trend of sexualizing ever younger girls. This is certainly worrisome — not because young girls cannot or should not be sexual, but because when young girls are sexualized by adults, priority is always placed on others’ pleasure before their own. And certainly compulsory femininity can be harmful, particularly (though not only) to gender non-conforming kids. But even conceding all these points, I am left with a gnawing concern about the ways society at large, and mainstream feminism by extension, consistently devalues femininity in general — and the femininity of women of color in particular.

You see, Bratz dolls are stylized as “urban” — that is, in the style of Black and Latina women in segregated and low-income neighborhoods across the United States. Bratz dolls have four characters, one of which is white, and all of whom wear the same “trashy” style. And it makes me uncomfortable to see mainstream feminism praise the removal of characteristically Black and Latinx style markers from these mostly brown dolls and call them then more beautiful, particularly when the same styles — nail art, gelled baby hairs, full lips — are praised when they show up on the mostly white runways of Fashion Week or on a Kardashian. All while the dolls retain their thin builds; none of these recent “make-unders” that I have seen have modified the dolls’ thin, presumably able bodies to reflect the variety of bodies in which we exist.

For these reasons, I find the Frida make-under by artist Wendy Tsao particularly ironic, as Frida’s physical presentation — her femininity — was an integral part of her artistic practice. Right now at La Casa Azul a tube of her lipstick, a bottle of her nail polish, and one of her compacts are on display; they are next to her intricately decorated back braces and prosthetic leg, right near some of her many gorgeous items of clothing. But it’s easy to dismiss these more traditionally feminine forms of expression, isn’t it? To see painting on a canvas as art, and painting on a face as frivolous and completley lacking in meaning or value? How easy it was to erase Frida’s red lips and nails, to portray her prior to her leg amputation near the end of her short life, to not bother with the back brace that would have certainly been peeking through a shirt like the one her likeness wears. I find none of these to be coincidences, but rather a simple extension of the marginalization of femininity and disability; as simple as femme-phobia, ableism, and a dose of internalized misogyny.

I don’t mean to say that the work of these artists has no value. Dolls (and “action figures”, for that matter) consistently portray unrealistic ideals of beauty, and young girls are particularly vulnerable to messages that place value on unrealistic expectations; it’s valuable to question that. But neither should we literally erase the faces of femmes and the ’round the way girls from feminism.

We’re in this too: organizing the rally, visiting you in jail, getting childcare hooked up. And we’ve been erased enough.

Header image: Tree Change Dolls

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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