Don't Conform, Transform
It was recently announced that Mattel’s Monster High is teaming with the Kind Campaign, whose mission is stated on their website as “a movement and documentary, based upon the powerful belief in KINDness, that brings awareness and healing to the negative and lasting effects of girl-against-girl “crime”.” They are teaming up to encourage children to be kind to one another and to embrace their own imperfections and those of others. They plan to make some webisodes with the message of kindness and launch more programs. Since the Kind Campaign does go into schools, I assume that their affiliation with Monster High might also be brought into the programs and content that they share with children in the school.
First of all, let me say that I applaud the hard work and dedication that it has clearly taken for the young women who started the Kind Campaign to do so. And, I think their message is valuable and important. So what is Monster High all about? Is this something that we want coming into our schools to be shared with our children when we are not present to help them process it? Last time I wrote about Monster High, a parent who likes the product chastised me for not talking about the products in-depth. So, I decided at that point to really explore the Monster High brand. I looked closely at the dolls themselves, spent a lot of time on their website, hunted up old press releases, and watched many, many webisodes. I’d like to share with you what I found as I looked very closely at the Monster High brand and then discuss how that relates to how I feel about this brand coming into the school system under the umbrella of the Kind Campaign.
In their press release in 2010, Mattel described Monster High as
“Grounded in a fun and humorous storyline, the frighteningly fashionable students at Monster High capture all the awkward moments that teens experience in their high school years, the powerful bonds of friendship and the challenges of fitting in – all delivered through a “monster” chic aesthetic and tone.”
So, Monster High brings “monster chic” to children and talks about the trials and tribulations of high school. Um…I’m sorry, but do high school students play with these types of dolls? In this HubPages article, the target audience for these dolls in stated to be 8-12 year olds, which sounds about right to me. In fact, 12 may be shooting a little high. I have an 11-year-old that hasn’t played with any type of doll for years. But this article in Bloomberg Businessweek quotes the founders of the Kind Campaign as saying, “We are excited to partner with Monster High and have the opportunity to leverage the brand’s scale to reach and relate to our target audience of teen and tween girls.”
It’s clear that the Kind Campaign is targeting tween and teen girls. I’m unsure about the Monster High brand. The clothes are in Justice, which does have sizes up to 18/20, but as the mother of three girls, I can assure you that most 16-year-old girls are not shopping at this store. From my experience and from this description, the target audience is 7-14 year old girls. Perhaps this confusion of the target audience is why we see some of the things that we do in the Monster High brand. Let me share some of what I learned with you.
First, let’s talk about the appearance of the dolls. They have the tiny waists, curvy bodies, long, thin legs, and big heads of the Bratz dolls. Their faces are big-eyed, pointy-chinned and highly made-up. The clothing that these dolls wear is very problematic for me. Six out of six of the female characters are wearing very high-heeled shoes and four out of six are wearing very short skirts. These are not outfits that would be allowed in most schools because they would violate the dress code of even the public schools that my children attend.
I asked some tween girls what they thought of the clothes that the Monster High characters wear. These girls said some interesting things. One said that the clothes were inappropriate because they were too tight and short. Another said, “Well, they’re childish, but not.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she said, “Well, one of the girls is wearing a tutu like skirt, which is little girly. But she also has on a shirt that shows her stomach and really high heels. So, is she supposed to look like a little girl or a grown up going to a club or what? It’s confusing.”
This input from the tween girls really spoke to one of my main concerns about these characters. They are highly sexualized. Say whatever you want about the message of fitting in and celebrating differences, but each one of the main characters is dressed in clothing that looks like something that the Pussycat Dolls would wear, rather than a high school student. Even the “fearleaders” wear high heels when they’re doing stunts! This movement of the sexy into our children’s entertainment is alarming. If you want to show girls who are different learning to embrace that, why not make some of them different sizes and shapes, and ditch the sexy outfits?
The themes of the webisodes are much like that of many shows directed at children in this age group. I watched a total of 27 webisodes for a total of 86 minutes and 19 seconds. Let me be clear that this content analysis was not a strict scientific experiment, but rather was my own personal attempt to see what kinds of themes were present in the webisodes that I watched. I wanted to see how much “kindness” and learning to love and accept your own and others differences were a part of the Monster High shows. I counted each time that I noticed a particular instance of the themes of Cruelty to Others, Popularity, Boys/Romance, Achievement, Fashion/Make-Overs, Kindness, and Friendship Problems. Overall, there were 37 instances of Cruelty to Others. This was the overwhelming theme that I encountered in these shows. The next highest number of instances was in the search for Popularity with 13 instances, 11 instances of themes of Boys/Romance, and 10 each for Kindness/Positive Friendship and Friendship Problems.
The theme that stood out to me in the Monster High episodes in general was that girls are mean to each other. There were clearly some built-in themes of Friendship and Kindness to others, but they were outweighed by the negative instances of cruel behavior. The 23 minute long episode titled New Ghoul @ School does seem to try to be getting across the message that the most important part of making friends is in being yourself. However, even a sincere apology doesn’t seem to settle the difficulties that the new girl, Frankie, is having. Only when she gets a famous singer to come and give a concert to the student body at her new school does Frankie feel like she is accepted. I’m not sure about the girls that you know, but most of the ones I know will not have the ability to offer anything beyond a sincere apology should they hurt someone’s feelings. Arranging fancy concerts with famous singers is not an option for most girls.
There are two main difficulties with Monster High teaming with the Kind Campaign and coming into schools to teach girls about kindness. The first is the clearly sexualized appearance of the characters. Their clothing is not appropriate for any school setting. In fact, it wouldn’t meet the dress code of most (if any) public schools.
The second difficulty that I have is that I honestly do not see that Monster High is teaching girls to accept their differences and embrace that of their friends. Even in the longer episode, which was clearly made to convey that message, the new girl only ended up feeling truly connected once she had practically bribed her peers to like her. While there are some positive friendship messages embedded in the show, they are not overwhelming. There tend to be “nice” characters and “mean” characters, just as there are in many children’s shows. I didn’t notice any more positivity about individual differences in these shows than I do in your average show that’s aimed at tweens.
I would submit to Mattel the argument that just because you make your characters monsters with “fatal flaws” like their legs flying off at weird times or getting weak at the thought of blood, you are not promoting acceptance of diversity. The characters do have different colored skin/fur and different accents, which is great. But they all continue to meet the thin ideal standard. There are better ways to promote diversity and acceptance than through sexualized monsters. Even in the newer episodes where the girl who was originally mean, Cleo, starts being nicer, a new group of mean girls take her place. There are better ways to promote kindness than through the use of the worn-out “mean girl” trope. To the Kind Campaign and to Mattel, I say this: Our children deserve better than Monster High.
UPDATE: In an interview with Jess Weiner, the founders of the Kind Campaign said that MH will not be coming into the schools as a part of their programming. I’m very happy to hear that! I still do not like the MH brand for the reasons stated above, and worry about the partnership diluting the Kind Campaign’s important message.