Earlier this month Desiree Machado, a 15-year-old YouTuber with nearly one million subscribers, filmed herself getting ready to hit the local fair. Like many high school sophomores, she was preparing to spend one of the last weekends of summer riding rides and eating fried food with her family. The 18-minute video is as inconsequential as it sounds: in her messy room, she points out piles of clothes and an old Starbucks cup, she talks about taking Instagram pics and makeup while curling her bangs. Then she shows off her outfit—a white, cropped, short-sleeve mock turtleneck top, leopard-print platform shoes, and low-rise, neon pink flare pants with chap-like exposed hip slits. While the selections might seem cartoonish—and they are—she based her look on a loose recreation of an edgy toy first released on the market three years before she was born: the Bratz doll.
YouTube hosts tens of thousands of videos bearing Bratz transformations, including the popular “Turning myself into a Bratz Doll challenge” from earlier this year. The five-letter word has become a popular search term, and Machado’s 523,000 views are proof. (Eight months prior, she published a video in which she attempted to give her boyfriend a makeover to look like a Bratz doll. It scored her nearly 800,000 views.)
But unlike most transient trends on YouTube, a fascination with Bratz as a style icon now extends beyond the platform in mainstream popular culture. At the height of her fame and power, Kylie Jenner was (and often still is) likened to a Bratz doll. Her generous use of lip filler and spray tans more or less aligns her look with that of the “ethnically ambiguous” Bratz model, though Jenner herself is white. Jenner’s experimental hair styles have been compared to a variety of Bratz’s signature locks; she’s been the topic of Twitter roundups of fans claiming she looks exactly like the dolls. In 2017, Kendall Jenner, Kylie’s sister, reiterated the observation on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians: “Has anyone ever told you you look like a Bratz doll?” she asked. (Kylie’s response: a smirk, as if to acknowledge it’s a sentiment she’s heard many times before.) Even the people behind Bratz agree: “We love Kylie Jenner,” an anonymous Bratz designer told Vice in 2016. “[Kylie] looks like a Bratz doll. She embodies the dolls.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact timing and reasoning for the resurrection of Bratz, though it’s been written about copiously in at least the last few years. The dolls’ fashion, most have concluded, lines up with current nostalgia trends—think Kylie’s tiny sunglasses, or improbably corseted-waist, or liberal use of camo prints, or over-lined lips—and Bratz have become a convenient touchstone for a trend already well on its way. As fashion continues to repeat itself and ‘90s worship is quickly replaced by the godawful styles of the early ‘00s, Bratz have become a flagship example of Y2K cool.
But as anyone who was in the Bratz demographic when they first appeared on the market will tell you, the dolls were always a problem. They never should’ve become that memorable. Their revival, it appears, sidesteps the forgotten controversy that made them such a flashpoint in the first place.
Launched in 2001, Bratz was marketed as a trendy, edgy alternative to Barbie. Unlike Barbie’s antiquated appearance—white, adult, and conservative—Bratz aimed to reach teens. The tiny bodied, doe-eyed dolls represented a variety of ethnicities and wore what cool teens wanted to wear at the time: heavy makeup that exaggerated their pouty lips, chunky shoes, low-rise flared pants, crop tops, micro-miniskirts, statement bags, hats, and coats. Bratz began with four models, all seemingly meant to embody a different race while playing into stereotypes: Cloe, the preppy, white, blonde one with blue eyes who wore pastel baby tees and shimmery lipgloss; Jade, the black-haired, green-eyed edgy one known for her “quirky” style, often referred to as “Kool Kat” and presumed to be Asian; Sasha, the brown-haired, brown-eyed hip-hop loving doll one who often wore Baby Phat-esque clothing, was a dancer and meant to be Black; Yasmin, the caramel-skinned one prone to wearing Earth tones and identified by her boho-influenced style.
Unlike Barbie, who countered claims of retrograde sexism by holding a variety of job titles and careers, Bratz were hedonistic. Their passion was fashion. They didn’t work. They only looked cute.
By 2006, Bratz had sold 125 million dolls worldwide and accounted for 40 percent of the fashion doll market, an astronomical feat for a market that had primarily operated as a monopoly. (Barbie still held strong with 60 percent.) In 2004, Bratz outsold Barbie in the U.K. Unlike Barbie, Bratz dolls were heterogeneous without calling explicit attention to race, at the time making them appear to be progressive to some onlookers. To others, they were caricatures of the hypersexual stereotypes applied to women of color; Bratz branding was often “sassy,” a hop, skip and a jump away from “sexy.”
The reality is somewhere in the middle: it was exciting to see some nonwhite dolls flood the marketplace, but their perceived racial identities were flattened with frivolous clichés that made such “barrier breaking” uneasy. In 2007, the American Psychological Association established the “Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,” and published a report announcing concern over what it called Bratz’s “adult-like” sexualization of young women. The inquiry brought only publicity for the dolls—nothing attracts rebellious teenagers better than sexy controversy.
Eventually Bratz mania slowed and sales declined, mostly due to nasty litigation after Mattel sued Bratz’s creator Carter Bryant for designing the doll while he held a job with Barbie (which is owned by Mattel). In 2010, Bratz rebranded to appear demure, claiming to be “more preppy than sexy.” In 2015, they revamped their design once again in an attempt to better reflect the “modern girl”—less makeup, more graphic t-shirts with cheeky statements, like “SELFIE.” These adjustments have yet to result in the kind of spontaneous popularity Bratz inspired a decade-and-a-half ago, but it’s clear that the brand is most interested in staying up to date with fashion trends and, by extension, their initial of how to appeal to contemporary teens. They didn’t seem to understand the teens had already circled back to the original vision.
Internet style influencers’ active interest in Bratz goes beyond makeup routines into cosplay-like fashion. Internet Girl, better known as iGirl, the online moniker of Canadian 20-something Bella McFadden, has made a fortune thrifting late ‘90s and early-00s looks and flipping them on her Depop store. (She’s one of the 20 most followed people on the site.) Because the kind of clothing she resells is so idiosyncratic, she offers $150 style bundles, called “styled by iGirl bundles,” designed with ultra-specific styles in mind: anything from Y2K lingerie, Spice Girls-inspired, Carrie Bradshaw meets Lizzie McGuire, and, of course, Bratz.
In the early 2000s, Bratz sold the dream of trendy fashions to teens and tweens who loved those styles, but couldn’t leave the house in a belly chain, sky blue eye shadow, distressed paperboy hat, and six-inch platform boots. In the late 2010s, as the window for nostalgia grows shorter and shorter, Bratz have become symbolic for the style of the past. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, it does feel a bit like taking a step backward: If only the vision for modern-day style didn’t mimic another retrograde standard for young women to emulate—a doll, same as before, built to a history no one cares to remember.