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?