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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

A sexy image sets the scene for girls to grow up fast

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

McDonald's Happy Meal Bratz dolls get an A for ethnic diversity, but some parents are voicing concerns about their wardrobes.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

For sale in the girls' department ...

In May, 2002, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on the furor over thong underwear for little girls being sold by Abercrombie & Fitch. A company spokesman had this to say about the thongs (adorned with images of cherries and candy hearts, and also bearing the words "kiss me" and "wink, wink"): "It's not appropriate for a 7-year-old, but it is appropriate for a 10-year-old."

The Washington Post, in August 2001, reported that Wet Seal in Georgetown had angry mothers returning more than a dozen pint-size "Playboy" T-shirts. The store manager said naive grandparents and fathers apparently let little girls buy the shirts.

In February 2001, Woolworth's banned a magazine "accused of making young girls look like tarts," the headline in the London Independent said. The magazine, Mad About Boys, was aimed at girls 9- to 12 years old.

Big sister Shaylynn Takano, 16, has been known to tease her younger sister, Kari-Ann, 7, about dressing too "hootchie."

Their mother, Lori Ann Takano of Mililani, pulls out a pair of Roxy Girl shorts, size 7, from a rack at Macy's in Ala Moana — a pair of denim, low-rise short shorts no longer than a hand — and admits she'd consider buying them for Kari-Ann.

"She's young," said Lori Ann Takano.

Indeed, today's "hootchie" clothes are being marketed for the prepubescent girl, age 3 to 12. This trend brings midriff-baring halter tops and metallic bikini underwear to the little girl's departments.

Get out of the Roxy Girl racks and into your neighborhood hamburger shack this month and you'll see plenty of navel and leg: McDonald's newest Happy Meal toys for girls ages 3 and up, the Bratz, are dolls wearing platform heels, tube tops, low-rise bottoms, short skirts and even boas.

The Los Angeles Daily News quoted Becky Ebenkamp, West Coast bureau chief for the marketing trade magazine BrandWeek, as saying that compared with Barbie, Bratz are "an older, sassier, sluttier doll. They'd be the ones smoking in the bathroom at school, while Barbie's the homecoming queen."

The tactic has been been backed up by sales figures, the story said.

Remee Bolante, a vice principal at Sacred Hearts Academy, recalls the day she had to ask one mother to bring in a change of clothes for a girl who came to school on "free dress" day wearing scanty clothes, considered inappropriate at the Roman Catholic institution.

And there's the Waldorf School mother, Liz Robinson, whose daughter after a May Day dance was told by a third-grade boy she looked "sexy."

The last time Robinson went shoe shopping with her 5- and 9-year-old daughters, the only shoes left on the shelves at Payless in their sizes had three-inch heels.

"I'm sorry, that's just not appropriate — and they're not healthy, either," said the lawyer.

Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, professor of philosophy and religion at Chaminade, says such marketing continues a trend toward sexualization of America's children.

Each semester, when new undergraduate students come to her sociology and philosophy of gender class, talk turns to the pressures on youth to grow up too soon.

"In the past two years, we've started to have students point out how children dress," Natadecha-Sponsel said, adding that the topic then continues into the issue of child pornography.

Natadecha-Sponsel said she's noticed that boys are allowed to be boys, but girls don't get a childhood.

"They say girls mature faster, but now we have forced them to mature even faster," the professor said. "In a way, we channel them to be oppressed, to fit into the image that society wants."

In the popular TV show, "American Idol," she points out, male singers wear loose or layered clothing. Girls wear tight-fitting clothes — even Kimberley Locke, the female contestant who was dumped earlier this week. She didn't fit the traditional profile of a skinny pop singer.

"We gave up in the last 25 or 30 years the notion that children needed to be protected from sex and from the gritty realities of life," said Kay Hymowitz, a contributing editor to City Journal, a public-policy magazine in New York.

