Don’t Claim to be Promoting Self-Acceptance in Teens While Selling Sexiness to Six Year Olds

Guest post by Dr. Jen  Shewmaker, Operation Transformation that addresses the disconnect between Mattel’s coroporate goodwashing of the mean-girl, sexualized Monster High brand using teen advocates and the true target audience of this brand’s products.

Lori Patel, Vice President for Girls Marketing for Mattel recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Believing In Girls is Good Business”. In this piece, Patel talks about her recognition that self-esteem is a huge issue for girls, and her belief that the Monster High brand can be used as a platform to bring girls an empowering message that promotes self-acceptance.

I am all for companies taking social responsibility, and recognizing that their brands can impact girls and their developing identity. It’s well documented that children and adolescents do use media programs and products as a reference as they work to figure out who they are and where they fit in. Patel states that because the characters in the Monster High brand each have a “freaky flaw,” they are relatable for girls. In fact, girls do relate to media characters such as these dolls and characters depicted in the webisodes that are shown both on YouTube and the Monster High website. But my question is: what are girls learning from the Monster High characters? And who is the target audience for these characters?

Both in this article and in the press release announcing the partnering of Monster High with the Kind Campaign, Patel references tweens and teens as the target audience for the brand. From looking at the merchandise and it’s marketing, only the Monster High books appear to be targeting the late tween and teen audience. But those books are not the primary Monster High products, as you can see if you visit the Monster High website or any store selling Monster High gear. There’s no mention of them at all, it’s all about the characters, the dolls, the webisodes, and online games.

The idea of developing a new microsite with with esteem building activities is great, but the tips for “self fear-leading” to build esteem are mostly fairly surface things like making a playlist of your favorite songs and choosing an accessory to be your signature. A few tips ring true, like finding a mentor, but those are definitely for older girls, not 6-10 year olds. The drill that has Draculaura’s friends helping her learn to “see” herself is completely focused on appearance. The last activity is about writing a love letter to yourself, focused on your own strengths and unique skills. This particular activity is a great one for anybody, and would be helpful with kids of all ages.

The fashion dolls seem to be directed at a much younger audience. Target recommends them for 5-7 year olds, Walmart suggests them for 8-11 year olds, and Kmart sells Monster High clothes for kids as young as 4. Go stand next to a display of Monster High dolls at your local store (this will be in the children’s toy aisles), and you’ll notice that most of the eye catchers are right at eye level with a 5 year old. Look at the picture below from 2011 of Melissa Wardy’s  5 and 3 year old children looking at the Monster High display in Target. Both the display and more specifically the products are directly at their eye level.


Monster High merchandised in the toy aisles of Target.

 The next picture shows my 8 and 12-year-old children standing by the displays. The 12-year-old is clearly not the target audience. In fact, she was horrified to have to stand in the toy aisle. She said, “Nobody my age would buy these, they’re for little kids.”


Dr. Shewmaker's girls in front of Monster High display.

 It’s clear that the real audience for Monster High is 6-10 year olds, with a little spillover either direction.

Why does it matter who the audience is? Because Mattel is consistently partnering with young people, such as Emily-Anne Rigal of WeStopHate and Lauren and Molly of the Kind Campaign and promoting the work they do for teen and tween audiences. And yet, many of their products are targeting a much younger audience, down to 4 year olds.

The developmental differences between a 4 year old and a 12 year old are huge. Early adolescents, such as the 4th and 5th graders that Patel references in her article, are at a critical time in identity development, and are asking a lot of questions about where and how they fit in to the world around them. The messages that Mattel says Monster High focuses on, such as being different, dealing with friendship problems, romance, and worrying about your looks are much more appropriate for the later age group. But they aren’t developmentally appropriate for 4-8 year olds.

If Mattel wants to target this younger age group, 3-minute webisodes that briefly and superficially touch on friendship problems and embracing difference aren’t going to do the trick. Kids between 6-10 have great programming options such as PBS programs that have won awards for their ability to promote positive social skills. Rather than the quick fix presented in Monster High webisodes  where a character makes up to another by unrealistic means (New Ghoul @ School) or gets even by being mean herself (HooDoo that Voodoo that You Do), Monster High webisodes could model realistic, practical ways that children can deal with conflict in relationships. But right now they don’t. Mattel can print “Perfectly Imperfect” and other nice sounding slogans on all the t-shirts they want, but when they continue to provide kids with webisodes and story lines that show the “nice” girls being cruel to the “mean” girls, they aren’t doing anything to help kids develop positive social skills or self-acceptance. The answer to bullying is never more bullying, and both Emily-Anne and the Kind Campaign should know this.

