Strange news from the World of Barbie

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At the risk of infuriating Mattel’s ever-present swarm of high-circling legal eagles, this week we’re going to talk about Barbie. Specifically, two pretty significant and even, dare I say, bizarre milestones in the history of the line have emerged this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Mattel, Inc. v. MGA Entertainment battle for custody over the line of Bratz dolls, which started in 2005, is now back in federal court this month- and weirder than ever. On January 18, arguments resumed for both sides in Orange County. But that’s just the start. When you actually dig into the case, the official court papers become more and more inexplicable- something reading more like a concoction from Monty Python or a madhouse spy novel than a respectable court of law.

How to sum this madness up in a way that everyone can follow? The gist of the case is this: Mattel employed a designer named Carter Bryant to work on some clothing designs for Barbie dolls. Around 2000, while he was working for Mattel, he was also whipping up a prototype doll on the side- the first prototype of what would eventually become the Bratz figure. Mattel claims that because the company employed him at the time, anything that he developed also belonged to the company, and produced a signed agreement to this effect. Open and shut, right?

In this corner: the Bratz

Not so fast, that’s only the start.

Bryant showed his designs for Bratz to Veronica Marlow, another freelance designer, in Mattel’s parking lot. A few months later Marlow was working for MGA and proved to be the connection point between Bryant and MGA. Pretty soon he was taking phone calls from MGA at his Mattel desk, and according to depositions, he used discarded Mattel doll parts to create the first prototype Bratz figure. He bought thongs and bikinis at Hot Topic to get ideas for dressing the dolls.

Mattel only found out what Bryant was up to because someone snitched- the company received an anonymous letter in 2002 tipping them off to Bryant’s activities. Mattel’s in-house response was to create a series of hyperbolic emails and memos within the company and to start investigating key figures within their own organization. PowerPoints and e-mails around this time claim “the house is on fire” and that fixing it would require “grenades to be launched.” Words like “fight fire with fire” and “Barbie genocide” were getting thrown around in memos, and that Barbie needed to become “aggressive, revolutionary and ruthless” to survive the 2004 market.

And in this corner: Barbie. Not shown: genocide.

Mattel accused a number of ex-employees who defected to MGA of RICO-level conspiracy and fraud, citing three executives at Mattel Mexico, the Canadian director of sales for Mattel Girls, and Ron Brawer, the SVP of the US division – of stealing confidential file on USB drives and then taking that information to their new employer. When Mattel attempted to sue Brawer for this action in 2004, the case was thrown out by Los Angeles Superior Court, even though it was established that Brawer made telephone calls to MGA within hours of Mattel company planning meetings and Mattel was having Brawer’s children videotaped. They also had MGA’s president, Julian Larian, and even the names of his children and synagogue, investigated. This came to light in motions filed in California in 2007. (According to the new trial lawyer for Mattel, this is all perfectly normal industry behavior, apparently.)

The original judge on the MGA case, Stephen Larson, ruled in favor of Mattel to the extreme – MGA were forbidden to do anything with the Bratz line and all rights reverted to Mattel. However, Judge Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – yes, that 9th – scathingly reversed this ruling in totality. And he did it while citing Twilight, True Blood, The Simpsons, Betty Boop, and anime in the published decision. I’m not even kidding about this.

I would buy the heck out of a Judge Kozinski figure.

So Mattel first got it all, then lost everything. Now the companies are back in court with the fireworks already flying. A bewildering exchange of arguments and hostilities have already been thrown with MGA claiming that Mattel has engaged in RICO conspiracies with its team of lawyers, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan. MGA is also defending itself against a separate lawsuit from its own prior defense team, O’Melveny and Myers, who are claiming the company owes them millions for their services. MGA countersued them for malpractice. And MGA’s current team, Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, are trying to withdraw from the case – but the new overseeing judge, Judge Carter, won’t let them because it will disrupt trial schedules- and the 9th Circuit has affirmed this decision. MGA feels Orrick has insufficient trial experience, to which Mattel publicly scoffed that “It would be unprecedented to force a district court to continue a trial because a party suddenly decides, right before trial, that its longtime counsel (consisting of dozens of lawyers at a respected firm) isn’t good enough anymore.”

Mattel also intends to argue via forensics that the paper used by Bryant to do his original sketches was paper that came from a Mattel notebook in 1999. Seriously.

Mattel company notebook.

Meanwhile, Barbie (remember Barbie? This is an article about Barbie dolls.) and Ken’s “relationship” is suddenly in the media as the Ken doll has just had its 50th “birthday”. The media has jumped on this in all sorts of strange and bizarre ways, and is treating the fictional plastic toy couple as if they were real and subject to all the same forms of celebrity gossip as real, living flesh and blood people.

In a strange but arguably inspired social networking ad campaign, Mattel, which broke up the iconic toy couple two days before Valentine’s Day in 2004 – at the same time as Barbie was being told to become “aggressive and revolutionary” behind the scenes in those infamous memos – is now trying to get them back together again. Press releases have already hit on CNN, CNBC, and in disguised forms on Twitter, Facebook (of course Barbie and Ken have their own “official” Facebook pages) and YouTube. Elle Girl Magazine is promoting a Valentine’s Day giveaway of Ken dolls, which ends February 11. Mattel has also bought physical billboards, which should be appearing in Los Angeles, and possibly other major cities, in the next few weeks. They’ll say things like “Barbie, we may be plastic, but our love is real.”

Not shown: Back of shirt, which reads “For Sale.”

All of this to build up a new Ken figure, “Sweet Talkin’ Ken”, which can record up to five seconds of audio and then play it back at different pitches. He’s described as “the perfect boyfriend who says whatever you want him to say”, and wears a shirt that says “the perfect boyfriend” in ten languages. I can’t figure out if this is actually reverse sexism incarnate or just normal sexism taken to hilarious extremes.

Anyway, Amazon.com claims the figure is already discontinued. So much for the perfect man.

Cassandra writes about media and is developing some original SF works at cassandrapoe.com. She traded in Barbies for Transformers in 1986 and never looked back.

Want more articles on classic toys? Check these out:

Guys and Dolls: A Male’s Retrospective on Barbie

Forget-Me-Nots: Mutating Michelangelo

The Glory of G.I. Joes: A Retrospective

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