Parent Question: My son has been questioning who the super hero girls are for a few weeks now and despite me naming Wonder Woman, Pippi Longstocking (who he doesn’t believe to be a super hero, Cat Woman and examples of real women (who I think possess or/possessed super powers), I had no other female super heroes to use as reference). Yesterday while at the store he ran up to a box of Monster High dolls and said, “Look, Mommy there ARE girl super heroes!” I quickly ushered him away so he didn’t study the picture of the ridiculous dolls too closely and told him that “those were NOT super heroes, they were women…selling crazy shoes”. He said “They didn’t look like women” and I told him the drawing was done by an adult artist who didn’t know how to draw girls.
I’m clearly such an amateur! I honestly wasn’t prepared for that sort of inquiry right then and there (was also dealing with a squirming baby) and I don’t think I handled it in the best way I could have. Have any of you dealt with a similar situation? What would you have said to raise more awareness/clarity on this type of situation?
PPBB Answer: For being put on the spot, I think you handled it just fine. I have dealt with similar situations with my daughter and explaining these kinds of “toys” to kids isn’t always easy. That is what is so tricky about discussing sexualization to our little kids, it isn’t very appropriate to spell out for them why it is so wrong because they don’t have their own understanding of sexuality yet. What I find as the best route to take is to ask the child a lot of critical thinking questions and get them thinking about the wrongness of these dolls without really having to tell your preschooler what sexualization is.
So, what I always try to do is ask the child why they think what they are thinking. I would ask your son why he thinks they are super heroes and what powers they might have. Suggest that super heroes are famous for what they do, not how they look. Does he think these dolls focus on what they do, or how they look? I would comment that super heroes are usually very strong and the bodies on these dolls are out of balance and don’t have any muscle, so they probably aren’t very strong. These dolls are too thin just as many super heroes are too muscular. A real person who was this thin would be very sick and need a doctor to get well I would ask him if he thinks it would be easy to fight bad guys dressed the way the dolls are, in short skirts and teetering heels. Could they fall over and get hurt? Could their underwear show? These are common sense things little kids understand.
Ask him if these dolls are girls, are they dressed like girls he knows? What do the girls he knows wear to play in? Do their faces look friendly or mean? I would mention that I think the way the dolls are dressed is very grown up and that if they were girls they would not be allowed to dress like this at school and they might even get in trouble with their parents.
I think you are on the right track and as your kids continue to take in media message that do not fit your family’s values for a healthy childhood you can continue to question and reframe and get them thinking and critiquing what they are seeing and hearing. Dolls like this are probably going to remain on the market a long time as unfortunately they make these companies a lot of money. So we won’t be able to shelter our kids from exposure to this, but we have every right to raise our kids with the knowledge that companies making money off of selling “sexy” to little kids is really wrong and unhealthy and should probably be illegal.
** Important to note: I don’t think I’ve ever said anything nice about Monster High, 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 the scary, much less on the sexy. The group of dolls above reflect some of the changes we discussed, like adding leggings under short skirts and not revealing midriffs to make them a little more appropriate for children. You can see the difference from the original dolls below. Their are still issues with homogenous beauty and body image, but their have been improvements. Ish.