A couple months ago, my girls stumbled on a Bratz Babys movie and I let them watch it. I had to suppress the urge to rip the remote out of Robin’s hand as the infant versions of the Bratz dolls — dressed in lowcut shirts and no pants — gyrated and sang “I’m hotter than hot, more often than not” in front of giant lipstick tubes. Words can’t describe how sick I felt watching this plotless disaster of a movie in which toddlers (who apparently still drink from bottles and wear diapers, but can also wear platform shoes and do karaoke?) learn valuable lessons about friendship and sisterhood while finding a lost dog in a mall and talking a lot about “style.”
They loved the movie.
I tried to put into words why this made me so uncomfortable, so borderline homocidal, so sick to my stomach. In my mind, it was the fact that the film was borderline porn, putting baby bodies on display in a manner that was so adult it wasn’t even appropriate for the tweens to whom the regular dolls are marketed or the teens the dolls apparently represent. I told Robin that the show was “inappropriate” and she gave me this deeply resentful glare that told me exactly how completely uncool I am. What does “inappropriate” mean to a 5 year old who genuinely — I mean, it is part of who she is — loves shiny, colorful, beautiful things? To whom long hair, makeup, and sparkly shoes let her express who she is to the world? I asked myself how I could talk about Bratz without slut shaming. Without telling my daughters that girls who dress like that hate themselves, are brainwashed, are bad. Without sending mixed messages about their bodies and their sexuality, which isn’t that far off from coming into being.
I’ve often read and referred to the website Pigtail Pals on matters like this, and recalled some language she used with her daughter about the Monster High dolls:
What I said to my 5yo was that Monster High dolls were dressed in a way that I felt was inappropriate for children, that their faces looked mean not nice, and that their bodies sent our hearts unhealthy messages. We talked about different colors of hair and skin being really cool, but that these dolls made little girls focus too much on being pretty for other people and being too grown-up and that is not what kids need to do… I told her that Monster High dolls have the kind of bodies that can make girls sick, because a real person could never have a body like that, and that I loved my little girl’s healthy body so much I would never want her to have something that would make her think her body wasn’t amazing. And when she kept pushing about the clothing, I told her that girls who dress like that often don’t have full and happy hearts, and they use clothing like that to get attention and make themselves feel full… I want to teach them to use their intuition and common sense when it comes to hard decisions. It is what I do when I tell myself there is no way in hell that dolls like Monster High or Bratz or hooker Barbies will end up in my home. I respect my children far too much to feed them a diet of garbage like that.
And I love about half of that. I like talking about their facial expressions (which are mean). I like the idea of talking about how limiting that kind of clothing is for things that are fun (she talks about that in a different part not quoted here). I like talking about how we dress as a way to express ourselves that is for us, and not to appear a certain way to other people. My go-to line with Robin when she wants to wear something that seems over-the-top fancy to me is, “How do you feel when you wear that?” because I want her to focus on the way SHE feels about herself and not what others THINK of how she LOOKS. I’m talking a lot more about how great I feel in the clothes I wear and how beautiful I feel in my body, because no one else is going to teach my girls to value themselves in this crazy world.
But half of the above message gives me pause. The line about “hooker Barbies,” or the one that says girls who dress like that don’t have happy hearts… that bothers me a lot. There are underlying lessons being taught there: that only bad, sick, sad girls dress like that. I won’t have bad girls in my house. You are a Good Girl. You aren’t like that. It treads closely to the good old virgin-whore binary and I think that makes for real problems when our daughters do come of age, and have to grapple with wanting to feel sexy and wanting to have sex, but not having models of how to do that in a healthy way. They will get great lessons about how to be healthy, happy, embodied children, and I love that. But what will they feel when they hit their teens and have to grapple with wanting things that they’ve been taught only bad girls want?
Because sex, in this conversation, is located entirely in the bad girl model. The Good Girl is devoid of sex. Innocence is preserved, and sex is designated as appropriate to learn about later (and later, and later, depending on who you are — there’s a time and a place for everything, and that’s called college for some; for others, it’s marriage). So what’s a Good Girl to do when she is 16 and horny?
I was a Good Girl in pretty much all the ways one can be a Good Girl. I learned about sex mostly from a book my Mom bought me when I was 9. She gave me the talk and left the rest to Lynda Madaras, and I read that book cover to cover to cover. I learned all about menstruation and masturbation, so I understood that everything is normal and okay and natural and healthy and never felt bad for being a horny kid who got her period at age 10. For a long time, I thought my parents were kinda groovy and hip for being so up front about that stuff with me. But looking back, I was receiving very mixed messages about sexuality. My parents never talked to me about safe sex or birth control. I found a copy of Delta of Venus hidden in a giveaway box in the garage (which I smuggled inside and read cover to cover to cover – and WOW did I like it). Later, I found The Joy of Sex set (the original ones) in my parents’ bedroom and smuggled that to my bedroom, too. I was humiliated when my Dad discovered it under my bed and, in front of me, confiscated it and returned it to the closet. I mean, THE CLOSET. Could it have been more symbolic?? So, my body is normal and healthy and ok, but SEX IS NOT. SEX BAD. GOOD GIRL NOT HAVE SEX.
I’m raising Good Girls. They respect adults. They love to learn and play. They are sweet and kind and smart as hell. They don’t take no guff, even from Moms who find Bratz Babys “inappropriate.” They’re great, and someday they are going to want to have sex. Just like I did. And what if they want to wear a bikini at age 10? Or at 14, wear a lot of eyeshadow? How can I teach them to embrace and express that aspect of themselves in a world that believes girls who dress like that are asking for it? Are inviting men to treat them like trash, and that they are therefore trashy? It’s really confusing to tell a girl, “Those clothes are for grown ups and you can’t have that HOOKER BARBIE.” It’s kind of a cop out to say that grown up women can dress like that but not children; and then once they are grown up to tell them that, well, the only women who chose to dress like that have sick hearts.
As a sex positive feminist, I don’t want my kids to feel shameful for wanting sex. Beyond that, I don’t want them to feel shame for liking sex, desiring lots of it, being queer, being horny, or being kinky, if they are those things (I have no expectations are assumptions there). I get really irritated when feminism starts preaching to people and saying that they don’t really like what they like and that their desires are a product of patriarchal brainwashing. I encounter these comments a lot on some of the amazing sex positive blogs I read, like Clarisse Thorn and Pervocracy. Some of the most complicated and unhappy times in my life were the times I was simultaneously sexually active and a budding feminist, because I was horrified at what I desired and yet I couldn’t change that about myself.
So if my kids want — really, really want, for a long time and not just as a passing whim — to have a Barbie, or a Bratz doll… I might be ok with it. I certainly don’t want to teach them that girls like that are gross. I certainly don’t want to teach them that wanting to feel beautiful in their bodies is a sign of sickness, even if it means they do end up wanting to wear bikinis or pants with words on the ass (or shaving their head, or piercings, or being butch, or whatever). I still have a lot to grapple with and a lot to learn, but I do think that a fundamental aspect of healthy “Good Girl” sexuality is being able to want what you want, free from judgment. Understanding your own desire is fundamental to consent, and as a sex positive feminist, I do believe that all sex that is consensual is fine. If I want my girls to have a healthy sexuality, to be able to give and receive consent among equal partners, then they have to know what they want, love what they want, and believe that their desires are worthy of respect and fulfillment. I think that message can start now.