We've become inured to sex through "family hour" TV sitcoms that include dirty jokes, prime-time viewing of movies like "American Pie" cleaned up only for language but not overt sexual content, and clothes, she said.

"If you can get this stuff past parents, kids love it, because kids want to grow up," said the author of "Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children as Small Adults" and the upcoming "Liberation's Children." "... We express shock and dismay, but there's an enormous market for this."

The trend toward child empowerment by recent generations of parents means we don't have same sense of wanting to protect children — girls as well as boys, she said. It's just more obviously sexual with girls, Hymowitz said, adding that she knew a 6-year-old boy who was given an Eminem CD as a present.

She follows "the third" model: about a third of parents will not follow such trends. The next third would prefer not to buy "hootchie" clothes, but cave in to pressure. What happens is that the final third, who don't care at all or find no problem with it, "tips the whole balance," Hymowitz said.

"I don't think there's enough parental conviction to stop it," she said.

Hymowitz, whose "Ready or Not" book found that in 1996, 11-year-olds in focus groups no longer consider themselves children, expressed curiosity about how this affects boys: "In middle school, they're just starting to be hormonal, and they're exposed to girls just flaunting everything." It's very difficult for the boys, she said.

Her other concern: "This kind of dress doesn't say to adult, 'This is a child. Hands off.' I wonder if there's more instances of abuse. It seems like the taboo is being weakened."

The Bratz — a line of dolls "with a passion for fashion," as the boxes say on the shelves of KB Toys (in bigger lettering than the "for ages 4 and up" wording), as well as kiddie makeup like glitter nail polish and "silver stardust eye shadow" — do win an A for diversity. The characters are ethnically mixed.

But Lisa Kawamura, mother of two girls, ages 10 and 12, raised her eyebrows a few notches when she laid eyes on the doll named Sasha. She and a friend were out shopping at the Sears' children's department. Both said the dolls were "inappropriate" and "raunchy," especially for the 8-and-under girls catered to in Happy Meals.

John Bloodworth wasn't as worried when 7-year-old Tori Hanohano got an Asian-American figurine in her Happy Meal.

While the Waimanalo father doesn't care for the current skimpy fashions, the dolls don't bother him. "I don't mind her playing with them ... as long as you're not trying to emulate them."

Perhaps it was the question. Or maybe it was the reporter sounding a little like the Church Lady. Either way, Melanie Okazaki, marketing manager of McDonald's Restaurants of Hawai'i, bristled a bit when asked why the national chain chose Bratz.

"For our Happy Meals in general, McDonald's always provides customers with toys the children will like and will appeal to them," she said, adding that they wanted toys that were popular, timely and relevant.

Told about comments like the ones above, Okazaki said, "We're hearing (that type of) feedback for the first time. We'd be interested in receiving feedback from customers, and always looking for ways to improve what we offer for our children."

She said no one at McDonald's had questioned the toys' appropriateness, nor had there been any local complaints. Calls they did get were from people asking "where they can get the dolls, which varieties at which locations," said Okazaki, adding that BratzPack has won People's Choice Toy of the Year two years in a row, but didn't know who gives the honor.

Response was "overwhelmingly positive during the first week of the promotion," Okazaki said.

Sarah Ribeiro, mother of two adolescent girls, one of whom attends Sacred Hearts, wasn't feeling overwhelmingly positive when she pulled out a Sasha doll from a Happy Meal last week.

"I was very surprised," said the mother of Julia, 8, and Jacqueline, 3, even though she had been tipped that the toys would be there. "I didn't expect to be that shocked by them."

Julia described them to her mother as "trying to be rich, but (it) looks cheap."

"What's the motivation here?" Ribeiro asked. "Don't they feel any responsibility for putting inappropriately dressed dolls out there if they're marketing to my children and others' children? ... They're not mature enough to handle what message you're sending."

Reach Mary Kaye Ritz at mritz@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8035.