Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Monster High’s Mixed Messages about Bullying with Tips for Talking with Kids

Yesterday my friend and ally, Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth posted a piece on her blog that dives deep into Mattel’s marketing manipulations. If you don’t believe that Mattel is telling us one thing while really selling another, I urge you to read Amy’s piece. As a former marketing executive, she’s got an insider view that sometimes leaves me saddened, but certainly opens my eyes up to reality. 

As a part of that post, Amy asked Bailey Shoemaker Richards, a recent college graduate, to share her own views on what messages Monster High really sends about bullying. You’ll notice that Bailey’s views line up closely with those that I’ve shared in my own work. Bailey also shares some great tips on talking with kids about Monster High’s messages, helping them to decipher those mixed messages.

Monster High’s Mixed Messages About Bullying

by Bailey Shoemaker Richards

The Monster High line of toys is one that’s come under fire from parents and researchers since it was released – the scantily-clad characters with their impossible proportions, and the short-short skirts, excessive makeup and bad messages have received long, loud cries of, “Boo!” Now the company has been trying to raise the line’s image from the dead, using a tactic called “goodwashing.”

By plastering the website with messages like, “Don’t be a mean ghoul!” and emphasizing in the press that the toy line encourages friendship, the Monster High line is suddenly supposed to look pretty good to parents.

There are a lot of problems with that, though.

For starters, do the toys (and their ubiquitous marketing, commercial spots and webisodes)reflect that messaging? From the outside, a toy line that encourages kids to be themselves and unique would sound like a great option – but aside from the fact that the Monster High characters are monsters, they look just like every other doll on the market.

The monster shell is just that: an extra layer of makeup slapped onto the same old messaging about how girls are expected to look and act. I can’t think of a single line of toys that explicitly encourages girls to try to be like everyone else; uniqueness is a common message, but when most toys offer the same narrow options for appearance and behavior, I’m going to cry foul.

The webisodes don’t fare any better under this type of scrutiny.

The most recent one on the website when I visited it was “The Nine Lives of Toralei,” a school news report on a catty bully, complete with racist undertones(Toralei ends up “in the pound” – still in high heels – where she meets other “kitties from the street,” her “werecat sistahs” – and no, I’m not kidding). 

Toralei and her “sistahs” fight to control the prison by having a catfight with the top dogs, before Toralei and the others are whisked off to Monster High, where it’s indicated that “the same rules apply.”

Apparently it’s a jungle out there, and the only way to get to the top is to bully, fight and intimidate your way there.

Hardly the same message as, “Don’t be a mean ghoul,” is it? But maybe that’s just a bad episode. It’s possible that there are others with better messages about friendship, cooperation, intelligence, kindness and good ethics, right?

“Unlife to Live” features Cleo bullying her boyfriend into buying smoothies(because that’s how girls get what they want: Pouting, glaring, crossing their arms – good lesson!) and talking to Ghoulia, the requisite “smart girl,” who is brilliant but slumped over, drooling and incapable of talking.

As Cleo walks away, she mocks Ghoulia (shown at left) for not having a life. What a good friend.

Ghoulia is then shown answering the brainy equivalent of a Bat-Signal and saving the school, only to be mocked again by Cleo at the end of the episode.

Episode after episode features similar messages: You get to the top by being the biggest monster possible – and not in the fun, unique way the line might insist you should, but by threatening or using physical violence, bullying tactics, cheating, lying and whining.

The occasional episode where these methods don’t work (usually because they’re practiced by someone other than the top Mean Ghouls) fail to enforce any good moral lessons or growth.

So what are we to make of the mixed messages about Monster High?

And, most importantly, how can we communicate to the target audience (girls around the age of 6 through ‘tweens’) that maybe these monsters don’t really have their best interests at heart?(high schoolers don’t play with dolls anymore, but high school looks cool and glamorous to younger girls)

Having an age-appropriate media literacy discussion with kids is a big first step to helping them untangle the web Monster High is trying to weave.

By coating bad messages in an outer layer of good PR and catchy slogans, the company makes it harder for kids and parents to reject the toy without looking like they support bullying.

That’s a slimy tactic, but helping kids develop strong media literacy skills reveals it for what it is.

To make sure kids can understand the spin, parents and older siblings have to understand it first.

