My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

Should a Feminist Mom Let Her Daughter Play with Monster High Dolls?

I am torn. My seven-year-old, Gwendolyn, is crazy about Monster High dolls and the Monster High website. On the first night of Hanukkah, you should have heard the screech of joy out of her when she received a Draculaura doll.

So what is Monster High? It’s a line of dolls, a cartoon, and related products (books, movies, makeup, clothes, you name it). The dolls are like Barbie dolls that can be dressed up. Only these dolls are monsters—zombies, vampires, and so forth—so they’re sort of a cross between Barbie and fantasy characters.

There’s an awful lot a feminist could say about Monster High (for more, check out this Monster High analysis by the fabulous Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter). The most simple reason these characters are disturbing is that their story line revolves largely around clothing and appearance. While the story does include positive messages about being a good friend and being yourself, they’re ultimately dress-up dolls, just like Barbie. I tell my daughter over and over again that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” but am I contradicting myself when I let her dress up these dolls?

In addition, Monster High dolls are extremely skinny and sexualized, even more so than Barbie. Since they’re not actually human, these dolls don’t have the same limitations as Barbie when it comes to pretending to be shaped like an actual human female. Not that Barbie is anything close to accurate, but compared to these dolls, with their spidery little legs and teeny little necks—well, Barbie herself might actually suffer from a negative body image if she hangs out with these girls.

The other issue I have with Monster High—as well as with Barbie, the Disney princesses, and all kinds of toys that are marketed to children—is the way that these lines of toys promote consumerism. More than anything else, Monster High is a marketing engine designed by Mattel to encourage seven-year-olds to create collections of these products. As Tom Englehardt discussed in “The Shortcake Strategy,” the 1980s was a turning point for marketing towards children, when cartoons (like Strawberry Shortcake) were created exclusively for the purpose of selling lines of toys. Whatever positive messages our children may get from these lines of toys, the underlying message of these toys is that consumption is normal, healthy, and brings us happiness.

So what is a feminist mom to do?

To date, I have let my daughter have her princesses, Barbies, and Monster High dolls—but I’m starting to question my level of leniency. My thought has been that these things are okay as long as she’s (a) reading lots of challenging books that are good for her mind, which has always been the case, and (b) having conversations with Mommy (and Daddy) about feminism and body image and consumerism and other related issues. Instead of sheltering her, we’ve tried to equip her with critical thinking skills to analyze the media. We want to have a media literate child. I also want my daughter to have fun, be a kid, and play with things that make her screech for joy—and I don’t want to make things like Monster High seem more exciting by making them taboo.

But is this enough? Peggy Orenstein doesn’t seem to think so. She encourages parents to “fight fun with fun” by offering suggestions for books and toys that offer alternative narratives about girls. This has definitely gotten me thinking a little differently.

Parents, what do you think? Where do you draw the line with the Monster High type issues in your life?

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10 thoughts on “Should a Feminist Mom Let Her Daughter Play with Monster High Dolls?

  1. We rejected the whole package. We sent our kids to Waldorf school and didn’t allow any media at all when they were young. They never asked for what was advertised on TV because they never saw anything that was advertised on TV.

    I don’t believe that young children are really wired to engage in much critical thinking yet. Most of them think in images and emotions, rather than words and logic. A child’s play *is* her thinking, although what she takes from Barbie may be very different from what her parents do.

    My primary objection to mass-market toys is that they are very limiting to the imagination. There are only so many ways to play with G.I. Joe, for example. Sure, you could take him on an imaginary trip to the aquarium, but you’d feel obligated to have him shoot someone there.

    I know it’s not for everyone, but the media-free childhood definitely worked for us. And I have yet to meet a more badass 15-year-old feminist than my daughter, whose favorite toys when she was 3-9 were handmade cloth Waldorf dolls. And brightly-colored silk cloths. And baskets full of pinevcones and interesting rocks and other stuff she’d found. And sticks. Lots and lots of sticks.

