Meeting With Mattel about Monster High

In early September I flew to Los Angeles to Mattel’s corporate headquarters to take part in round table discussion called an “influencer meeting”. At the invitation of Jess Weiner, an independent consultant who excels at creating positive media from the inside of corporations by bringing advocates for girls and women into the boardroom, I joined the team from Mattel and Whitney Smith (founder of Girls for a Change) to discuss issues parents and girl advocates had with the Monster High brand and where we saw room for improvement.

I was very excited for this meeting, but as a known adversary of the Monster High brand, I was a little unsure of what I’d be walking into. Never the less, it was a spot at the table I wanted badly. One, to have my voice heard by decision makers within the company, and two, the idea of meeting face to face with the creators of this brand fascinated me. We were coming into the meeting from very different starting points, but I felt confident we would be able to reach some middle ground. One month later, the feedback from the meeting is excellent, and I think the conversation was beneficial for all involved.

I’ve been asked many times to petition or boycott Mattel over this sexualized line of dolls primarily beloved by grade school girls, but I never felt that was the right approach for this issue or this company. Frankly, Monster High was too popular and making Mattel too much money for a petition or boycott to be effective. I needed a way to create change from within, by making the decision makers aware of the issues in the media and culture that our girls are facing, and how their product might be contributing to these negative messages as opposed to helping by presenting an alternative message. Not only did I need to make them aware of the issues, I needed to make them care about the issues. Luckily my partner at the meeting, Whitney Smith, lives and breathes the idea of creating better media for girls, and I am so grateful that our paths crossed.

At this influencer meeting was the vice president of the Monster High brand within Mattel, Mattel’s child psychologist, Mattel’s lead designer and one of the creators of Monster High, and then several public relations and marketing people. Jess Weiner facilitated the discussion while Whitney Smith and I presented the Mattel team with ideas and constructive criticism. The meeting began with friendly introductions and a history of how Monster High came to be at Mattel.

Two interesting facts to me were that the majority of the people in the room are parents of young children, answering the question my community has long wondered if it was parents who were designing these toys for other people’s children. The other fact was that the Mattel team is very proud of their work, their brand, and their company. Each of them has been with Mattel for a number of years, and was very happy to be working there.

As the story was related to us, Monster High began as a series of stories and doodles created by Mattel after a research shopping trip with girls. The story and characters finally came together after several rounds of drafts, with the intent that a group of fabulous teen monsters could address problems like bullying and accepting differences in oneself and others. The initial design concepts went through several revamps, and ultimately Mattel launched the webisodes, and then the toy line and spin off merchandise followed.

The Mattel team in the room was clearly proud of Monster High and the connection it had made with fans. They all expressed confidence that Monster High was helping to create awareness and kindness in girls, acceptance of differences, and was helping to detract from bullying. More on that in a minute.

Post launch, Mattel acknowledged merit to some feedback that a few of the character’s outfits were too short or too sexy, and that the characters in the webisodes were too mean to each other which detracted from the anti-bullying message. Internal changes were made and webisode content is making the effort to align better with the message of the brand. I was informed that the entertainment team has gone back in to “locked” episodes (content that has been edited and aired) and has done further editing to remove unnecessary mean comments. Creators had expressed a difficulty in developing fully fleshed characters in the 90 second and 3 minute story lines, and felt more successful at getting their message across in the longer forms of entertainment and animated specials that allowed for better character development and richer storytelling.

Mattel and Monster High also began partnering with girl-run advocacy groups like the Kind Campaign and We Stop Hate to further the anti-bullying message and to bring more eyes on the work of these campaigns. Manufacturing changes were implemented to guarantee the soft goods (clothing) came off the line more accurately to the design and now must fit the “Modesty Test”, which involves a focus group of employees reviewing new dolls against the approved sample and giving feedback on the clothing and if it is perceived to be too sexy. Another change is that hemlines got longer and leggings are now worn under most of the shorter skirts.

So that’s the good news, and Whitney and I commended Mattel for making those changes, as they are a step in the right direction. But we felt there was need for a conversation on some discrepancy that remained with the brand, the product, and the messaging.

First being, the characters were still pretty vicious to each other in the webisodes, and the feel good 9 second message at the end didn’t cut it if this was really to be a brand about anti-bullying. I presented Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker’s research that in 86 minutes of webisodes programming she observed 37 instances of peer cruelty. Most of the character fighting was still centered around popularity, heterosexual relationships, and fashion or needing makeovers. I also brought up the many YouTube videos that exist of girls (usually upper elementary age) playing with their dolls, and the story line being voiced by the child is almost always one of girl-on-girl aggression. The take-away from the webisodes did not seem to be the final PSA, but rather the drama that frenemies creates. Some of the anti-bullying girl experts that teamed with Monster High have offered solutions that my colleagues and I have felt was lacking and weak. Not that the advice was bad, but it was a fluffy version of really empowering girls and creating, as Rosalind Wiseman calls is, cultures of dignity. When not going with a full-court press on the bullying, body image, or beauty myth issues, this move of pairing with girl entrepreneurs can look like corporate goodwashing. Presenting conflict and story resolution is one thing, teaching real anti-bullying, self-acceptance, and leadership skills to your audience is another. But to Mattel’s credit, the approach they are taking is to advocate for personal solutions for each girl to implement in her life, such as being more accepting of her own flaws and imperfection in others.