Mattel can transparently goodwash this disappointing brand as much as they like, but the good work done by WeStopHate and Kind Campaign becomes a bit tarnished when they align with a brand that promotes in its cartoons the very behaviors they speak out against. A 30-second spot in a webisode is a loose band-aid over the gaping wound that is a brand built on mean-girl behavior, the thin ideal/Beauty Myth, and highly sexualized teen characters.

The other issue that is key when it comes to Monster High is their appearance. These dolls and characters as currently depicted all promote the thin ideal and Caucasian Beauty Myth. If we are truly expecting girls to watch these webisodes and play with these dolls and walk away with a message of acceptance, then these characters need to look different than they do now. The fact that they are different colors and several have different accents is a step in the right direction.

Now how about making characters of different shapes? What if these characters presented girls with a wide variety of shapes, heights, and sizes to identify with? Even the newest characters continue to drag out the same old thin ideal type, with long thin limbs, incredibly small waists, and curvy behinds and chests. There’s nothing ground breaking about their appearance, it’s basically Monster Bratz.

And one cannot ignore the sexualized dress and focus on the appearance of the characters.

These characters frequently wear clothing that looks like it came out of a lingerie or sex goods store rather than what you might see a high school girl wearing. 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. The people who have brokered these self-esteem goodwashing deals with Mattel very well know this.

The cast of Mattel's Monster High.

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 send to kids. 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.

Dear Mattel, I’m Seething

Dear Mattel,

Ask me how upset I am that my Saturday began with my bright and beautiful six year old bounding into my bed, saying she wanted to put on all of her make up so that she could look like a Monster High doll. Ask me how upset I am that try as aggressively as I might, you have snuck into my home like a pestilence. Me, an expert in the field, has a daughter ravenous for your awful Monster High and Barbie dolls, because she says they look “so cool”. I think your dolls are twisted and sick.

Today our family is traveling up to Madison to see my daughter’s art displayed for a state contest. We are then going to go to a bookstore and let each of our children pick out a new book. A day meant to celebrate creativity and bright minds began with an explanation as to why your sexualized and unrealisitic dolls are not the look our family strives for, all the while I try not to use the words “street walker” and “stripper”. My God people, these are toys for children. Children.

I had to explain how companies like yours are more interested in making money than making happy hearts in kids. I had to explain that real women who wear such small and tight clothing are usually more concerned about how their body looks to other people than how their thoughts and ideas sound. I told her our family is focused on bright minds and healthy bodies and happy hearts.

But my word do you make my job so, so hard. You make me tap dance around the topic that your dolls are dressed like women who sell their bodies for sex, often to men who offer zero respect to the human being that lives inside. My husband cannot even talk to his little girl about this, because his voice catches in his throat, knowing how awful the world is to its girls. He also knows the thousands of girls who aren’t having this conversation with her parents, and it scares him.

It took me 14 months to become pregnant with this child, 20 hours to birth her, and six years, one month, ten days and one hour to bring her up as the vibrant, creative, intelligent, wild, kind, and imaginative beautiful being she is today. I take the job of being a mama very seriously, and this morning the bear inside was stirred. Actually, it was kicked in the face. It is never wise to be in the space between a mother and her child. Not this mother. Not this child.

Before, when I spoke about your products, I did so as sort of a far-off and removed concept that might someday touch my child. Today, I am speaking from a place of deep anger because you have reached her. Today, more than ever, I am dedicated to making change. Serious change. Today it became personal. Today, the gloves came off. It is never wise to be in the space between a mother and her child.

Melissa Atkins Wardy

Mattel Monster High dolls.


Amelia with her Go Go Sports Girl doll.

How to Explain Monster High and Other Hyper-Sexualized Dolls to Young Kids

Barbie Fashionista. Box says for ages 3+.

My youngest brother is home for the holidays, and while at Target toy shopping for my kids, he decided to go into the Barbie aisle because over Thanksgiving he had watched the 20/20 piece featuring SPARK Summit dynamo Dana Edell and was stunned at what was going on in girlhood. He couldn’t believe some of what he saw during the interview with Dana wasn’t illegal. He has heard me talk about it for several years, but he wanted to see it for himself. He lives in Costa Rica and doesn’t have kids, so a lot of what Pigtail Pals talks about isn’t on his radar.

He was shopping for Legos for Amelia and Benny, but walked into the Barbie aisle to see what the fuss was about. Over Christmas he asked me, “Why are all of the Barbies dressed like whores?”.  Valid question, pejorative aside. The Barbie to our left has a face loaded with make-up, a skin-tight shirt that reads Miss Sassy, a chain link belt, and a hot pink thong clearly visible under the metallic hot pink micro-miniskirt that barely covers her Barbie bum.

For the record, he got his niece a four foot long stuffed dolphin. Good uncle.

