UPDATE: I published this post awhile back to help you walk through the process of deconstructing messages with particular products. As Halloween approaches and Monster High is front and center in the kids costume section, it’s a perfect time to revisit the Monster High brand. As I say below, while Monster High has been promoted by Mattel in a few statements as being targeted to middle school girls, the marketing is clearly directed downward (see below for more details.) An example is seen here in this Frankie Stein costume, which comes in sizes for 8/10 year olds. When you put the “cute” Frankie Stein costume up next to the adult costume sold under the “sexy” category, it’s alarming how similar the two are. Let’s take a closer look at the Monster High brand in particular as an example of how you can go about deciding if a product is right for you.
It’s happened to most of us: we or our child get a gift that doesn’t mesh with our value system, we’re exposed to a television show or movie that we’d rather not see, or we choose a product or program only to have second thoughts about its value. It’s a good thing to be critically aware of the meanings and implications of the media and products with which we interact! That recognition that a product may be more than “just a doll” and may be sending some messages that don’t promote your core values is the first step to becoming a critical media consumer. Because the mass media will throw everything at you, from amazingly creative programming and products that espouse higher ideals to dumbed down mind candy, as consumers we must make informed choices about which products and programs we choose for ourselves and the children in our lives.
In this post I’m going to walk you through a few specific steps in deconstructing a product or program’s key message. I hope this will give you a practical way to think through these issues when you feel the need to evaluate media in your own life. As discussed in my post Does Monster High Teach Kindness, I’ve recently gone through this process with Mattel’s Monster High brand. After criticizing the sexiness of its characters in A Sexy Werewolf: No, not Jacob, Clawdeen, a fan of the brand challenged me to think about the entire message, not just the sexualized appearance of the characters. As the mother of daughters within the products targeted audience, I also thought it was important for me to have an informed opinion on Monster High should my own children be interested in it. So, I’m going to use this brand as an example as I walk through the steps.
It’s important to really understand whom the target audience is in order to determine if the product/program is appropriate for you or your child. While the Kind Campaign is targeted to tweens and teens and the Monster High press release says the brand’s target audience is tweens and teens, I’m not so sure. The actual Monster High dolls have a manufacturer recommended age of 6-12 years. The Monster High clothes are sold at Justice, who has a target audience of 7-14 year olds. Even in the Mattel online shop, if you choose to search products by age the Monster High products will not come up in the 13+ age group. They only show up once you select ages between 6-12. So who is the target audience for Monster High? The products I see most often are the plastic dolls, plush dolls, clothing, and videos, all of which, when looked at within the context I’ve describe above, tells me that in general this brand is targeting kids between 6-12. Only the upper end of that range could be considered a tween audience. And yet, upon watching the videos and looking at the plastic dolls, there are very mature themes and dress. What I see are girls dressed in skimpy clothing and very high heels. What I hear are themes of dating, a search for popularity, and friendship problems. So, there seems to be some confusion about the target audience. We hear that tweens and teens are the audience, and yet much of the product base is targeted downward.
2. What message is clearly displayed through words, music, images and stories? What about the unspoken messages? Are there impressions that you get very clearly whether they are or are not spoken?
In the announcement that Monster High was joining with the Kind Campaign, Mattel’s VP for Marketing Global Girls Brands, Lori Pantel was quoted as saying,
“The Monster High brand uses the monster metaphor to show girls that it is ok to be different and that our unique differences should be celebrated. We see our partnership with Kind Campaign as a natural fit because their message of kindness and acceptance goes hand-in-hand with the Monster High brand’s message to embrace our own and each other’s imperfections.”
And yet, on the website, a description of the MH students says, “MH has nerds, jocks, popular monsters, zombies…you know, the usual.” I wanted to see if this “embrace your differences” theme rang true as I watched the webisodes. Here’s what I found, while every monster has a “freaky flaw,” I’m not sure they’re embraced for it. For example, several times Frankie’s (who’s a stitched together Frankenstein like girl) stitches came undone, it caused her trouble. People got mad at her when this happened. Just making the characters monsters might seem like a big step in the direction of accepting and celebrating something beyond the thin ideal and beauty standard, right? Well, except that MH girls continue to have the extremely small waists, long, thin legs, and curviness of other dolls. They just have different skin colors and some “monster” identifying characteristics, such as fangs on the werewolf and vampire characters and stitches on Frankie. The impression that I got was still very much the celebration of the conventional thin ideal of beauty.
One positive thing that I did see in MH was that the monsters have different skin tones and accents. That is a nice piece of diversity, but I’m not convinced it’s a full-fledged embracing of difference.
3. What values are presented? What positive and negative messages come through? How do these compare to your own value system?
As I watched the webisodes, looked at the products, and explored the website of MH, I did not see any groundbreaking value messages about embracing difference being expressed. In fact, I noted many incidents of cruelty, most of it directed by a girl toward another girl. These incidents ranged from cruel words such as, “Enter Frankie into the lowest rung of the popularity database” to cruel actions such as one group of girls dumping liquid on another group and even cyber bullying by starting a viral text campaign against a “friend.”
Wait, you ask, weren’t these cruel scenes set ups for an overall message of kindness and acceptance? Not that I noticed. Instead, it seemed to be the nice girls-vs-the mean girls, which is pretty standard fare for programs directed at tweens and teens. There are a few incidents in the videos that I watched that focused on achievement, but out of over an hour of programming, I only noted 5 incidents. That’s not overwhelming by a long shot.
In comparing the values presented by MH and my own, I think about what I’m trying to teach my own children. I focus on teaching them that they need to learn to be people who make a difference in the world, who treat others with respect and to respect themselves, who do their very best to achieve in the areas that are important to them, who work to be good friends and avoid toxic friendships and more.
When I look at this list, I don’t see my own values meshing well with MH. For one thing, the issue of respect is a big one. Friends in the webisodes I watched were not being kind and respectful even to one another at times. There are some characters that are generally good and kind, such as Frankie; but Cleo, who is often cruel even to her friends, counterbalances her. Maybe the creators are trying to make a point about how to handle negative friendships? The problem with that theory is, they either give Cleo her own back (in one incident her best friend repeatedly dunked her in water in front of a group) or try to make up with her through an unrealistic act, such as Frankie having a famous singer come to the school. I do want my children to learn how to deal with friendship problems and toxic relationships, but I didn’t see realistic, positive options presented in this programming.
And, I have to address the issue of the appearance of the characters. I’ve said before that they are very sexualized, with skimpy clothing, very high heels, and lots of make-up. A better example for my girls when it comes to the importance of appearance is a group of 7th graders from our local middle school. They’ve decided to go to school one day a week with no make-up on to point out to others that they don’t want to be judged by their appearance. These girls are only 13 or so, but they’re already thinking about the implications of the high value that our culture puts on the appearance of females. These real girls are doing more in teaching other tweens and younger kids to embrace individual differences than MH is, in my analysis.
So, in the end, I’ve decided that Monster High is not a brand that I can promote or have in my home. If my girls decided that they were interested in this brand, I would walk them through these same points like we did in the post What are Skechers Shape Ups Really Selling. Using this activity will help everyone think more critically about the media and products that they choose and make an informed choice.
For more resources to help you and your children develop stronger media literacy skills, visit The Media Literacy Project, Admongo.gov, and the Media Awareness Network. For great insights into how media and marketing influences children and adolescents, visit ShapingYouth.org and Parents for Ethical Marketing. I hope that you’ll find this exercise and these resources helpful as you and the children in your life work to become empowered as consumers. My goal isn’t to tell parents what they should do, but to give you resources that will help you become active, critical consumers.