I asked Mattel to realize they had an incredible vehicle for social change with this brand, they were keyed into the youth demographic most accepting of bullying and leadership training, and that they simply needed to have the strength of their convictions. They could go further with the stories as the cat fighting and boyfriend meme has been done. Give the characters real life tween/teen problems to work out – as a team. We talked about ways for the characters to experience conflict in their lives without needing to be in conflict with each other. They could continue to be monsterific and interesting, but a kinder and gentler version of Monster High would still be successful.

Next, we discussed the sexiness of the dolls. The designer had a strong reaction to this, and I have to admit, I think she had the most at stake in this meeting because it was her art, her creation that had come to life and was now being criticized. During the introductions she told the room she was a mom to five girls, and was “very dialed into the issues girls faced”. She said she never went into this project with the intention of creating characters that were as sexy or harmful as they appeared to us to be. I need to tell you, we could see the pain on her face at this accusation – and I think that came from a place as a professional artist and a mother to girls. Her words were heartfelt as she described to us the design process the dolls went under. This felt like the moment when we were furthest away from each other, which meant now there was only space to come closer together.
Whitney Smith and I felt what the designer said was true, that she didn’t go into this with any intention to hurt or sexualize girls. Whitney pointed out, that is just how ingrained this beauty myth and sexualization is and that sometimes we can be a part of it without even realizing it. I commented that everything negative from the media was present in these dolls – the sexualized dress and makeup/eyes, extreme thinness, body shaming, Beauty Myth, and focus on being popular over substantive. I asked that as she continued to develop new characters and dolls, to use some diversity in body shape, interests, and focus on the scary over sexy. Whitney and I asked that Mattel shift the focus from what the characters look like, to what they can “do”.

We addressed the heavy make-up and “Come hither” eyes. The designer explained there is a lot of research that goes into a doll’s eyes, and it is the difference between a doll being beloved or creepy. Mattel research showed that girls were attracted to a made-up eye with reflective light spots. Many dolls now have larger eyes because research shows the eyes are the window that helps girls emotionally connect with the toy. I think there is a way to do large, friendly eyes without looking sexy and inviting. I asked if they would ever consider doing a character/doll that was more of a “tomboy”, or who wore less makeup.
When we talked about the thinness of the dolls, we were told that the clothes had to look good, because the brand was also about a fabulous fashion sense. I commented that much like the fashion industry, clothes are best displayed when the body looks like a coat hanger but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for the human body. We compared body types to some other dolls on the market, and asked if there could be an introduction of some characters with larger or shorter frames, since the brand is supposed to be about accepting flaws and differences. From a production stand point – the dolls need to be able to wear each other’s clothes so it is easier to produce one body type. This is also more beneficial to the consumer, because a one-size-fits-all is a better economic value than having to buy a dozen dolls and a dozen outfits. I think this will be a hard change on the production lines, but it is something that Mattel could accomplish via the webisodes. This is an idea that went over well at the meeting.

Finally we talked about body image and the adult nature of the dolls. I think the newer dolls are dressed much more appropriately dressed than the original creations. The funk is still there, but the Playboy Mansion look is gone. Whitney and I applauded Emily Anne’s character, both in body size and in dress. Emily Anne’s character looked like a normal teen, like someone I would have over to babysit my kids. We discussed that if you are an authentic and uniquely weird brand with an edge, you don’t need sex to sell your product. I used examples of Ruby Gloom or Tim Burton being the former, with Lady Gaga being the latter. I asked for more of a Coraline/Emily the Strange vibe and less adult sexuality. I talked about my own daughter Amelia loving monsters and creepy stuff and I would otherwise be their target mom, but that I couldn’t buy into Monster High because of the sexualization and the body image concerns. I challenged them to make me want to buy a doll.

In closing, Whitney and I explained the idea between being a sexual agent and a sex object, and the immense pressure even young girls are under to be sex objects. Girls need media that does not have them so focused on beauty, sex, and being thin. Whitney and I both felt that Monster High had a lot of room to grow, and had the space to do some really incredible things for their audience and fans.

In my final statement to the team, I looked in the eyes of the people around the room and asked them what legacy did Mattel want to leave on childhood knowing the main audience and consumer for Monster High was young girls. The worst issues girls are facing in their young lives are body insecurity and eating disorders, low self-esteem, sex abuse and assault, early pregnancy, and dating violence. Would someone who was never heard of these dolls be able to see the message Mattel wanted this brand to convey? Would someone who has never seen Monster High before think that the brand was contributing to or detracting from these issues? I again asked them to focus on scary over sexy, and truly making the commitment to be an anti-bullying vehicle.

