Fathers Playing Toys With Daughters

My husband and I are some of those “hypervigilant parents” as described in the article from the New York Times. You know, we encourage our daughter to play with toys that help her develop as a whole person, and this includes math and science skills. Neither my husband nor I deem math and science to be “boy subjects”. We have not bought into the gender stereotypes being sold to our girl, and she is a better person for it. Her interests are diverse and her imagination knows no bounds. She is a science and mermaid loving, glitter-sparkle shoe wearing, mud puddle jumping first grader who likes to walk through grave yards and never met a lip gloss she didn’t like.

During these six years of her childhood, I’ve never had to prod or plead with my husband to play with her. He just does it. Why? Because he is her father. He doesn’t find her dolls or tubs of plastic whales or tea sets or art projects or dinosaur towns or puzzles or Legos boring. She is his daughter. She is his world.

Most of the dads I know are engaged, hands-on papas who share responsibilities around the house, share in the care of the children, run errands, and are generally great with their kids. My husband doesn’t get a ticker tape parade when he bathes the children, makes dinner, or washes the dishes. He is my partner, I expect his involvement in these things.

While my husband may not sit down to a fancy tea and little cakes on his own, when Amelia asks him to play he happily obliges. Benny is fast to be in on the action, too. And I’ve never had an issue playing blocks or Legos or pirates or cars with Benny. I’m not sure when we started thinking of the sexes and separate species, but somehow I’ve found a way to make excellent fake explosion noises and I am one fierce pirate, let me tell you.

During the discussion on the PPBB facebook page the NYT article was described several times over as a “steaming pile of crap”. I agree. It was unclear from the article what the Mattel psychologist and the NYT writer deemed “man territory”, but my husband sees the whole world as open to his children. I think someone from our community (waves to Julie Smith) said it perfectly, “Clearly, they are jumping on the ‘girl power’ bandwagon without really understanding what it is really all about.”

My husband gets what it is all about. This is what it looks like when fathers play with their daughters, no Pantone 219 or marketing gimmicks needed.

Two Worlds of Doll Shopping

I had an interesting experience this weekend while I shopped for the 18 inch doll that the OPP wants for Christmas. First, the obvious stuff like there were no boy dolls, most everything was pink and in the designated ‘girl’ aisles, and at one store all of the dolls were blonde haired and blue-eyed. I was looking for a doll with olive skin, black hair and brown eyes to look like the OPP who looks like her partial Lebanese heritage. The OPP has outgrown her handmade dolls, and wants one of these “big girl” dolls very badly.

But what really struck me was the feeling I got as I looked at the dolls (similar to American Girl except in price), with sweet makeup-free faces and cute, age-appropriate clothing and great story lines behind them. I felt nostalgic for my baby dolls from when I was a girl, and all of the adventures I took them on like 1840’s frontier school house or rescuing them from a sinking cruise ship and living on a deserted island. The doll I was looking at for the OPP just felt like a perfect fit for my almost-seven-year-old and seemed like she would become a great pal for the OPP during her girlhood.

And then I turned the corner to the dolls that don’t look like little girls. The dolls with impossibly thin bodies and giant heads and breasts, dressed in skimpy clothing and heavy make up and sexually fetishized footwear, and I sucked my breath in. I saw a little girl, maybe eight or nine, dressed like a small woman in a tight shirt and short skirt and heeled shoes, drooling over these dolls. Toys are media, and media is a diet. I wondered what this little girl had been taking in, silently hoping not all of it was toxic. I hoped she was getting messages or was involved in activities that counteracted the awfulness comprised in these sexualized dolls. One doll and one outfit certainly doesn’t make nor undo a girl, but a girlhood full of those messages is harmful.

Those are not messages that I accept for my child.

It disturbs me when parents opt into this problem by purchasing the toys and clothing that carry those harmful messages. Sexualization is a pestilent beast.

I looked down at the doll I was about to purchase, and the little travel suitcase and passport accessory, and was content knowing that this doll, the story that came with her (an animal and marine lover who wants to travel to South Africa), and the way she looked represented the messages I want my little girl growing up with and internalizing.

The day may come when Amelia wants to wear revealing clothing and chase romantic interests or go out partying. I did when I was a young adult in college. But not when I was almost-seven-years-old.

I want my little girl to be six going on seven. I don’t need her rushing into young adulthood, and all the pitfalls it can bring if you aren’t ready for it and don’t have a sense of who you are.

Six going on seven. The rest will come, or not, in time. But it is these days of her girlhood I find so precious in this space, in this time.


The Journey Girl I purchased for Amelia, the 6yo OPP.

The Monster High doll the 8yo girl in the aisle with me was looking at.