Why do almost all of the plastic dolls we see in the toy aisles look like what we would stereotype as a sex worker? I have yet to understand how companies are passing these off as children’s toys. But parents are accepting it, and buying them, and the cycle continues.

But for parents who aren’t buying it, and who are working hard to keep their young daughters from being sexualized, how in the world does one explain Monster High to a five year old? The thing with Monster High et al is that they are so highly inappropriate, it is kind of inappropriate to discuss with a child why they are inappropriate. Since we can’t really use words like “skid row hooker” with our kindergartners and all…

Last night on our Facebook page I was asked the following:
“How do you explain why the Monster High dolls, and the like, aren’t good to a 5 year old? How do you explain what is wrong with them? I told her once that ‘they’re just not very nice.’ I honestly didn’t know what to tell her!” -Danielle

Mattel's Monster High character Clawdeen Wolf, for ages 6+.

This was my reply when the situation arose for Amelia and I:

What I said to my 5yo was that Monster High dolls were dressed in a way that I felt was inappropriate for children, that their faces looked mean not nice, and that their bodies sent our hearts unhealthy messages. We talked about different colors of hair and skin being really cool, but that these dolls made little girls focus too much on being pretty for other people and being too grown-up and that is not what kids need to do.

A few months down the road when she asked for more info, I told her that Monster High dolls have the kind of bodies that can make girls sick, because a real person could never have a body like that, and that I loved my little girl’s healthy body so much I would never want her to have something that would make her think her body wasn’t amazing.

And when she kept pushing about the clothing, I told her that girls who dress like that often don’t have full and happy hearts, and they use clothing like that to get attention and make themselves feel full. Then I took it a step further, and had her come upstairs to her dress up drawer, and picked out clothing I knew was way too small and tight for her. She put it on, and I told her to go play. Amelia said she couldn’t move because of her clothes. I then asked if she thought Monster High was silly, because how could those girls move and be teenagers who do fun things and play sports. She said she thought maybe they just stood around and looked pretty.

I told her she was absolutely right. And then we talked about other toys she had, how different they looked, and what kinds of things those dolls could do instead. I hope to grow the idea of full and happy hearts as Amelia (and Benny) age, to help her make good and healthy decisions about all kinds of things: healthy eating and exercise, drugs and alcohol, sex and relationships, good behavior in school, etc. If that is our baseline, I think the things that fall so far outside of that, whether it is Monster High or music lyrics or friends who are a bad influence, my kids will see it for what it is and be that much more equipped to make good choices for themselves.

I want to teach them to use their intuition and common sense when it comes to hard decisions. It is what I do when I tell myself there is no way in hell that dolls like Monster High or Bratz or hooker Barbies will end up in my home. I respect my children far too much to feed them a diet of garbage like that.

Then another mom added this:

“My 4 year old asked the same thing. I pointed out the clothing and said that girls her age don’t wear clothes that look like that. She seemed ok with that answer at this point, but I am certain we will need to go more in depth with it soon! We had the same convo over the Bratz dolls and some Barbies too.” -Christi

Mattel says Monster High is for tweens and teens. Which would be true, if teens played with dolls and shopped in the toy aisle and stood three feet tall.

Push-Up Bikinis for Bitty Boobies, Botoxing Mommies, and Undead Dolls

Mattel's line of Monster High dolls. For Ages 6 & Up.

 In the last ten days or so I’ve seen some crazy go on in the world of girls. First it was Monster High, which we’ve talked about before, but is in the news again. You recall Mattel’s newest creation of undead dolls and cartoon that look like oddly colored, vamped up prostitutes walking around on stilts-like legs. Sure it is a direct play by Mattel to cash in on the current culture crush of vampire/monster love right now thanks to the Twilight industry. And yes, you better believe your child’s classmates have seen the movies and maybe even read the books….about manipulative and controlling relationships between a teenage girl, a vampire, and a werewolf. I don’t get it. You know, I’m just uncomfortable with the idea of my child playing with a doll that looks like a sex worker, packaged with pathetic character story lines about boys, partying, and body beautification treatments like waxing and applying massive amounts of lotion. 

But with girls aging out of Barbie by age 7, Mattel needed another line of add-on toys for these girls to consume. So, with the marketing practice of age compression, a development team at Mattel would look at what 14-15 year olds are into, and then turn that into a product for a 8-9 year old. Undead streetwalker-looking dolls was the logical next choice. 

Then there was the story of the British mum who relocated her and her daughter to San Francisco to be closer to the children’s beauty pageant circuit. This mother is determined that her daughter is going to become a teen star and earn her millions. Which is why, naturally, she is injecting the 8 year old with Botox, saline, and giving her virgin waxes. I’ll just let you go ahead and Google that. The story broke in The Sun, which is a tabloid, but has since been verified by other news outlets. 

