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 WeStopHate.org 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.
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.”
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.
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.