Boys Can Play With Dollhouses

Lindsay Kolk, a PPBB Community member, sent these pictures in saying she had never seen a dollhouse packaged and marketed with a BOY playing with the toy. I think it is great that the company who makes this toy is able to envision a boy playing with it. His shirt is even colorful, a rare find in boys’ clothing these days. It makes perfect sense to me that a little boy would want to role play what he sees of his family life at home. For my children, that means a work-at-home mom and a very hands-on loving dad .

As I was downloading these images from Facebook to post here, the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal was sitting next to me on the couch and looked over my shoulder. What she said saddened and surprised me, but it is a good reminder that no one is safe from this gender stereotyping and the counter-message from parents is a constant multi-layered conversation:

“A boy shouldn’t be on that box!” -6yo OPP
“What! Why? It looks to me like he is having fun.” -Me
“Because boys don’t play with dollhouses. It is pink.” -OPP
“But I thought colors were for everyone. Benny plays with our dollhouses.” -Me
“Well, colors are for everyone, but not for toys. Everything that is pink and purple is for girls, and everything else is for boys.” -OPP
“Amelia, that just is not true. Most of your toys are not pink. If people played by your rules, do you think they would tell you that all of your whale and ocean toys and science stuff is not for girls? None of that stuff is pink. How would that make you feel?” -Me
“No! That would be SO  unfair!” -OPP, getting teary eyed
“You are right, it would not be fair. But you are very wrong regarding what you are saying about toys and colors. It is great for boys to play with dollhouses. Isn’t he learning how to be a good daddy and husband when he plays like that? Our daddy is good at those things.” -Me
“Welll……..” -OPP
“Amelia, I think the people who make the toys just assume girls want pink and purple and no other colors. They are not very creative to tell you the truth. They tell kids what to play with and what to like, but you know even in our family, we don’t follow those ideas. They limit kids and their imaginations. I just don’t think that is cool.” -Me
“It juss ibsn’t cool.” -4yo Benny Boy
“Well I just don’t know about that. Can boys play with princesses then, too?” -OPP
“Yes of course. All toys are for all kids. You can like and play with whatever you want.” -Me
“It doesn’t show that on the commercials.” -OPP
“Amelia, the commercials are bogus. You know you’ve been taught to think better than that.” -Me
“Nam, dee commashells are juss bullshit.” -Benny Boy

Image via Lindsay Kolk

Image via Lindsay Kolk.


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.


On Being Six In A Sea of Sexy Dolls

Many times when I’m sharing discussions I have with 6yo Amelia as she and I work through our hyper-sexual culture, I tend to get a comment or two about she or I being judgmental towards other females. While I do very much think that is a valid concern, that is not what I am teaching my daughter.

I want to make very clear this is not about judging others, but rather this is about  interpreting and thinking critically about cultural messages to determine if they align with our family’s values. The focus is on us and our family, not the outside source. I ask her questions about how she would feel, how would she react if ______, what reaction would Dad and I have,  and what consequences might occur (being cold, being sent home from school for dressing inappropriately, not being dressed appropriately for the kind of event, etc).

I ask her to constantly challenge the body image, sexualization, and sexism she sees in the media. I do the same when we encounter racism, as those things simply do not align with how our family practices respect towards other people and ourselves.

I am walking a fine line of being sex positive while teaching Amelia to be empowered and respectful of herself and others. At the same time I am not teaching patriarchal ideas like modesty or slut shaming. We’re working on building a “personal brand” for her, so that she has a rock solid understanding of who she is and what decisions help reinforce or weaken that faith in herself. I’m teaching her that private parts stay private, and that putting them on display for public viewing is not empowerment. Later on down the road we’ll talk about attracting boys (or girls) with personality, friendship, and humor…..not shoving her boobs up to her chin and objectifying herself through actions and clothing. I think she is starting to view Barbie (some of them) and other dolls as sexually objectified (without having that vocabulary). Just like Santa Claus, that is a revelation I want her to come to on her own.

In the past two weeks in particular I can see her really sorting it out (thank you, NFL cheerleaders, for sparking that discussion). At the same time, I don’t want to introduce my six year old to the concept of “sexiness”, nor do I want to issue a blanket statement like “Those dolls are too sexy for you.” Whose idea of sexy? Not hers, I hope. I want Amelia to have the space to develop her OWN ideas and feelings about what that means, in her OWN time. That is was PPBB is all about.

Being sexy – feeling sexy – is great, and even super great when you are the right age for it and when it is defined on your own terms. Having “sexy” be a personality description as a young girl = not great. My daughter, whether she be six or sixteen or twenty six, is more than a collection of sexual body parts. Using sex appeal (or actual sex) as your calling card leaves a lot to be desired, and frankly, sells a girl or woman short of the whole person she could be, and be seen as.