The meeting ended with handshakes, smiles, and even some hugs. I think both sides felt heard by the other side, and we found that we had a lot of common ground. Whitney and I presented some ideas the Mattel team really liked and wanted to move forward on. Mattel expressed a desire for this to be an ongoing conversation, and I think that sitting down together was the perfect way for the two sides to learn from each other. Systemic change doesn’t take place over night, but I know that Whitney and I walked out of there with our heads held high, confident that we gave Mattel some great ideas to move forward on. Monster High isn’t going away, but I think continued improvement to the brand can create something that is truly empowering to its young fans.

 

Comments

  1. You truly inspire me. I am so proud of the work you do. Thanks for sharing the story and allowing us to go on this journey with you.

  2. I’ve been resistant to buy Mattel toys in recent years, not really as a result of the sexualization (which I don’t like at all), but mainly because of the way they handled toy recalls a few years back. I just didn’t trust them after that.

    That being said, I must say I’m very impressed by this. This really leaves me with a much more positive opinion of the brand.

    I’m so glad you got to have your say. A huge THANK YOU from those moms who have always wanted to explain where we’re coming from to these toy companies. Thanks for speaking up for us.

  3. Jenny McCann says:

    Very informative. Especially the bit about production limitations, and clothing interchangeability and the big eyes.

    The big eyes are especially interesting. We love puppies and babies for their big eyes. We do relate to them and their vulnerability through their eyes. But this is the problem. Big vulnerable eyes invite us in. Those big vulnerable eyes invite girls into the dolls, but those big vulnerable eyes on young girls eventually become another sort of invitation.

    They themselves acknowledged that the big eyes are an invitation. To NOT recognize what that invitation is for when they are talking about teens dressed in a sexually provocative manner is ignorance, whether deliberate or unrealized.

    • Agree, Jenny, it’s long been a new product development design trend and neuroscience research find that ‘big eyes’ test well for ‘driving high emotional engagement’ Here’s more with diff. products: http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/challenge-innerscope.htm

      As you rightly state, awareness/high cognizance is key ‘deliberate or unrealized’ and as a former ad agency/new product dev creative, I hold corps feet to the fire big time on the ‘deliberate’ front, because campaigns and toy design are focus grouped into oblivion in market research/testing.

      Found the production limitations heartening for the pragmatic side of plausability. Again, striving to ‘be open’ to possibility for sustainable change to occur.

    • Jennifer –
      I fully agree with your comment on the eyes. I think this is something we can continue to work on with Mattel. We discussed this at the meeting, but given the time we had, we were not able to cover it as in depth as is needed. I hope it is something we can go back to in future conversation.

      • Jenny McCann says:

        Melissa,
        I hope so. It was an odd confluence of things. I was just editing photos of my daughter, who has the biggest deepest brown eyes. And I read your blog.

        It is the first thing anyone says about her… “she’s beautiful, and look at thoses eyes.” That is hard for me because I see her as no more beautiful than any other child. They are all beautiful. Plus it is her personality I value. She’s a pip! 🙂

        Her eyes are compelling, though, deep dark brown, large, direct, expressive. When she levels them on you, you feel like she is looking into you soul.

        Strangers come up to me. My daughter’s doctors who see hundreds, thousands of children have been dumb struck by how compelling they can be.

        But one day, when she is a sexual being in addition to everything else she is, those huge eyes might beckon another invitation, one she isn’t making, because we have been enculturated to see that kind of invite. One day my daughter will be a sexual being. I want it to be the appropriate time, when she is physically AND emotionally mature enough to understand and appreciate that aspect of who she is.

        So the linking of the big expressive eyes to sexuality and come hither vulnerability needs to stop. I need my daughter and every other little girl in the world to become and be perceived as more than a sexual toy. I need my son, and every other boy in this world to become and be perceived as more than a sexual toy, and more than a person entitled to play with a sexual toy.

        I want children to grow into adults who have and contribute their worth to society!

    • I’ve noticed the ‘big eye’ thing going on in many of my daughters’ toys. I think I noticed first with Dora. None of their big-eyed stuff ever seemed to be a sex-signal however, unlike these dolls and the Bratz line.

  4. Hi Melissa, thanks for sharing this! I have long said that Monster High has the potential to be a great brand, minus the mean girl attitudes and the sexiness.

    My work that you mentioned above was an analysis that I did for myself, but I have also been conducting academic research on this brand. My findings continue to suggest that Monster High webisodes are heavy on the social and relational aggression and light on true prosocial skills. I would be thrilled to see this brand move away from the sexiness and mean girl humor and truly embrace acceptance and kindness.

    • Ditto to Jennifer’s research, as expressed many times in posts on Shaping Youth, (including a hearty disdain for the ‘goodwashing’ direction corporations keep taking when they need to mop up a media and marketing mess –> http://www.shapingyouth.org/mattels-manipulative-monster-high-marketing-machine-unkind/

      I’m thrilled Mattel gave you an audience, as I’ve found impact to be considerable when a corporation is called out and the gauntlet thrown down to SEE systemic change beyond a cursory dusting. I recently tapped a corp on the shoulder via email about a redesign of an all too sexy icon and gendered focus involving tech ‘apps’ for girls, and fielded a quiet warning shot over the bow prior to writing about it…They actually DID change the look and feel and tonality pronto, so it CAN be done..our voices are key!