Media Literacy Talking Points About Monster High’s Mixed Messages

1.) Who profits? Who gets the benefit from a major corporation slapping feel-good phrases on a product line that’s been under fire for negative messaging to kids? The corporation does. If the PR works, parents and kids are going to buy into the hype that suddenly Monster High characters’ historically bad attitudes, barely-there clothes and unhealthy bodies play second fiddle to their positive messages about being nice and staying true to yourself.

2.) Is their message consistent? Examining the messaging in its own context – the Monster High website – quickly reveals that the nice girl message is a hastily slapped on façade that attempts to cover the backbiting, bullying, “Mean Girl” perception of reality. Pasting a platitude at the top of the site doesn’t change the fact that the Monster High show relies on girl hate, girl-on-girl violence and stereotyping (both gendered and racial) to feed girls the same old lies.

3.) Can you spot the spin? Arrange to co-view the shows. Girls in the target audience aren’t necessarily going to understand what’s meant by the sexualization of girlhood, but they understand friendship. Watching a few of the Monster High shows (they’re usually about 3 minutes in length) and talking through the behavior of the characters is an easy way to expose the negative messages they contain.

“Is Cleo being nice to Ghoulia? Do you think that’s how friends should treat each other? Is it appropriate to hit, scratch or punch to get your way? How do you think your friends would feel if someone said that to them?”

Asking simple questions about the behaviors of the girls in the show will expose the messaging for what it is, and from there it’s easy to have a frank discussion about why those behaviors are not okay, and why the Monster High toys aren’t welcome in the house.

Kids who are too young to parse the spin doctoring of a toy line’s marketing aren’t too young to know right from wrong. Talking through the lessons imparted by Monster High is the easiest way to expose the monster in the closet, and throw it out for good.

Bailey Shoemaker Richards, 22, is a recent graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, a feminist activist, and a member of the SPARKteam.

She spends her free time writing, reading, playing video games and watching Doctor Who.

Bailey is passionate about grassroots activism, media critique and giving a voice to young women.

AND…Bailey is the first ever Shaping Youth Correspondent turned Columnist, where she will now have a biweekly platform to cover media literacy messaging in the K-12 sphere and beyond.

Follow Bailey at SPARK and on Twitter  or on Shaping Youth as their new site expansion this summer brings more critical thinking and diverse voices into the media mix.

Amy gives us a quick wrap up:

At A Glance Recap Of Monster High Goodwashing

1.) Monster High’s multi-layered marketing madness is vile on a variety of misguided levels including body image/sexualization akin to the productization of pole dancing Pussycat Dolls we staved off from Hasbro just a few years ago. (note similarities of dolls in photo)

2.) The ‘kindness’ is a cynical corporate spinmeister maneuver to realign Mattel’s snippy girl on girl bullying and hyper-sexualized dolls which  have taken some heat in the media & marketplace by parents in a lame attempt to ‘reframe’ and ‘reposition the brand’ as ‘kind.’

3.) The ‘kindness’ tactic of teaming with nonprofits that appear to reflect the antithesis of Monster High webisodes and toys not only creates confusion (among both parent purchasers AND child end users) it does damage with a supremely misguided deployment of a much-needed conversation.

4.) We should teach civility and leadership sans toy gimmickry and be mindful of media and marketing that HINDERS rather than helps the messaging about girl on girl relational aggression and senseless stereotypes. (see Rosalind Wiseman’s excellent post on how to tell the difference between a good and a  bad anti-bullying campaign) 

Sample Monster High Webisode/YouTube Mentioned in Bailey’s Article Above

4 comments on “Monster High’s Mixed Messages about Bullying with Tips for Talking with Kids

  1. Hasya amina
    May 3, 2013

    i like lagoona

  2. Pingback: Research on children, youth and television – Marketing, Media and Childhood

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Dr. Jen…the more eyeballs the better to get critical thinking front and center. As I just mentioned on Shaping Youth’s deep dive about the marketing machinations and media manipulation behind the scenes, it’s important to reiterate that our goal is to get the FULL story out so that parents/youth/consumers can make the decisions for themselves. We’re not telling people WHAT to think, but instead, re-educating on HOW to think.

    Thanks again to Bailey for an amazing point by point/show-n-tell of the content. And to you, Dr.Jen for such a clear and concise reversal of the marcom ‘why to buy’…Time-crunched parents need all the help they can get to “spot the spin” and make healthier decisions.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      June 24, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Amy and for sharing this post.

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