“Let’s Play Vegas Showgirl!”

The edgy, urban teens seem to stare through my suburban exterior as I stroll slowly past. Their heavy make-up and spiky hair come directly from the pages of those oversized stylebooks at cool salons. Their jewelry, clothes and shoes are cutting edge. Their thick lips pout with a knowing attitude. And the music emanating from their perch thumps a driving, techno beat.

But this isn't a rope line at a club in Miami's South Beach, or the strip in Vegas. It's the toy aisle at Target, and the teens are the scariest, sleaziest looking dolls ever conceived. The Bratz collection.

If your life includes a girl between the ages of four and eight — or even if it doesn't — you should know about Bratz. They are the number-one selling toy on the market, winner of the Family Fun “Toy of the Year” award since 2001. The line includes girl and boy dolls, with names like Cloe, Dana, Jade, Koby, Cameron and Dylan. Their slogan: “The girls with the passion for fashion.”

Of course, simply dressing and redressing these dolls in skimpy outfits wouldn't hold a girl's attention for long, so the “Bratzpack” comes with “Fashion Funk” scenes and accessories. These include everything you need to go to the mall, high school, the prom, the beach, a winter weekend and a slumber party.

Doesn't sound much different from the Barbies we played with as girls, does it? Barbie had a pink convertible she drove to the mall, where she could buy any kind of attire from a Bob Mackie ball gown to a veterinarian's lab coat. Adorable puppy and stethoscope included. Barbie had Ken. She had Midge. And they all lounged in the backyard pool, wearing bikinis and flipping burgers on her very own, pink barbeque grill.

The “Bratzpack” is the updated version of the fashion doll, designed for a new generation. Apparently, a recent poll of kids showed that Bratz were perceived to be in high school, while Barbie was perceived to be between 35 and 45 years old. This certainly explains why today's little girls want to play with the new, hip-hop-inspired version of a fashion doll.

Most of the parents I know don't have a problem with these dolls. They must not, anyway, because nearly every friend of my six-year-old daughter owns a Bratz doll or two. But I'm convinced Bratz dolls, and their Mattel counterparts called “My Scene” dolls — Barbie's new peer group since she dumped Ken — send strong sexual messages that encourage little girls to think and play about themes that are just plain inappropriate.

Now maybe I'm overreacting, but then someone will have to explain to me why the beach Bratz come with holographic collector cards featuring the girl dolls dressed in jeans and midriff baring t-shirts with the words “cool days,” and when you tilt the cards, the same dolls cast unmistakably sexual expressions while wearing string bikinis. The tag line on this pose: “Hot nights.” What am I missing?

The message for little girls from these dolls is loud and clear. The clothes, hair, and make-up are all about getting the boys. As if our culture doesn't offer girls enough exposure to mature themes, now we can send them off to their rooms to imagine what it's like to hook up with Koby at the prom.

It gets worse. In the line's “Electric Funk” collection of electronic toys, you'll find the Bratz diary, which comes with a computerized “matchmaker” to help find the best “crush” for every girl. They do this on a small, LCD computer by answering multiple-choice questions that include “Your idea of a perfect date with your crush is…” and “If your mom read your diary, you would feel…” Choose a, b or c. It's all revolting.

The tacky toy-maker is a California company called MGA Entertainment. CEO Isaac Larian says Bratz dolls are not sexually suggestive and besides, they're designed for older girls (as if this would make them okay). But a survey of teachers found they are the number one show and tell item in kindergarten and first grade classrooms. The dolls made Larian a billionaire — really — so he's not struggling with the moral dilemma they represent.

But I am. Our culture is appropriately horrified by the sexualization of children through pornography, but we're okay with the insidious influence of toys like Bratz. We even give them for birthday gifts and put them under our Christmas trees. And here's a sexy pair of hip-hugger jeans to go with it so you can dress just like Jade.

Of course, if you're like me and you take a stand on Bratz, MGA Entertainment also offers a “Hello Kitty” version of the “matchmaker” diary. The age range for this character is 2 to 6 years old. Never too soon to know what kind of “crush” you should be looking for. So what if he's probably not yet potty-trained.

As for little girls, they just want to fantasize about what it's like to be all grown-up and pretty. It's a shame we have to take that sweet, wholesome dream, pump it full of collagen and attitude, and send it out for a hot night.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from first grade to freshman year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She also has worked in marketing and public relations positions in corporate and agency settings. Mostly, she spends a lot of time in her mini-van, where the real work of parenting actually happens. Learn more about Marybeth and her column at www.marybethhicks.com.)

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