Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Fishnets and Fangs for the Win? The Dark Side of Monster High

I’ve written a lot about the Monster High brand and looked closely at the story lines and characters. While Mattel claims that Monster High is all about “celebrating your freaky flaws,” what I’ve seen is a lot of girl on girl social (sometimes even physical) aggression, sexualized dress, and bodies that line right up with thin ideal imagery. Overall, I have remained unimpressed with the Monster High brand as a toy that can affect children positively.

I was really disappointed that NPR recently shared this article, which basically seemed to be a marketing piece for Mattel. Where is the analysis of the brand’s weaknesses? There have been numerous experts and parents who have written about this brand’s troubles, and NPR didn’t even mention that.

Some readers have asked me why it matters if the toy promotes positive messages, can’t it just be fun to play with? The answer is yes! But here’s the deal, Mattel has promoted Monster High as a brand that builds positive self-esteem and helps kids learn to accept themselves and others. And I’m not buying that.  In my post A Monster Problem, I wrote about the fact that Monster High may be good for business, but may not be good for girls. Let’s look at three specific criticisms of Monster High.

Social Aggression

I’ve  previously written about the themes of social aggression in Monster High in my posts, Is This How you Teach Acceptance,  Does Monster High Teach Kindness and another that provided an exercise in Deconstructing Monster High. My main problem with the Monster High brand is that Mattel says it promotes acceptance of others and oneself by embracing and celebrating the characters’ flaws and imperfections. And yet, again and again in their webisodes you see girl on girl bullying. Very rarely is there a realistic, prosocial approach that models for kids a positive and effective way to deal with problems with friends or bullies.

It’s been claimed that I’m just not paying attention to the character development, and the girls do learn and demonstrate prosocial skills later in the series of webisodes. Really? Let me show you two webisodes, one early webisode and one newer one.

In “Mad Science Fair,” the character Cleo takes advantage of her best friend by claiming that the winning project is her own. Frankie and Lagoona tell Ghoulia that she needs to stand up for herself. Good point, right? Kids need to learn to negotiate this kind of friendship issue. So how do the Monster High characters solve this problem? Is it in a way that promotes acceptance and teaches prosocial skills to young kids? Let’s watch….

Wow, great lesson! If your best friend takes advantage of you, get back at her through physical retaliation! But maybe there’s been character development that I’m not taking into account and the characters have learned to handle conflict better. Let’s check out a newer webisode and see if there’s evidence of that.

In this webisode, we see the Monster High characters responding in a very similar way to the previous one, only this time it’s the mean characters that they’re responding to rather than a friend. In both webisodes, the “nice” Monster High characters respond to bullying by others, whether friend or enemy, by bullying them back.

I don’t care if Monster High teaches prosocial skills and acceptance or not. If all Mattel wants to do is make money, fine with me, that’s their business. But when they continually promote the Monster High brand as teaching girls about acceptance and then consistently deliver this kind of negative content, I have to call them on it. There are a lot of great educational programs that are carefully developed to teach prosocial skills that give kids tools for dealing with bullying and friendship problems. Monster High isn’t one of them. I have noticed that the very recent webisodes have less social aggression, so maybe Mattel is responding to the complaints that they’ve had about that and trying to focus on more positive social interactions. If so, that’s a step in the right direction.

Sexualization

These characters frequently wear clothing that looks like it came out of a lingerie store rather than what you might see a high school girl wearing.When the children’s Halloween costume for Monster High looks this much like the Adult Woman Costume found in the “Sexy” section, it should be a red flag, people.

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The clothing that these dolls wear is problematic. 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 Thin Ideal

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 is still very much the celebration of the conventional thin ideal of beauty.

The Dark Side of Monster High

Come on, Mattel, 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.

If Mattel wants to promote self-acceptance, then the last thing they should be doing is promoting the thin ideal, sexualization, and a focus on appearance. Research has clearly linked consumption of sexualized and thin ideal focused media with concerns about weight, appearance, and with decreased self-esteem.

I love the idea of a brand that truly helps girls learn to accept themselves, flaws and all. Monster High is a promising premise, but as it stands now, the focus on appearance, sexiness, and issues over the target audience stand in the way of it being a brand that can truly claim to be socially responsible in the messages it sends to kids. Some of the most irate comments that I get about Monster High come from teenage and young adult fans who love these dolls. Hey, guess what, that’s because the dress and content are more appropriate for you than they are for the six-year olds who these are marketed to!

Does it make money for Mattel? It sure does, and that’s great for their bottom line. But don’t claim to be promoting self-acceptance in teens while selling sexiness to six-year olds. That may be good for business, but it doesn’t show that you care about girls.

