Questions from the Trenches: Tricky Questions While Shopping

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.

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Mattel's Monster High dolls, 2013

Mattel’s Monster High dolls, 2013

** 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.

The original Monster High from Mattel.

The original Monster High from Mattel.


  1. Female superheroes to find out more about:
    Powerpuff Girls
    Storm, Rogue, Jubilee, Jean Grey of the X Men
    Linka and Gi of the Captain Planet Planeteers
    Elasti-Girl and Violet from The Incredibles
    Mirka (heroine of the Herevill graphic novels:
    Many of the characters written by Mercedes Lackey or Tamora Pierce have psionic powers, and also many of them have practical skills that they use to do good and help others. (Usually the gifted ones have both qualities, and learn that both are valuable.)
    Also, if magic-users “count”, Harry Potter has quite a few girls and women in interesting roles.

  2. Thank you for writing all of these questions out. I read them to my husband, knowing that he would never think of these things to ask our daughter (he’s a polysci professor and seeing the world from a little girl’s perspective must be so foreign to him!). I also read them aloud to him hoping that they would stick in my own mind better. It is hard to see things as a child might and to teach such adult concepts at an appropriate level.

    I love the way you teach your children – more than that, I love the words that flow from their own minds and hearts as a result of your teaching. Your sharing it freely with others is beautiful. I hope to be half the mom you are.

  3. As much as I do see a difference with these dolls the thing is, most girls like to put there dolls into different outfits so when they remove the clothing on top, what is underneath is the same skinny legs, skinny waist etc. There are some brands that do not allow for clothes to be taken off but most (Barbie, Bratz) do allow this and even if they actual clothing is perfectly fine, what is underneath is not. Producers of these dolls just need to sit back and look at what they are doing and how it effects the children. I grew up on Barbies and Bratz and there have been times when I thought “Why are my eyes not like theirs? Why are my legs not like theirs?” etc. It’s time to change not just their clothes, but the way they look.

  4. the fun is to change the doll’s clothes, create new stories, and how different from reality they look. no one can be that skinny. no one normally wear those clothes, because they are “costumes”, and no one looks like that, because that is all a fantasy. AND THE KIDS KNOW THAT. they kinda know the difference.
    the thing with these new dolls, like Monster high, IS that they are totally different from reality. and that’s why they are being so popular, and leaving the barbie and susi dolls behind.
    barbie is all about routine, is all about work, or, being a princess and marrying your enchanted prince. which is, in fact boring for the kids.
    I think, that mothers shouldnt be this worried about this kind of toys, because, they are not actually learning anything from it. they learn things we teach them. and there is no problem about playing with these dolls if we teach them the difference from the cartoon story and the reality that they’ll discover when they are older. that’s all we have to do.
    same thing as the superheroes. they doesn’t exist. that’s fantasy.
    and there is no problem on fantasizing on these things, according to your post.

    and im sorry for bad english, or anything.

  5. “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.”


    For one, why is she worried about the sexualization of female dolls while:
    1. Superheroes often wear spandex
    2. Superheroes are completely unrealistic representations of (BOTH!) men for a young boy to hold himself to (yes, ladies, boys have body issues as well).

    That said… how many female superheroes are “muscular?” Seriously. Unless someone is “realistically” representing Wonder Woman, Power Girl, or Ms. Marvel… yeah. This just… as a comic book fan, this is just amusing as hell, particularly since… you want sexualization? Comics will GIVE you sexualization!

    Emma Frost (WAS actually a stripper, once upon a time, now a leading member of the X-Men):
    The aforementioned Catwoman (more of a wildcard than a “heroine”):×1024.jpg
    Aforementioned Power Girl (love the boob window, she owns it):
    Supergirl (in her various costume changes up until the 90’s):
    New 52 (most recent) Supergirl:
    Starfire (alien from a world where love is pretty important, and who aren’t ashamed of their bodies or sexuality):

    And if we think their “action figures” are better… I agree with niih. Growing up with barbies never warped my perspective. And these dolls are glorified little hangers, for the most part, but I do give credit for the different character heights, which is nice, because you’ve got shorter characters and taller, so you don’t have to automatically think they’re all supermodels.,320_.jpg
    … and so on.

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