      Thank you for making noise and high fives for being heard. It’s noteworthy that other strong “influencers” in this convo (Shaping Youth, Peggy Orenstein, Spark Summit, Packaging Girlhood, Jennifer S. above, etc all who have had repeated dust-ups with Mattel and substantial research in the sphere of sexualization) remain ‘uninvited to the table’ so to speak…Which is telling.

      When they pull out the chair and address quantifiable change, and also put together a game plan for how to ‘undo’ some of the toxicity already out there, I’ll be listening with such intensity a pin drop would be heard.

      Meanwhile, great post…And in the words of Max Lerner, “I am neither an optimist, nor pessimist but a possibilist.”

      • Amy –
        The second influencer meeting (the one before mine) had people from the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls who presented the research, so that arm was covered. While I don’t come from the world of academia and research, I did an excellent job representing our sister orgs and my large parent community. I had no trouble holding my own at the table, I got solid points across, and I think there is room for some new voices like mine in this conversation.

        • No doubt there…You are the voice I’d personally choose to ‘represent’ from a parent/youth advocacy ‘tell it like it is’ perspective. (tho I’m glad to hear APA was there, hadn’t heard that, EXC; moves the need toward ‘possibilist’ a bit further toward ‘optimism’ side, lol)

    • Agreed Dr. Jen! Let me know if/how I can share any of your research.

  5. Well done, Melissa! It sounds like a great meeting!

  6. Gabrielle says:

    I have to admit, if they could deal with the over-sexualization, I would absolutely be consumer. I love the cool creepiness, and the idea of a monster as opposed to, say, a Barbie. I hope they really listened and make some good changes.

    • Gabrielle –
      As much as Amelia is into all things creepy and ghoulish, I would be their top consumer….if not for the sexualized eyes and clothing, mean girl aggression, and dangerous body image messages the dolls give off. It was a great concept that went awry in design.

      • OK- mark me down as another parent who would probably be buying some of this stuff, if… well, if the whole line was presented differently.

        My oldest daughter loves monsters, magic, etc (we own the whole ‘Ology’ book series). If these dolls were more about doing things rather than just looking a certain way, or counting suitors, or whatever other superficial crap is promoted in the online material, they would likely find a place in our home.

  7. Elaine Johnson says:

    Melissa, this is a truly amazing thing you have done. Brilliant work. Thank you so much for your fight against the exploitation of girls.

    Elaine

  8. I have really been looking forward to hearing about this meeting. Well done Melissa!!! There really is so much potential….certainly this creative group is capable of the changes you suggested. Here’s hoping to see Mattel try a little harder!

  9. Wow, thank you for sharing all this detail and being willing to speak on behalf of so many parents that have deep concerns about the over-sexualization of our children and the toys that are marketed to them.

    I’m also glad it was heartfelt, saddened to hear that it sounds like many well-intentioned parents within the industry could still create something so askew, and hopeful that your voice on behalf of many others will encourage some changes.

    Thanks!

  10. Congratulations! It is wonderful to hear about such a positive dialogue. Sounds like they had pretty open minds about everything. I hope they will not only change the Monster High brand, but also set an example for other toy makers to follow re: listening to constructive criticism and customer concerns. Reading this post has certainly improved my opinion of the company.

  11. FABULOUS, Melissa! Really great start *and* good progress.

  12. This is an amazing story about the power of open communication and changing the way girls toys are discussed. It seems like a really positive step in the right direction and I hope that you and Whitney continue to collaborate with Matell. Bravo! 🙂

  13. You are so incredible for what you are doing. I’m so glad you got to speak with them. When I first saw Monster High dolls, before my daughter was born, I was excited. I was a goth kid and loved the Monster themed dolls. My eyes opened up wider after my daughter was born and I took a closer look at the kind of clothes they were wearing and the kind of sexualized crap clothing companies were trying to sell to little girls. It would be fantastic if everything that got me excited about Monster High could still exist WITHOUT sending negative messages to girls.

  14. Thank you for doing this! From the second the Monster High brand came out, I wished Mattel would make it what it has the potential to be — cool monster-related dolls for young girls — instead of this sexy, nightmarish (and not in a good way) mess.

  15. Thank you for your post. I must say that having watched one of the first Monster High videos to one of their latest videos, that the content has improved somewhat. My 8 yr old daughter (7 at the time) learned about Monster High from a friend at school. After watching the first video I explained to her why I did not approve of the videos. After numerous discussions with all parties (father, mother and child) we decided that we would watch 3 videos together and make the decision then (as I had based it after only watching one episode). I was impressed with some of the topics that they covered and the values behind them, but made the final decision that she could watch them but only with me present. This has allowed for us to have numerous conversations regarding bullying, physical appearance, friendships, etc. I still do not like how they portray Ghouiia (the smart girl in school who wears glasses and only grunts), but feel that the videos provide a great opportunity for parents to discuss important issues with their daughters.

