Christmas Tarts

Bratz Pic.PNG

Memo to holiday shoppers: As you roam the doll aisles in coming weeks, looking for the perfect gift for the little girl in your life, don't panic if you suddenly think you've wandered into Victoria's Secret--or, worse, a lap-dance bar. It happens to the best of us.

This month, doll shelves are brimming with sex and glitz, as the latest lineup of 10-inch tarts strut their stuff into the hearts of girls everywhere. Mattel's slinky "My Scene" collection has ramped up the glam for the holidays with its "Fab Faces" dolls, mini-minxes with pliable mugs (Make them pout!) that come with boas, tiaras and accessories "no diva can live without."

Play Along's coquettish Dream Dancer dolls (kid sisters to the hot-pantsed Sky Dancers) should also be a big hit on Christmas morning, flashing their long legs as they spin on their signature swivel bases. (Can you say pole dance?)

And, of course, there's MGA Entertainment's notorious Bratz dolls, those high-heeled, dewy-eyed baby fashionistas of the preschool set. Looking for all the world like tiny hookers--exposed midriffs, painted faces--the Bratz line is doing the bling thing for Christmas with its "Diamondz" collection, adding 10-carat sparkle to an accessories cache that already includes mobile phones, glitter mini-skirts and (sigh) thonglike underwear.

You've come a long way, Raggedy Ann.

Sex indeed sells, as anyone who's ever been seduced by a flesh-soaked Calvin Klein ad or undulating iPod commercial can tell you. That's to be expected by grown-up consumers. We're easy that way. But as toymakers continue to target increasingly younger audiences with the same come-hither come-on, we have to ask ourselves, what is all this doing to our kids?

"Children are sexual beings, but in an ideal world they grow into their sexuality gradually, and in an age-appropriate way," says Jean Kilbourne, author of the book Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. "Now, there is so much pressure on them at a young age to model an adult version of sex that is way beyond their comprehension."

As the father of two girls, I've seen firsthand the way sex has slithered into the dollhouse--and our lives--and like most parents, I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard sell.

When my youngest daughter, Audrey, for example, asked for her first Bratz doll at age 4, I cringed. (The one she wanted, Cloe, dressed like someone I dated in college. Trust me, that's not a good thing.) And yet before I knew it, I was caving in to that age-old entreaty--"But everyone else has one!"--and plunking down my 20 bucks.

My guess is that I'm not the only parent whose resolve evaporates in the aisles of Toys 'R' Us. Bratz is, after all, a $2.5 billion worldwide property. If not me, some other sucker.

Even so, you don't have to be a social scientist to see how, for every plastic vamp we allow to sashay through our kids' bedrooms, we are only encouraging a larger sexual trend to take root in their culture. From the boy-crazy characters in tween movies to the barely there costumes on Dancing with the Stars, sex has become something our kids are growing up with rather than growing into, and this uninvited tutoring is often occurring below the radar.

Fortunately, parents are beginning to fight back. Hasbro was planning to trot out a chorus line of figurines modeled after raunch rockers The Pussycat Girls (Don't Ya Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?)--that is, until a Brooklyn mom kick-started a letter-writing campaign complaining that the torrid troupe was "definitely not for kids." Hasbro eventually scrapped the idea.

The battle is also escalating among the competing manufacturers themselves. AG Properties, which markets the more "wholesome" Holly Hobbie characters (sweet-faced kids, furry pets--you get the picture), recently commissioned a survey of 1,010 mothers with preteen daughters to determine how they feel about the army of sultry chickies invading their kids' playrooms. The results were nearly unanimous: 90% expressed a desire for a wider selection of dolls that were positive role models for young girls, while 85% said they are fed up with the "sexpot" playthings available.

So where does all of this leave Christmas shoppers?

Like everything else with parenting, we need to be discriminating. For my money (literally), I remain a big fan of the American Girl doll line, if only because it has the audacity to teach little girls U.S. history instead of fashion tips. And yes, I've even taken a shine to the legendary Barbie, who despite her tiny-waisted, ballistically busted notoriety, has in recent years been making efforts to give parents a choice. To be sure, Babs sports some pretty risqué ensembles in her "Bling Bling" collection, but she also stars as a Dancing Princess and Rapunzel in a separate fairy tales line. And in her storybooks, she volunteers at an animal shelter and raises money for starving kids. Not bad for a 50s-era airhead.

But whatever we do, let's be sure not to throw the baby doll out with the bathwater. Even at 7 and 11, my daughters still occasionally seek comfort from the old gang in the toy chest, proving that, every now and then, combing through a small head of hair is just what the doctored ordered.

To quote Cyndi Lauper--herself, something of a vamp--sometimes girls just want to have fun.

This essay originally appeared in USA Today.