Some helpful resources for those who want to look at peer reviewed articles on this topic:

Anschutz, D.J. & Engels, C.M.E. Rutger,  The effects of playing with thin dolls on body image and food intake in young girls. Sex Roles. 2010 November; 63(9-10): 621–630.

American Psychological Association (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls.

American Psychological Association: Washington, D.C.Aubrey, S. J. (2007). The impact of sexually objectifying media exposure on negative body emotions and sexual self-perceptions: Investigating the mediating role of body self-consciousness. Mass Communication and Society, 10(1), 1-23.

Brown, J. D., Halpern, C. T., & L’Engle, K. L. (2005). Mass media as a sexual super peer for early maturing girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36(5), 420-427.

Brown, J.D., L’Engle, K.L., Pardun, C.J. Guo, G., Kenneavy, K., & Jackson, C. (2006). Sexy media matter: Exposure to sexual content in music, movies, television and magazines predicts Black and White adolescents’ sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 117(4): 1018-1027.

Daniels, E.A. (2009). Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes : How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women.Journal of Adolescent Research 24: 399 DOI: 10.1177/0743558409336748

Daniels, E.A. & Wartena, H. (2011). Athlete or Sex Symbol: What Boys Think of Media Representations of Female Athletes. Sex Roles, DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9959-7

Harriger, J.A., Calogero, R.M., Witherington, D.C., & Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin-ideal in preschool-age girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9868-1

 
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7 comments on “Fishnets and Fangs for the Win? The Dark Side of Monster High

  1. commonsensemother
    October 27, 2015

    Thank you so much for your analysis. While I completely agree with all of the points you made, I cannot help but be surprised that no one is discussing the de-sensitization that is occurring as a result of this brand. I became aware of this when a parent I know shared with me that her child was singing a song with lyrics that concerned her… “Empire. Take over Everything, Reign Over Everything. If having everything that I want is wrong I don’t want to be right. Sitting high on my throne, in control, this is some kind of life.” The child is 4 years old. When I asked where she heard such a thing, the parent told me it was from Monster High. When I researched the brand, I was shocked that no one has an issue with putting a “dead” doll that experiences very dark situations into the hands of a small child. Frankly, it is disturbing. Thank you for bringing attention to the many other aspects that I find disturbing about this particular brand.

    https://childrensmediawatch.wordpress.com/

  2. Pingback: Media Literacy | Free Range Press

  3. Robyn
    July 18, 2013

    Older teens and adults who love Monster High: more power to you! You are old enough and sophisticated enough to recognize the messages it sends and choose to accept or reject them. You are free to choose to view this media KNOWING what it is trying to sell you.

    I, personally, choose to reject those messages and not to expose myself to them because they are toxic to my self-image. I have the capability of making that informed choice.

    3-12 year olds don’t have that ability, and those are the children to whom the line is marketed. Should Mattel cease marketing this line to children, my objections would be drastically reduced.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 18, 2013

      Exactly!

  4. philomela
    July 18, 2013

    Thank you so much for this wonderful analysis! I wrote about the Monster High line a few years ago and also felt totally disappointed that Mattel would presume to call the line “progressive” (of sorts) since it was all about everyone “feeling like a freak in high school.” Such a ridiculous twisting of their supposed “good intentions” since the dolls (then just introduced) are highly sexualized and the story lines are all about social aggression. Sad to realize little has changed. One of the best comments I received came from a doll-owner who revealed herself as disabled and saw her doll as one that positively embodied disability. Her comments were thought-provoking to me and I was glad the dolls served an alternative script of sorts for her. Thanks for your piece on their recent changes — or lack thereof!

    http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/08/19/mattels-new-monster-high-dolls-play-on-old-school-stereotypes/

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 18, 2013

      Thanks for the comment. Most of the MH fans who write to me are adults. They love them and I think that’s great. The storylines and outfits are much more age appropriate for teens and young adults than for 6-10 year olds!

  5. Elline
    July 18, 2013

    Thank you so much for this wonderful analysis! I wrote about the Monster High line a few years ago and also felt totally disappointed that Mattel would presume to call the line “progressive” (of sorts) since it was all about everyone “feeling like a freak in high school.” Such a ridiculous twisting of their supposed “good intentions” since the dolls (then just introduced) are highly sexualized and the story lines are all about social aggression. Sad to realize little has changed. One of the best comments I received came from a doll-owner who revealed herself as disabled and saw her doll as one that positively embodied disability. Her comments were thought-provoking to me and I was glad the dolls served an alternative script of sorts for her. Thanks for your piece on their recent changes — or lack thereof!

    http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/08/19/mattels-new-monster-high-dolls-play-on-old-school-stereotypes/

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