  16. Vitória Arantes says:

    Hi, Melissa. I’m 16 years old and I’m brazilian, so excuse me for any writting mistakes. I love all this iniciative you have to talk about girl image in media, stereotypes and everything else surrounding this broad subject. I think you do an amazing job with bringing awareness to issues wich most part of people don’t dedicate a single thought to. Said that, it was very impressive to see that Mattel gave you this opening to confront ideas, I don’t think many companies do this. It was also great to see that the reunion was well planned and both sides seemed to be able to get along and dialogue about the problems and possible solutions. It must be really hard for a brand to find itself in a position in wich it has to balance the market interests and the wish to present something that sends a positive message, after all, it is a big risk to choose not going along with the stereotypes. But I think that now that they seem to already have conquered a solid market, it’s the right time to take a chance and try to do something different from most part of the products that are out there. They seem to have what it takes to transform Monster High into a great model for girls. I truly hope to see the proposals coming to reality and maybe, in the future, this change could be spread to the other brands of Mattel. It’s just a great achievement the fact that such a large and important toys company is willing to give voice to other points of view.

  17. Hi Melissa,

    Thank you for your hard work. Monster High and Bratz dolls may never leave store shelves, but offering consumers a choice is important. Thank you for encouraging Mattel to do this. The word “sexy” is used a lot when describing many of the dolls that are marketed to girls ages 8 and younger. I strongly believe the word “sexy” should never come to mind when describing a doll for young girls. If it does, changes need to be made with that product. Thank you for being the voice of change. I support you.

  18. Melissa, you are so full of awesome! Thank you for all you do on behalf of all moms and children.

  19. I’m so proud of you! You’re amazing.

    It makes me feel physically ill that toy companies and advertising companies employ child psychologists to figure out the best ways to hook my child. I actually think it is a violation of the trust of psychologists that they do this. It’s unethical for them to use their art and science to coerce my child into wanting to buy their shit. Shame on them.

    I hope your work makes a difference to them. I really do.

    • THIS. I completely agree re the ethically shaky position of the child psychologists, Robyn. Also, Melissa, you are my hero more so now than ever. I very much look forward to reading your book.

    • Robyn,
      Thank you! But I’m not all that amazing, I just have access. I know there are a lot of moms and dads from our group who could do what I did. I understand your feelings, but most corporations include a psychologist for focus group research and marketing. I look at it this way — Mattel’s pysch guy was very nice, and he is a father. He told me about his son, who is a lot like the OPP. He seemed interested in learning more about our position. So what could happen if the team of influencers that I was a part of at Mattel could keep the conversation going, and continue to create change from the inside by using what we know from the APA and other research sources about how sexualization impacts children? I don’t think our position and the goal the company has to sell toys is entirely mutually exclusive. It might feel like a really wide intersection, but it is an intersection none the less.

  20. The fact that this meeting even took place–and that you feel Mattel heard your points–makes my heart glad.

  21. Please keep speaking up. There is a growing group of moms with young children who are NOT going to buy toys that are sexed up. Keep speaking for us, because we are out here, and if these companies want to make money, they will listen!

    And…just to add…I don’t care how popular a show is, if it’s going to teach my child a bunch of nasty things that she can say and do to people, it will never be aired in my house. All she hears in our home is kindness, and that’s all she’s going to hear on TV or on the computer until she’s at least 10.

  22. THIS? Is full of awesome. For real.

  23. Thank you for being a voice for the many of us who know in our hearts and our gut that these types of toys and messages are so very wrong for our girls but do not have the ability to put that feeling into words. You are a superhero to me and many others. I appreciate it so much more than I could ever put into words. It is tiring to always be fighting the same battles with my girls and defending my stance on this topic to other people. I am afraid that other parents have just given in based on the fact they are tired as well. Please do not ever lose an ounce of the gusto you show in defense of what we should never have ever had to defend in the first place–the innocence of our youth.

    • Thank you so much, Amie. Don’t worry, there is no quit in me. I will always keep up this fight.

    • Melissa is a hero to many of us (as are the other people and groups mentioned above that are sticking up for our young girls)!

      Amie, I completely understand your frustration. Hang in there with your ‘fight’ in regards to doing right by your girls. I think you can see here- you’re not alone in your thinking, though it might seem that way at times, even as you talk with other parents in your own community. I’m frequently amazed and saddened by the number of parents I hear about or speak with directly that appear to be oblivious or just plain uninterested in this topic. The marketers must love that response!

      I think the ‘tired’ thing you mention is something we all feel at times, and maybe it comes from a place of feeling like we’re powerless to effect all of this. But that’s BS. We have all kinds of power, and I think it’s our responsibility to use it in the best interests of our children.

  24. I am highly impressed by your sophisticated approach – it is exactly the ability to stay calm, friendly, and make persuasive arguments that goes anywhere. Thank you for doing exactly this on behalf of all of us at Pinkstinks Germany!

