Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Deciding if a Product is Right for You: Deconstructing Monster High


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.

  1. First, ask yourself a few questions about the target audience:
    1. Who does this message come from?
    2. Who is the target audience according to the developer?
    3. Paying attention to what you see and hear, who seems to be the target audience to you?

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.

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6 comments on “Deciding if a Product is Right for You: Deconstructing Monster High

  1. Kendra
    May 27, 2011

    Perhaps your next blog can address why a 13 year old girl would be wearing make-up in the first place. I hardly think their decision NOT to wear make-up one day a week should be applauded. Look a little closer.

  2. Jennifer Shewmaker
    September 23, 2011

    Kendra, my other posts on sexualization and age compression address this issue quite thoroughly. The point is that yes, 13 year olds are wearing make-up. In fact, a study in 2004 showed that over 50% of girls between 7-10 years regularly wear some kind of make-up. That’s the whole point of this conversation. We need to closely examine age compression and the culture of sexy that is being marketed to children.

  3. Aubree Kloes
    January 24, 2012

    The one problem is…. I do not have a single friend that grew up with fashion dolls, and became terribly messed up… Body issues occurred later on in life.

    I played with skiiiiinny little barbies of the 80’s, and I was just fine with my body, and never even THOUGHT about it, until my mom basically called me fat. :/
    Parents have a stronger impact on children than a toy does.
    And, with Monster High…. Okay. A big thing brought up is how skinny they are.
    But first, lets look at this in, say, an “artistic” perspective…
    They’re not realistically skinny. And not in the way that it’s a bad thing to show kids, since it promotes an unrealistic view of beauty, blah, blah, anorexia, blah… They look more like a Tim Burton character. They’re unrealistic in a stylized sense…. Now, let’s compare to a modern barbie, after mattel took away her hour glass figure… now, instead of looking like a vintage pin-up, she looks like a modern model. Less curves, less bust…. Less waist.
    Barbie was always a model. Fashion dolls are meant to be models, really…. But I digress… To the point, the barbies on shelves today resemble something much close to societies views of beauty than Monster High ever does… Because Monster High isn’t remotely realistic, and if a child thinks it is, they ARE, indeed, far too young to have them. I think mattel is confused about their demographic. They sell Monster High is tiny, very detailed accessories, and doll stands… All sorts of things that put them in the older age rage… Little girls play with their dolls. They do not need stands to put them on the shelf and admire them… And Monster High has taken off among adult collectors, moreso than any play line doll I have seen in a long time…. The webisodes? Eh. They’re terrible. But the dolls themselves, while a bit promiscuous in the first wave, are getting tamer and covering more skin with each release. Even the characters are more hashed out than any other toy line I have seen. I flipped through Ghoulia Yelp’s diary once, and found it to be oddly relateable, for a fashion doll…. I think mattel is doing a lot of things wrong with how they sell this line, but the creative force behind it isn’t so bad. It has some questionable material, and really isn’t for younger girls… But the girls that do like it are mainly in it for a more alternative doll, that isn’t pink, sparkly, and smiling. The articulation is also a plus. I dunno about anyone else, but it always bugged me that my barbie couldn’t really sit all that well…. Anyway, overall… Yeah, if you don’t like them, I’m not here to change your mind. That’s all fine, whatever, they’re your children…. But I just don’t understand why THIS is the doll line that gets all the controversy.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 24, 2012

      Hi Aubree, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the themes and look of this brand is much more appropriate for adults than for children. I hear what you’re saying about not feeling that you’ve seen girls respond to the thin ideal when presented by the media. From what you said, it seems like you think these ideas come from other sources, such as parents. What’s interesting, though, is that research tells us that being exposed to the thin ideal through media narratives and images DOES appear to lead to body dissatisfaction in young women and girls. In a study that I read recently (Anschutz, Spruijt, Van Strien, & Engels, 2011) a direct effect was found between the consumption of thin ideal focused media and young girls’ ideas about what the ideal body looked like. Not only that, but the girls also wanted their bodies to look different, to resemble more closely the thin ideal. In my post on Fear of Fat and the Preschool Girl you can read more research about how girls between the ages of 3-5 are beginning to internalized the thin ideal. Every single exposure to this ideal as the norm does have some impact on a child’s idea of what she “should” look like, whether we like it or not. I think that Mattel had the opportunity to do something very cool with Monster High, to really present girls who were imperfect, not just meeting the standard ideal of beauty with small monster touches. But, they lost me with the sexy dress and girl on girl fighting that has appeared so much in the webisodes.

  4. Denesia
    June 22, 2014

    I have to agree with you on the issue of these dolls. While I collect them, and love them for their funny personalities, I think the should’ve at least created a doll for a plus sized character. There is Rider, however, who has to use a wheelchair because he has a tail instead of legs, so I guess there trying to reach out to differently abled kids. And the African-American characters such as Clawdeen and Howleen was pretty cool too. I just love their accents! Though not all of us black people are to be portrayed as gangsters. At least they tried…A little stereotypical, but, they tried… And the messages that they supposedly send, when it comes to the whole girl on girl brawling, cyber bullying, dress code and the like, well, we kinda see that every where we go. In schools especially I mean, I can’t remember coming across any sort of franchise that did not have issues with bullies and what not. I got stabbed in the back all the time, still am because I’m too trusting, forgiving and naïve. That’s just life, these things happen. You can’t show that life’s all honky doory like with Barbie, who is also super model material and has problems even though they seem to turn out ok in the end. But again that’s not real life, not all problems o away with a kind word or two. “A still tongue keeps a wise head”. But I do see your point, so maybe they should keep a proper age limit because its pretty much all over the place. I guess the biggest issue with dolls today are their size, then bios, then dress codes. I love dolls, and can’t really imagine putting them away just because of an image. Their latest release, Ever After High is on the thin side too, but their personalities reach beyond fashion. What do think of those? And if you had the resources, what kind of toys would you make. I know for a fact that there’s no pleasing society. You bring out plus sized dolls, you’re encouraging kids that fat is good, you have skinny dolls, you’re pushing them to be anorexic. Not that theirs anything wrong with a little meat on the bones cause I’m slim thick, and loving it. But I see where you’re coming from, and hope you see where I’m coming from too.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 2, 2014

      Denesia, I do like the Ever After High stories a bit better. Have they started making webisodes about those? I imagine that the problem lies not so much in the books, which are marketed to older children, but in the dolls and webisodes that are marketed to younger children. The stories just aren’t developmentally appropriate for that age group. And as you mention, there’s the thin ideal and the sexualized clothing. A lot of older teens and even young adults have told me how much they enjoy the Monster High dolls, and I think that’s because the stories are more age appropriate for them than they are for the 4-8 year olds who they are heavily marketed to.

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