Back in the days of yore (2010), toy giant Mattell lumbered into its laboratory and came out with an atypical line of dolls that's since been affectionately nicknamed "Goth Barbies." That term isn't exactly right — in reality, the brand is a bit different. The toy line is called Monster High, and it's set in a fictional monster high school in which every student is the progeny of a famous mystical beast.
The dolls of Monster High are now the second best-selling in the world, and it's continuing to grow as a franchise (Barbie remains at number one, so the witch revolution clearly still has some gains to make). New characters are continually added to the brand. According to those who market the Monster High toy line, they embody a message of acceptance and relatability. During the slightly ill-conceived rap that opens each of Monster High's webisodes, for instance, a teenaged ghoul intones, "[They're] a little strange, but so are you/Don't you want to be a monster too?" Yeah! Let's all ride this "little monster" train right to the Land of Self-Acceptance! But how subversive is their message, really?
Monster High is meant to dovetail two recent cultural trends: media that encourages children to accept and celebrate their own unique perceived abnormalities or flaws (i.e., Glee, Lady Gaga, etc.) and the burgeoning young female interest in darker subject matter — such as Twilight and goth fashion. In the words of marketing exec Cathy Cline, "The message about the brand is really to celebrate your own freaky flaws, especially as bullying has become such a hot topic." It has the potential to provide young girls with a different model of femininity: one that's not centered around beauty — and the rituals that surround maintaining one's beauty — as a primary indicator of worth; one that encourages interest in arenas that aren't traditionally "girly"; one that isn't intrinsically linked with romance and dating.
On the surface, Monster High seems to do this. According to NPR:
The characters are plugged into the same kind of things a cool 16-year-old might enjoy, like rockabilly, snowboarding, and environmental activism. Draculaura, for example (she's Dracula's daughter), can't stand the thought of blood. "She's a vegan. She's turned off by meat," says [Kiyomi] Haverly [vice president of design at Mattell]. "Girls could really relate to that because that's part of what they're thinking of these days."
But, in reality, the brand doesn't really encourage individuality at all. A quick look at the "Students" section of the Monster High website makes it pretty clear that the brand's message is, "Okay, girls, let your freak flag fly! You're free to be you no matter what! As long as 'you' is a fashion-loving, boy-chasing very thin teenager with the facial features of a cast member from Pretty Little Liars. The 'freaky' part is that, instead of having white skin, you can have the coloration of any pastel hue on the visible light spectrum." Diversity!
Oh, no, wait, there's a Chinese dragon, complete with a silk dress (traditional!) and huge, green eyes. And a few Black characters — most of whom are related to one another. And there's a Mexican young woman — no, wait, what's that? She's from "Hexico"? Oh, boy. Her favorite activity is "anything associated with Día de los Muertos;" instead of creating a Hispanic-looking doll, though, Mattell has decided that she should look like a sexy Caucasian sugar skull . Naturally.
On top of that, the website displays a disturbing obsession with body image. As NPR notes, the dolls are so thin that you have to remove their hands in order to dress them. On the bio of the main character, "Frankie Stein," the first sentence reads, "My friends say I have the perfect figure for fashion!" In addition, here's a list of disturbing "Freaky Flaws," culled from other character bios:
"Draculaura," daughter of Dracula:
Since I can't see myself in the mirror, I have to leave the house not knowing if my clothes and makeup are just right.
Clawdeen Wolf, daughter of The Werewolf:
My hair is worthy of a shampoo commercial and that's just what grows on my legs. Plucking and shaving is definitely a full time job but that's a small price to pay for being scarily fabulous.
Lagoona Blue, daughter of the Sea Monster:
My skin tends to dry out if I spend too much time out of the water so I go through a fright of moisturizer. Chlorine from the Monster High pool also has the tendency to turn my blonde hair blue
If the purported goal of the toy is to teach girls the value of self-acceptance, this really isn't cutting it. In the first place, "hairy legs" or "dry skin" far from the most pressing "freaky flaw" that a youth can face. Secondly, rather than providing a model of how a child can cope with feeling different, these character bios serve to reinforce the feminine imperative to be hairless, made up, and moisturized. To market the brand as a celebration of flaws is ridiculously specious.
Instead of providing a valuable representation for children of other races and ethnicities, children who fail to conform to our rigid expectations of body-type, LGBT children, and so on, Mattell has populated yet another fantasy universe with superficial, mostly white, wealthy (each of the three main characters is obsessed with shopping — and they all have famous dads), and boy-crazed teens. Monster High is not at all a departure from the norm: it's just more of the same.