  2. 1. I clicked on the link to that video and it was so shocking…

    2. Have you read Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a woman?” (I haven’t yet, but it’s on my immediate to read list!). She struggles with the same issues. My favorite bit is when she talks to her daughters about Rhianna (

    “Anyway, I’ve finally found the best moral through-route for watching MTV with my daughters, without making them feel that, if they want to sell 20 million albums, they must dress like hoes. And it is pity. Every time we see Rihanna on her hands and knees with her coccyx hanging out of her knickers, my girls will shake their heads sadly and say, “It is a great song – but we feel sorry for Rihanna. If she were really one of the biggest pop stars in the world, she’d be allowed to wear a nice cardigan once in a while. Poor Rihanna. Poor, cardigan-less Rihanna.”

    I think the issue we’re really dealing with here is how complex it is to be a woman in modern times, and how to prepare your daughter for the crazy world she will live in as an adult. You’re expected to be able to cook and bake and wrap presents like Martha Stewart, yet look like Miranda Kerr and it is impossible. It is a trap because being all of these things (and having a full time job, and raising kids, oh and probably being the perfect wife with a spotless house) set us up for failure.

    Being a consumer is a big trap as well. I am definitely a part of the “instant gratification” generation and trying to un-learn that which is hardwired into your brain is tough. Especially if you are like me and you do love clothes, shoes, fashion – the whole 9 yards. But I also have a brain – so I know that appearances DO matter – but you also cannot become so obsessed with your own appearance that you can’t hold on conversation about any other topics.

    Righty-o – that was a long opinionated comment from me but a great post on topics near and dear (I’m sure my sister Renee can commiserate as well!!)!

  3. You sound like you’re providing a good balance at home, I wouldn’t worry about it. I think the occasional dolls are OK and the media (cartoons) and advertisements are less OK. Monsters and zombies are trendy now, but at some point she’ll get bored of the doll. Our daughter received a Bratz doll from a friend a few years ago – we didn’t freak (and didn’t like it), but she played with it and ignored it a few weeks later. No damage – it turns out our family was stronger than the Bratz doll advertising machine and we all survived just fine.

    Often times I’ve followed up false media images of teen girls and dolls with “Teenagers in real life don’t look like that/dress like that, it’s pretend.” I’m not trying to make it taboo either, just want my girl to have the facts and understand the difference between media (fake/advertising/they want your money) and real life. My girl is doing great in school, has a good self image, reads a lot, likes drawing. It’s all about balance.

  4. Naomi, I understand your struggle 100 percent! It is such a tough balance—on the one hand, your intellectual, strong, feminist side abhors many of the toys out there and the messages they deliver. But there’s this other side of you that is countering, “Oh, give it a rest and stop being so serious, let your kid have fun and be a KID already.”

    Unless you take action like Julie above (Way to go, Julie!) it’s very hard to block out the world and the messages our kids hear. And your kids still get these messages from outside the home. For example, how do my kids know about Spongebob Squarepants? We’ve never allowed that show to be on.

    I’m in your camp, the one that seeks balance. My kids have Barbies and dress up clothing, but they also have Legos, Lilly Dolls, and a train set. We have books in our house like The Princess and the Dragon (they princess wants to be a dragon so they trade places) and Cinder Edna, where the girl who doesn’t marry the prince is the one who ends up happily ever after. I remember the day my child said, “Mommy, let’s play princess!” My reply? “How about we play ‘I’m a CEO,’ ‘I’m a scientist,’ or ‘I work for a nonprofit?’” She was not amused. But I was!

    So I sympathize with you. When you discover The Answer let me know! I would guess that as families we must navigate this on our own, depending on our outlook and beliefs and considering our children’s personalities and temperament. My youngest child is a total girly girl and I worry about her buying into the “Disney beauty myth” and know that she’ll be a challenge.

    I’m going to encourage my kids to be in sports and emphasize the importance of family dinners—two activities that provide stability for girls. And as we encounter upcoming years and childhood stages we’ll all work together as a team, knowing that I will personally be sending a message that stresses working hard, following your own dream and challenging yourself, not following Prince Charming.

    • Rebecca on said:

      “I work for a nonprofit” LOL. Classic! I’m filing that one away for the future. : D

      Although of course, I personally liked “I’m a scientist”.

