Have the heirs of Barbie hit limit for risqué dolls?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On Monday the charges flew: They were called little "stripper dolls" that encourage children to "engage in eroticized play."

By Wednesday, Hasbro's planned release of "The Pussycat Dolls," a line of toys based on the all-female pop group of the same name, was canceled.

Hasbro, Inc., famous for such innocuous toys as My Little Pony figurines, isn't saying much. In a statement, the Rhode Island company said the older age group targeted by the recording group meant that making a doll line was "inappropriate."

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But for critics, the move is a major victory that could renew efforts by parents and other consumer advocates to challenge products they say devalue girls and women, even in the face of billion-dollar marketing machines.

"It's really important to know that corporations can be stopped; it really underscores the importance of people working together to stop commercial exploitation of children," says Susan Linn, the cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which spear-headed a letter-writing effort with the national nonprofit Dads & Daughters. "[The Pussycat Dolls] was a ratcheting up of the kind of precocious irresponsible sexuality that is being marketed to little girls."

"Pussycat Dolls" designed for young girls and modeled after the music group, with their risqué style and smash hit "Don't Cha" that includes the lyrics, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me; Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?" seems a world away from the unblemished bubble of Barbie's Dream House.

But toy expert Gary Cross from Penn State University says that when she emerged in 1959, Barbara "Barbie" Millicent Roberts was also considered too sexual. "Mothers hated Barbie because she didn't look like their companion dolls, which were dolls that looked like children," he says.

Despite that protest, and the many others that followed, dolls - not to mention video games and any number of DVDs - have stubbornly made their way down assembly lines. The 2001 release of the fiery Bratz dolls by MGA Entertainment - which many pop-culture experts say represents a shift in acceptable norms for the doll industry - made parents furious. Today the Bratz are among Barbie's fiercest competitors.

Hasbro has not elaborated on its decision to pull plans for its "Pussycat Dolls," or whether it was a response to consumer pressure. But many say the move is an anomaly. Though inroads have been made against junk food companies, for example, "most companies just go right ahead," says Daniel Acuff, president of the youth marketing firm YMS Consulting in California.

That is an outcome that Joe Kelly, president of Dads & Daughters, says he knows well. His group, which protests advertising campaigns that he says objectify girls, was able to get the company Self Esteem Clothing to stop selling a T-shirt aimed at teen girls which read, "Property of Boys Locker Room." But victories are usually few and far between. "Most of the time we are ignored, or get a form letter officially inviting us to be blown off," he says.

For this latest protest, at least 2,000 letters were sent within two days to protest a doll line whose very name makes some parents blush. Mr. Kelly says they may have made an impact not necessarily because of volume but tactics: they appealed to the president of Hasbro, Alfred Verrecchia, asking him to imagine his 6-year-old granddaughter engaging in such play. "It's a very simple equation," he says.

Despite the victory, child advocates say that pressures still abound in a society that is saturated by sexual imagery. "It is becoming normative, as opposed to ... deviant," says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who teaches about the history of female adolescence at Cornell University.

"Go to any high school in the US, and everyone is talking about a dress code," she says. "Should girls be exposing their bellybuttons in Algebra class? Lots of women don't think about that as anything flamboyant or unusual."

And that can leave many younger children confused, says Diane Levin, an early childhood specialist at Wheelock College in Boston. "They don't know what it means, except how it looks," she says. She applauds Hasbro's decision, and says it illustrates a growing awareness that parents will no longer tolerate sexually explicit messages in the media.

Many parents still feel burdened by the task of shielding their children from such messages, but Monique Tilford, acting executive director of The Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., says she expects more decisions like the Hasbro one. She says companies are lowering the bar so far that an outcry will follow, she says, and that groups like hers are coming together, on both the right and the left, to take collective action.

Many say the battle is a long one, but cite the demise of the "Pussycat Dolls" as a sure victory, at least for now. "If Hasbro had put these dolls out," says Dr. Linn, "another company would have had to do something even more outrageous."

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