    • Stevie –
      Thank you so much! Having allies like Pink Stinks around the world is wonderful! Keep up the great work you are doing for the families in Germany!

  25. I wanna say, thank you for fighting and getting your voice heard! I am 19 and I love collecting these dolls, but ultimately I know that they are not for me. I cannot stand the thought of girls as young as 6 playing with them.

    I love these dolls for their monster-y quirks and the high quality, and it would be really amazing if I could share this love with girls younger than me without having to worry about all the sexualized baggage that goes along with them. Even as a Monster High fan, I must say that I really hope I see the big changes you’re requesting be implemented in the brand! Monster High’s got a great message buried somewhere, but it’s near impossible to see underneath all this junk lying on the surface.

  26. I’m a commenting fool today, but I’ll add one more thank you to MW! You are a voice for many of us out here, and I want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing.

    A thought regarding the online wedbisode-things. If they truly want to effect positive change, if it’s NOT simply Corporate Goodwashing (fantastic; never heard that before) how about this:

    Couldn’t their whole story line be about how some OTHER girls- girls outside of the ghoulish group- act out with nasty, catty behavior, bullying- maybe even an unhealthy obsession regarding appearance and ‘fashion sense’, to the exclusion of all the other things life has to offer- while the Monster High girls would be portrayed as the opposite- supportive, empathetic, empowered..you know, all the good stuff. As Melissa said in the meeting, the Ghoul Girls could be about getting things done, achieving goals, helping others.

    I’m sorry but the little PSA wrap-up at the end of the webisode feels like that bit Jerry Springer used to do: After an hour of soul-sucking depravity he’d get in the camera for 15 seconds and instruct us NOT to do what we’ve observed (but do indeed tune in tomorrow to watch some more).

  27. I feel like this was amazing, how you got to be in a meeting with Mattel and that everyone came to terms. However, i don’t share your views 100%. Being an artist and a grown up Monster High fan, I feel like you didn’t understand that the designer reacted that way because you were, to put it bluntly, “messing with her art style”. It really is an honor to see your creations come alive in plastic, and the fact that one has a determined style in how they draw (that i feel, in this case, derives from the human figure often used in clothes design concept art) not always looks the best to everyone. I do agree that the first dolls might have their skirts a little short, in the first waves of them, but who, as a kid, haven’t worn shorts or quite-short skirts in summer to avoid the scorching heat, without being converted in a sexual object? I know i did. I’ve had Barbies and other “girl” toys and never paid attention to them! and now i’m not one known to follow the crowd… Of the first wave of “main cast” dolls, only two have short skirts with nothing underneath, and there’s even Ghoulia who doesn’t dress as “girly”, to put it in sexualized terms.

    However, and i’d like to stress this, what you said about the animated series is SO correct, one night i couldn’t sleep and decided to watch the webisodes and see what they were about, and i raged so much! I can’t believe how, with such an interesting concept the dolls have, and what they can be used for, they made such a terrible job with the animated show! The characters are so shallow, overly stupid, and mean, and the characters who aren’t mean are “sheep” to the mean ones… It’s pathetic! With my first approach to the dolls i thought the dolls themselves were fantastic, and loved the puns in the names, like “Draculaura” and “Ghoulia”, amongst others. But what they did to promotion them is abominable.

    I hope i didn’t come off as rude! I’m a 20 year-old from Argentina and as much as i love to write, i sometimes write direct translations of my spanish-spoken thoughts…

  28. I agree with a lot of what has been said in both your article and the comments however I would like to say a few things a pose a question or two if that’s ok?
    Firstly I am male and when I was growing up my younger sister and I became fans of the Bratz line (she 5yrs, me 7yrs when we first discovered them). My parents had their objections (more about the fact that I continued to love them as I got older and that this at some points could have become, or seemed, inappropriate) but allowed us to purchase and play with the dolls. I found that I never did and never have looked at them and seen a link to the sexual aspect that I know is believed to be there. I found that growing up, my parents kept us grounded so as to never have an issue with, for my sister, comparing herself to them and, for me, relating their beauty to what I should expect in real women. I never ever considered that anyone could ever look at them and ever see more than their edgy clothes and looks. But as I have gotten older and began browsing the internet more, hence stumbling across articles regarding their affect on girls and their sexual nature, I realized that many people look at fashion dolls such as Bratz, Monster High and Barbie and see the beauty that I always saw as, more often than not, overtly sexual and inappropriate for the eyes of young girls. I’m not saying that all of the clothing choices made by the teams at MGAE and Mattel are always wholesome, and there have been many times that I have looked back on Bratz lines and thought ‘What were they thinking?’ but I do think that to an extent we underestimate girls and the power of parents when it comes to grounding their children as people. Having just been reading some of your other articles I can see that you yourself are proactively implementing and ingraining positive messages and healthy warnings into you’re children and I admire the way in which you are doing this.