  5. Pingback: Girls and Dolls « Idealism never goes out of fashion

  6. Bianca Miller on said:

    I know this comment isnt going to be popular but…
    Your daughter is seven! I dont think she will be very worried about the superficial part of a doll. The only thing she is worried about is how much fun she is having with that doll. I get what you are saying but chances are your daughter will get bored of it or just grow out of dolls. I’m all for beauty on the inside and having a mind of your own but like I said your daughter is seven let her figure it out on her own, which she probly will because she will learn it from you or life.

  7. I’m from Oklahoma, land of The Mothers That Don’t Allow Anything, and something I have noticed from having a lot of friends who were not allowed to do anything is this: they would end up coming over to my house to do the things they weren’t allowed to do. I remember being 7 and a friend came over and watched Spice World. Her mother was livid, but no one had told my mother that she wasn’t allowed. At that age I knew it was because of the outfits they wore and the fact that there were naked butts in it, but it didn’t matter to me so I shrugged it off. I thought her mom was nuts. Butts were natural. I had no real idea why the clothes were ‘bad’. This was to be the first incident of many growing up where I watched ‘the forbidden’ become ‘the obsession’ for my friends. She watched the movie 5 times in a row that day. Flash forward to high school where I watched girl after girl rebel against mothers that wouldn’t let them play with barbies, listen to pop music, date, or do anything that might introduce them to sexuality. I was the only one of my 5 female friends to exit high school a virgin. Not because my mother scared me away from sex, or told me that my dolls were dirty. I didn’t even date in high school because my mother and I talked about sex as a natural thing. A thing that I controlled, not some doll or song or pimple faced boy. Or some deity. Sex was not a bad word. A ‘slut’ was just a girl who didn’t know that she could get the same or better satisfaction from masturbating or that physical attention was not as fulfilling as emotional affection. I suppose what I’m getting at is this: I don’t think dolls are the problem. I think frigid mothers who think ‘we don’t allow that in this house’ counts as a moral discussion.

  8. I get where you’re coming from, but are you REALLY going to tell me that Barbie has more accurate proportions than Monster High? I have held both dolls in my hands, and MH dolls are shorter, with thicker waists. Still completely unrealistic, but none of that “more sexy” stuff you’re pitching. Also, I have to wonder if you and I are watching the same cartoon! Either that or you are mixing up the cartoon with the ads (and the ads are admittedly COMPLETELY awful.)

    Much of the Monster High cartoon is about trying to fit in when you are different, or perhaps downright strange. The titular school is notable for going out of it’s way to be accommodating to everyone. It’s not primarily about fashion, but it’s not primarily about contrived lessons about friendship either.

    At the end of the day, Monster High leaves MUCH to be desired (and nobody wants to see it live up to it’s potential more than me) and I do think that it is not suitable for younger audiences; more for middle and high schoolers who are already faced with pressure from all directions, and who need that message that it’s okay if you’re weird or different. But it’s hardly outright evil.

    P.S. Came here while trying to find out about specific differences in body shapes in the dolls; trying to make clothes for them! (Still not sure if EAH and MH have the same body dhape…) So I’m totally biased. Clawdeen is my favorite! She likes fashion, and she’s capable of tearing anyone who messes with her to shreds. My kind of gal.

  9. Hey,

    I know this was ages ago, but in my experience in talking to other people about problematic things in media, what I’ve found is the best tactic is to embrace what’s good about something while also remaining aware of and pointing out problems. Now, I’m not a parent, but maybe this helps?

    For example, someone up above mentioned Rihanna. Sure, Rihanna is providing a sexualized image. However, I’d certainly say that Rihanna is more empowered than objectified when it comes to her sexuality. Not to mention that she’s a powerful advocate for black women and other women of color, as well as a staunch feminist who regularly talks about women’s issues of a broad range from domestic violence to the #FreeTheNipple campaign. I also have a lot of issues with Caitlin Moran; she doesn’t care about intersectionality, and she often slut-shames people. In fact, with this lack of intersectionality comes her reduction of Rihanna to a “hoe” and her condescending attitude towards the rest of Rihanna’s accomplishments. If someone wants to dress like Rihanna, who cares? Just make sure that Rihanna’s fashion sense isn’t something people feel coerced to mimic, and you’re fine.