Kerry injects her 8yo daughter with Botox regularly to give her a leg up in show biz.

 Cheeky little Britney (aptly named) is quoted saying, “My friends think it’s cool I have all the treatments and they want to be like me. I check every night for wrinkles, when I see some I want more injections. They used to hurt, but now I don’t cry that much. I also want a boob and nose job soon, so that I can be a star.”  I want to weep. 

What’s worse, mom defends herself saying, “I know one day she will be a model, actress or singer, and having these treatments now will ensure she stays looking younger and baby-faced for longer. I’m sure people reading this will think I am being irresponsible…All I want is for Britney to have the best start in life, so it is easier for her to become a superstar.” 

And then, for the win: “More mothers should do it for their daughters.” 

Well, Kerry, I tell you what. I’m excited that my five year old has her first loose tooth. I’m in no rush to grow her. I like the idea of childhood. I like it very much. You would have to tie me down or knock me out if you came near my child’s face with hot wax. This weekend when I was blow drying my hair, I let her sit on the floor in front of the mirror and put on some very light-colored make-up. She had it all over her face, little iridescent shimmery powder, because she didn’t know what she was doing. And you know what? I didn’t correct her or show her how to do it. I sorta think five year olds really shouldn’t have any idea how to put on make-up. 

We talked about the idea of giving an 8yo “beauty” treatments like this on the Pigtail Pals facebook page ALL day on Wednesday and into Thursday. We discussed, among many things, that using invasive and routinely painful cosmetic procedures to physically alter the way your child will grow into an adult and inject toxic self-hating thoughts into her little mind to the point she is anxious to surgically alter herself with the wild hopes of someday becoming a megastar earning millions should constitute as child abuse. But it doesn’t. The cosmetic use of Botox on kids SO new, there aren’t even laws on the books to make what this messed up mama is doing illegal or child abuse. It sure as shit should be, but it isn’t. I think mama and baby both need some loving therapy. 

The skimpy push-up bikini top for your gradeschooler. Yes, you read that correctly.

 We finished up last week with the latest from repeat sexualization offender Abercrombie & Fitch — a new push-up bikini top that is sold in their KIDS shop, available in sizes Small to XLarge. Now I’ve been working with kids for about twenty years, and I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet a seven year old with breasts developed to even be pushed-up. And let’s say I had a 12 year old girl who did have breasts and she was allowed to wear a bikini….would I want that bikini top to be a triangle cut push-up that shoves her baby boobies front and center for all to see? Aside from self-esteem issues that go with sexualization, we also have to give some thought to the idea that when our daughters walk around like little Lolitas, they attract the sexual attention from men and boys that they are not mature enough to handle. This also becomes a safety issue. 

A padded bikini top sold to children sells the feeling of inadequacy about their baby boobies that aren’t done growing yet and the message that they need help in the form in strategically sewn padding to ensure they are constantly sexy. 

Here’s a great quote featured on Racked (I know, ironic.): “Blogger Kdiddy at Moxiebird eloquently explains: It’s not that kids in the 7 – 14 age group aren’t aware of their bodies and have no sexual feelings or thoughts until they’re 18. We know that’s not true. But there’s a healthy way to explore those feelings that doesn’t turn a young girl into another object to be ogled. If that’s how she wants to display her sexuality, then she can make that choice for herself when she’s older. When she’s a kid and, presumably, her parents are paying for her clothing, they need to make the call as to what is appropriate and protect her from crap like this while she’s still under their care. Navigating one’s early teens is hard enough. We don’t need to add another layer of confusion by making a young girl wonder if her cleavage looks appealing enough.” 

The bright spot in all of this was a brilliant post titled “Slut Shaming on the Playground”, and gave such a wonderful and easy example of how parents can talk to their kids, guide them into a healthy place to have their sexuality develop at a normal and age appropriate place. 

This isn’t about keeping our daughters forever young. This is about allowing them their natural born right to a childhood, a girlhood, and a safe passage into the teen years with a strong sense of self and confidence. This is about keeping sexualized marketing practices and products away from our kids. There is a time and a place for sexy and experimentation. That time and place IS NOT grade school. 

Our friend Dr. Robyn Silverman added to my statement with her own: “When we allow our young girls’ childhood about being sexy, we take their attention away from developing their true sense of self and how they can affect the world and we put it on what others want them to be and what the world demands of them.” 

Dr. Robyn was on the TODAY Show this morning talking about Abercrombie’s move. What do you think of the clip?  Her post also contains some great advice for parents on how to parent around all of this nonsense.

I do not accept the sexualization of childhood.

I will continue to fight it.

I will continue to hold firm to the belief my children have a natural born right to a childhood.