    I would like to ask how you think the Monster High brand is developing since the release of many new dolls, is Mattel improving on the issues you raised in the meeting?

    Please excuse me if I’m not making much sense, I’m very passionate about this and related issues and always find it hard to express the emotions, feelings and thoughts that I have in cohesive ways.

    😀

  29. Jennifer Clarke says:

    I laud your efforts, but there’s no way Mattel or any corporation will make ethical or moral calls that affect their bottom line. It’s just over a year since your original post now and the following is a direct quote from an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. Apparently your daughters and mine want to be prostitutes in fish nets, “strappy heels”, heavy make up and short skirts. Boycott Mattel. Everyone.

    “How many years can a girl stay friends with Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle?

    It’s a question worth millions of dollars to companies including Hasbro Inc., home of the candy-coloured My Little Pony characters, and Mattel inc., creator of Barbie. These and other toy makers are fighting an uphill battle to keep girls paying with dolls as long as possible before they move on to digital games, iPods and mobile phones.

    Marketers are updating well-known characters to extend their run. In October, Mattel launched a vampy tween doll collection called Ever After High, for girls ages 9 to 12.

    They follow a line of ghoulish dolls called Monster High that Mattel created in 2010 for girls as they age out of Barbie.

    In a nod to the endurance of fairy tales, the six figurines are the offspring of characters from familiar stories. Unlike Walt Disney Co.’s well-known Disney Princess characters, with their modest gowns and classic up-do’s (sic), the characters in Mattel’s Ever AFter High wear heavy eye makeup, fishnet stockings and strappy heels. Instead of ball gowns, they wear short skirts and black lace.

    Apple White is the teenage daughter of Snow White, Briar Beauty is daughter of Sleeping Beauty and Madeline Hatter is the daughter of the Mad Hatter. Each 10-inch doll sells for $22 (US).

    Mattel says there is still room for dolls in the lives of preteens. After all, its American Girl series comprises 75 dolls and 165 outfits and accessories. A 10-year-old might have a computer and a smartphone, but she also might have dolls on shelves in her bedroom, says Michael Shore, vice president of consumer insights. Dolls become “an expression of personal interest, of who they are as an individual,” he says. “It’s a display: “this is who I am, this is me.”

  30. Bruce Richards says:

    This is the most balanced reportage I’ve come across of the MH issue – thank you for taking the time to present the case of concerned parents to Mattel. It was heartening to read that the company was willing to listen and (let’s hope) take steps.

    My 7 1/2-year-old daughter is a MH fan and we’ve been working through the merchandise together. She now laughs at their fashionista-isms and shallow concerns, and is perceptively critical of how they interact. The MH girls slipped under my BS radar since they originally seemed fun and funky, and led to very involved discussions with Aisling about monsters in literature and film, science, history, mythology, etc. I was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider that the line was still working itself out.

    The sexualisation of the characters was initially a concern, but Aisling picked early on that they were caricatures and not supposed to represent human body ideals – in this respect, they have the edge over the pseudo-human Barbie and the What-Were-They-Thinking Bratz.

    Still, I agree with your main concern – Mattel has missed a real opportunity to create a line capable of so much more. In this, I share the reaction of Catalina in her comment above. Where other girl toy lines are defined by their sluttiness, the MH girls were initially conceived (benefit of the doubt again) to celebrate differences and give personality to outsiders. Ghouls Rules gave me cause for optimism since the moral was Monsters Are People Too. Pity that this sentiment doesn’t apply within the school environment. Pity that the stars are all humanoid. Pity that the overt moralising at the end of the webisodes is a hastily-donned fig leaf. Pity that no character learns from the It’s What You’re Like Inside message that’s jammed in like a toothpick.

    Mattel hit their mark in one respect – many pre-teen girls are fascinated by high school, and high-school life has its dramas (and they are big dramas if you’re in the middle of them). If American media is to be believed, high-school dramas have a different character here in New Zealand – if anything, there’s too much pressure to be successfully sporty – but girls here feel insecure during puberty too, and experiment with their awakening sexuality. But I doubt we’ll see a webisode dealing with a character coming to grips with developing breasts, or having periods (unless that one where Lagoona gets moody with the change of the ocean was a veiled reference), or dealing with finding boys attractive and being found attractive, or learning to understand marketing pressure… It’s all there, waiting to be explored – the characters could work wonders here. What if the real reason behind Toralei’s bitchiness was troublesome periods? What if Heath offered her a hot-water bottle? What if Frankie developed a naive crush on Abby? What if a genuinely ugly monster wanted to join the cool ghouls? Or even a dumpy one? What if the constant bullying was made a school issue and Mistress Headgood stepped in? What if one of the ghouls ran out of money for designer outfits? What if (God forbid) one of the girls preferred wearing flats? What if the were-guys dug Clawdeen’s hairy legs? What if, what if…

    The shallowness is what bothers me – I think the sexualisation follows from this. Matell has some work to do. I’d like to see some real exploration of the difficulties involved when girls are becoming women. And boys becoming men too (What if Clawde had to sit all day at his desk due to an embarrassing erection? Now, there would be an interesting doll!).

