One day, I was shopping for a brony friend of mine. His birthday was soon, so I thought I could check Stockmann’s toy section and see what kind of Twilight Sparkle toys they had (side note: when shopping for a brony, always check their favorite pony). I wandered in the girl’s section of the floor and came across a product I had never seen before. It was some sort of a fashion doll, with huge eyes and lips, but its skin was sickly white. When I looked closer, I noticed it had some scars on it and its tiny outfit was black with frilly details. For a while I was delighted, I had always wanted an Emily the Strange doll and I remember in the beginning of the century how much I had admired and wanted a Living Dead Doll from the glass cabinets of Kukunor (for those of you who don’t know, Kukunor was a shop in Tennispalatsi that sold mostly movie-related stuff, from key chains to super expensive LOTR-items). This doll wasn’t half as cool, but it was still fun to see something that reminded me of the goth-kitsch I used to love. Then a piercing shriek brought me back from my memories. There was a little girl with her mom, arguing over something next to me.
I took an even closer look at the doll and was amazed by how … porn this kids’ toy was. The bulging, shiny lips, huge bedroom eyes, perky breasts and yes, the doll was actually doing the ass-and-tits pose. I put the doll back to the shelf and wandered along, doing my angry feminist grumble.
Time went by and like in many classic horror films, the doll came back. In the shapes of magazines, coloring books, new dolls and their separately sold accessory sets, these things crawled into my reality. Out of curiosity, I started looking for information about these dolls, which turned out to be an easy task: Monster High dolls have their own website and YouTube channel filled with episodes of their adventures.
What I instantly found interesting in this set of dolls is that although they clearly are teenagers (15 to 16 years old) and even the humans performing the hideous theme song are teenagers, still they are marketed to very young kids. Mattel itself recommends Monster High to girls six years and older, but Finnish webstore for toys, BR-lelut, markets them for 5 year olds. These days, as I’ve understood, less and less girls over 11 are playing with dolls, so it’s understandable that Mattel markets them to girls younger than that.
And let’s face it, Monster High dolls represent today’s ultimate dream: they won’t die because they are dead already and they can’t get older, since they are vampires and zombies. Why play boring adult life when you can be a hot teenager? It is no wonder then that dolls like Bratz and Monster High are becoming serious rivals to old school fashion dolls such as Barbies (also Mattel products). Mattel has realized this tendency and it reflects on Barbies too – I dare you to find me an astronaut, or even a stewardess, Barbie from a store. Instead, you’ll find either Princess or Fairy Barbies. Barbies shifted from being real-life adults to princesses and child-like fairies somewhere in the beginning of the 21st century. But, according to author and journalist Peggy Orenstein in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, the “cuter Barbie became: the lower her sales fell: in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone, they sank by 21 percent.” Bratz were introduced to the markets as an alternative to the baby-pink Barbie-world. They represent “cool,” “sassiness” and “attitude,” all of things poor Barbie was never very good at. As Orenstein puts the difference between Barbies and Bratz: “Why be a role model when you can be simply a model?”
However what Mattel’s Monster High does is even creepier than what Bratz do. Bratz dolls are clearly the popular kids, the “mean girls,” Reginas, but MH dolls are masquerading behind this “freak” look. Someone might think that showing girls that “being different” is a good thing, but when that freakiness is wrapped in a strict packet on how to be different, it might be even more restricting. As their theme song says, “Little strange, but so are you – Don’t you wanna be a monster too?”
What is alarming here is the same issue that concerns adult women when it comes to fashion magazines – the restricted way of “being yourself.” MH dolls are represented as if they display all kinds of girls, but when you take a closer look, you find out that, very much like many Finnish women’s magazines, they simply don’t. The “yourself” is anorexic-thin, with Caucasian characteristics (The werewolf girl has darker skin, but even her skin is very light and her hair is typical Caucasian Barbie hair, not natural hair or locks), with super high heels, a skimpy dress and naturally enough makeup to make Dame Edna happy.
First as I looked at the pictures of the different monsters, I was glad to see that there is one girl with glasses. But! She cannot talk! She is super smart but cannot express herself vocally, so she spends her time being sidekick to the cool girls and following them. Reinforcing attitudes towards nerdy girls much?
The Monster High and Bratz dolls highlight the rivalry between girls – school is shown as a battlefield with mean and nice girls. Boys are simply accessories and they never take part in anything that is considered “girly” (boys cannot be interested in fashion or shopping, silly!). Pulling together or accomplishing something else than finding the perfect dress for a dance or succeeding in school talent shows (=being a celebrity) is futile, and even if Monster High is located (duh) in a school, being a bookworm or doing school work isn’t the way to go. Without popularity, you’re nothing.
I went back to Stockmann and took another look at the doll. When I held the pink-and-black doll package in my hand, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was overreacting. After all, fashion dolls have always existed, I myself were a Barbie-girl. But something has changed. Peggy Orenstein puts it neatly: “The innocence that pink signaled during the Princess years, which seemed so benign, even protective, has receded, leaving behind narcissism and materialism as the hallmarks of feminine identity.” Making these dolls “freaky” isn’t changing the fact that it’s the same strict way in which women’s bodies and feminine sexuality have been controlled yet again and again in history. In my opinion, we should stop pretending that having “attitude” and being “sassy” aren’t cleverly marketed synonyms for “hot” and “sexy,” and these “innocently slutty” attitudes are marketed and bought as Christmas presents for six-year-olds.
And let’s stop pretending that people who market these dolls are only selling toys – they are selling a lifestyle. As Lisa Shapiro (the person in charge of licensing Bratz for UK) said in the Guardian: “We want the girls to live the Bratz life – wear the mascara; use the hair product; send the greeting card… Bratz is about real life. It has to be.”
Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein
Living Dolls, Natasha Walter
Along with this rant, I want to wish you a thoughtful and peaceful Christmas Time! Enjoy BTSB’s last issue of 2013, we hope that you find our articles exciting and thought-provoking! Please do leave us comments and I’ll see you next year!
Yours truly, gingerbread swirly,