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PS Picks: Legal Strife in the Valley of the Dolls

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.

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Last week, I walked into a toy store for the first time in a while. Lined up along the shelves were rows and rows of Barbie dolls, stacked high. Two boxes out of the 30 in the stack had a small "Curvy" label in the upper-right corner. It was the first time I had seen "body diversity" Barbie in stores with its distinct label and my own realization that this Barbie was only a slightly fuller figure than the one in the surrounding boxes. It’s Barbie's latest change to stay "relevant" as one of the top-selling toys in the country. I thought back to Jill Lepore's piece for The New Yorker, "Valley of the Dolls," a story of the battle for the top of the doll industry jolted by the jumbled and complex history of copyright law.

Barbie and her main competitor, Bratz, hashed it out in court over key, yet perturbing, questions: Who owns the copyrights to the "attractive" female body (an aspect, which lawyers argue, with only a few variations appropriate for toy-creation)? Is this creation and ideation of the "perfect" female body into toy form protectable by law? The two dolls have vastly different marketing strategies and consumer approach, yet at least one of the two overtly sexualized toys ends up in the hands of most young girls in America. The article examines the built-up appeal of young girls' toys and copyright enforcement of intellectual property, and intertwines it with the ironic fate of the deciding judge on the Barbie v. Bratz case; He was ousted from his spot on the bench several months ago after allegations and complaints of sexual assault in the wake of #MeToo. "The only thing wrong I saw when I held Barbie," the judge said, "is when I lift her skirt there is nothing underneath."