    I’d like to see this line work, I really would.

    Let’s hope Mattel gets you in the loop.

    • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

      Bruce –
      I couldn’t agree more with everything you said. Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. Your daughter is very lucky to have a dad who is so engaged with her and paying attention to what media and messages she is consuming.

      • Bruce RIchards says:

        Melissa, you’re making me blush, though I appreciate your reply. I’m emboldened to add some more thoughts.

        It just occurred to me that Mattel had a point – it’s up to the parents to provide the final guidance (OK, they said Moms).

        I don’t see this kind of merchandising going away, nor this depiction of women. It is up to us to guide our kids through all the messages they’re being bombarded with, the way it’s always been. The manufacturers and media are pretty shameless, but they’re here to stay, more’s the pity. But they only need to be one influence among many.

        Aisling and I recently watched Frights, Camera, Action (we agreed it was pretty clumsy but the problem isn’t that Mattel produces bad art). And I thought I saw some interesting developments in their approach. Cleo was the only one really obsessed about fashion/style (does anyone else think it insidious that Fashion and Style are treated as synonyms?), and her comments like “But you get to keep the shoes, right?” made her come across as a bit silly, although her diva-ness turned out to be an asset – she was really the only one that showed different aspects to her character.

        But the film could’ve been made about any group of vapid teenagers – replace the Ghouls with Slutz, sorry, Bratz, and the story wouldn’t have suffered.

        Compare this with Monsters Inc. OK, it was better done all round, but the thing that impresses me is how so much of the story could take place ONLY in that universe. Mattel are unlikely to produce anything of lasting value until they cotton on to this, and abandon their focus-group formulaic writing.

        Still, if we’re seeing change, and in a right direction, I’d like to congratulate the franchise.

        And you of course – it’s people like you that provide the necessary push.

        • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

          Thanks so much, Bruce!

          You have a great grasp of this topic so I want to add some food for thought — In our discussions about media literacy and the sexualization of childhood we need to make sure we don’t play into the controlling Slut Shaming culture by using pejoratives like “slut”, “tramp”, “little hooker/whore”, etc. Including those words in our vocabulary only further serves to reduce girls to their sexuality, or presumed sexuality and sexual history. Even when we’re talking about reprehensible, hyper-sexual dolls we need to steer clear of pejoratives.

          Thank you for the thoughtful comments and for joining the conversation!

          • Bruce Richards says:

            Dear Melissa

            You’re right of course about pejorative language – I let my flippancy get away with me, I’m sorry. I was thinking about the manufacturers/media rather than the girls themselves, and their tendency to reduce sexuality to such an overt form. For the record, when I talk with my Aisling about these things, I use the word ‘sexy’, which she understands to mean ‘appropriate to the sexually mature’. Bratz are ‘too sexy’; the ghouls’ outfits are too sexy and give them, what’s more, a ridiculous mincing run.

            As I’ve suggested, it would be welcome to see the media explore the minefield issue of awakening sexuality in teens, in all its messiness and confusion. It bothers me that tweens/teens are presented not just hypersexually but also fast-forwarded to fully adult in their attitudes/dress/behaviour. And that this seems confined to female teens only. What about the awkward pubescent years? But I guess that’s not the glamorous part.

            Yes, language is powerful. The absence of the word ‘sexy’ from the merchandisers’ vocabulary – substituting ‘fashionable’, ‘stylish’, ‘fabulous’ etc – suggests that the only way for girls to be stylish or beautiful is to be follow the highly-sexualised models presented. And this is insidious. Of course, they’d never come out and say that, and rightly so, but it’s not easy to point out to a child what *hasn’t* been said.

            Why should Mattel care? People obviously aren’t bothered enough to put the economic pressure on. But why do big-league makers of girls’ toys still resort so readily to stereotypes? Dated and obnoxious ones at that? Because they sell, presumably, and the makers answer to the shareholders not the stakeholders. A shame since the stakeholders here include a vulnerable and impressionable group.

            How can we get Mattel to change its message? Get concerned parents in on creative meetings? Pitch our own plot- and character-lines to them? Hell, I’ve got a few they could run with.

  31. Michael Jackson says:

    Hello. This is a really nice blog on Monster High characters. You can also find more story and videos about monster high characters here at http://www.monsterhigh.biz/

Trackbacks

  1. […] invite you to go over to Melissa’s blog and read about her conversation with Mattel. I hope that Mattel is able to take this feedback and […]

  2. […] Bonus photo from Mila’s preschool. I just liked this installation. I also promise this is the second and the last time I write about Monster High disease here. I hope Mila grows out of it much sooner than she grows new teeth. Edit: thanks to my friend Anna for sending in those links, both worth reading if your kids are facing Monster High problem, too. One, two. […]

  3. […] but in 2012 I flew to Mattel headquarters to meet with the designers and executives of the brand to discuss the issues with the line and offer suggestions for improvement. The overall message from me was: Focus more on […]

Speak Your Mind

*