    Someone also mentioned “playing princess” and how you could be “playing scientist” or “non-profit worker” or “CEO” instead. I think all of those options are wonderful ideas! But don’t overlook princesses. Remember, princesses have to deal with responsibilities regarding the whole kingdom. Why not play princesses, but while having fun with more feminine aspects, also include factors such as being a leader? Besides, why can’t you have a princess scientist or a princess CEO or a princess non-profit worker? Why not combine what your daughter loves with new ideas that you want to instill in her?

    And regarding Disney and Disney Princesses, while, sure, they are often products of their times and have very stylized depictions, guide your children of whatever gender to see past just a slender, unattainable image and to the heart of what the movie is. Sure, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are pretty stuck in the past, but they are actually pretty good when it comes to overall themes. So while you point out consent issues in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, unrealistic depictions of “true love,” body image, etc., also highlight the practicality of Snow White’s thinking and how she overcomes her fear and focuses her mind on finding shelter first, how Cinderella survives abuse and stays a kind person throughout and manages to recognize that she can be loved (something abuse survivors struggle deeply with), how Sleeping Beauty reacted to being lied to and her sudden responsibility and how it’s normal to break under pressure, how fantastic it is that the most respected (whether in terms of goodness or fear) characters are all women in a female-driven plot in Sleeping Beauty (after all, the Three Fairies, three plump old women who fail miserably at basic household tasks and defy standards of femininity, are the ones who save literally the entire kingdom through teamwork, compassion, and just being good people overall). And, of course, do the same with all the other wonderful Princesses! The first three just tend to come under fire the most, which is why I used them as examples. I’d also like to point out that every single Disney Princess has never had just the sole motivation of “finding her Prince Charming.”

    I also think that we shouldn’t demean femininity. It’s possible to love fashion and glitter and pink and makeup but ALSO science and math and computer science and reading and writing. It’s possible to love dolls AND toy trains. It’s possible to love pretty dresses AND splash in puddles and explore nature. It is 100% possible to combine all your interests; why does it make you “weaker” to like traditionally feminine things? After all, isn’t that just another form of sexism? Demeaning what women have traditionally done and glorifying traditionally masculine roles? Let your daughter play with whatever she wants; just teach her to critically examine what she likes without outright rejecting everything.

    Something I think might be compelling is to take the “feminine” interests of your child and extend them. So they like fashion? Awesome! Teach them how to make clothing and to use their imagination creatively! They like makeup? Teach them makeup art, including really cool special effects makeup (Klaire de Lys is an excellent makeup artist who does mind-blowing special effects makeup, including hand art where her hand is suddenly a tiger or a parrot or anything you can imagine, and creative original character design, such as butterfly queens and personifications of death)! They like Disney Princesses? Give them resources about animation, graphic design, creating compelling stories, directing movies, etc. They likes dolls? Cultivate awareness and a critical eye towards beauty standards, but also find they dolls that are inclusive of different races and body types (the new Barbies are definitely a great option!) and teach her to make her own clothing for the dolls, and if you have access to a 3D printer, well, the possibilities are absolutely endless! And also teach her to not just make cute dresses, but to look to the sheer variety of occupations dolls can have (ASTRONAUT DOLLS. JANE-GOODALL-ESQUE WILDLIFE RESEARCHER DOLLS. SCIENTIST DOLLS. SCUBA DIVER DOLLS. THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS!) and to instill the value in your child that they can be anything they can imagine, just like the dolls.

    Monster High is growing a little more irrelevant nowadays, but the same message applies. Show your daughter the good side (embracing what makes you unique, the sheer diversity, the idea that “monster” is an archetype of rejecting and dehumanizing human beings that can make compelling storylines, etc.) while also acknowledging the bad side (body image, sexualization, etc.) Some brutal honesty here: you can’t escape media, and it only becomes more prevalent in your life as time passes. Instead of hiding the media from your children and treating it as some sort of, well, monstrosity (no pun intended), equip them with the skill set to be appreciative yet critical of the media that will only continue to shape their world.

    Well, this comment is a monstrosity. I just had a lot to say!

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