Sometimes, products are all the more disappointing when they sounded pretty cool at first.
Case in point: Mattel's blockbuster franchise, Monster High. This series of dolls is centered around the children (mostly daughters) of werewolves, mummies and other classic beasties of horror tales. When speaking about the franchise to the New York Times, Tim Kilpin of Mattel said, "Who doesn't feel like a freak in high school? It started with that universal truth." Of course, high schoolers aren't Mattel's target market; in fact, most Monster High products are officially listed as "Age 6-8." Still, dolls that promote not buying into superficial mainstream standards would be neat, right?
Yeah, they would. Too bad that's not what's happening here.
Look again: They're not Bratz. (picture source)
Well, what do you know? Hypersexualized, heavily made-up dolls with über-Barbie proportions. Not only are their waists much narrower than their heads; they're close to the size of one of their calves. The ladies are homogeneous in height, shorter than their few male counterparts so as not to be intimidating. The designated nerd, zombie Ghoulia (third from the right), is the only female to come with a pair of pants; mummy Cleo de Nile (second from right) appears to at first glance but is actually clad in strips of fabric prone to gaps and wink-wink wardrobe malfunctions. (She also supplies those of us who remember Clone High with a serious case of déjà vu.)
These are the quintessential high school outcasts? Most of the characters, from the personae established by the ridiculous website, TV special, webisodes and tie-in books by The Clique author Lisi Harrison, are popular cheerleaders. Monster High's tagline is "Freaky just got fabulous," which manages to be at once uncomfortably suggestive, insulting, and materialistic. "Fabulous" denotes fashion, and even if "freaky" is only supposed to signify that some of the characters are pseudo-weirdos, this sends the message that unusual girls are only interesting if they are fashionable. While some would be quick to say that clothing is the point of dolls in the first place, I'd argue that the best use of such figurines is as a springboard for imagination. What were Barbies, Polly Pockets, or even G.I. Joes ever for if not do-it-yourself storytelling?
My dolls could've had plenty of adventures with THIS monster.
While the copious unnecessary branches of Monster High differ, all seem to feature Frankie Stein as the new girl at school. Perhaps this is where the dubious outcast claim is based, because, y'know: she's nervous, insecure and just starting to make friends. She's also fifteen days old.
In fact, there's a lot of weirdness happening when it comes to age. While I get what Mattel was going for (vampires are immortal, blah blah blah) I can't help but cringe when, say, a sixteen-year-old son of Medusa is dating a six-thousand-year-old. Likewise, while I personally like a good faux-goth plaid skirt, sexifying a creature who is basically an infant is well-documented to be a bad idea. Reducing both old and young females to a shallow realm of teenagedom is, um, not ideal.
And what a shallow realm it is. In between proclaiming their passions for "checking out the bro's [sic]," "flirting with the boys!" and "the most creeporific guy" (that last courtesy of young Frankie Stein), the characters' Facebook-esque online profiles further work the emphasis on appearance. Check out these gems, from vampire Draculaura and werewolf Clawdeen respectively:
Freaky Flaw: Since I can't see my reflection in a mirror, I have to leave the house not knowing if my clothes and makeup are just right. Of course after 1,599 years of practice I've gotten pretty good at it.
Freaky Flaw: 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.
Oh, dear. What better way to spend days or years than laboring to cram oneself into the narrow body standard du jour? Lisa Lusero's piece in Revolutionary Voices, in which a little boy asks why she has hair on her legs and she retorts that it grows there, comes to mind. Not that folks of any age should be worrying about their body hair, but pushing big beauty companies' agenda onto (pre-)pre-pubescents is rather awful. There is nothing "freaky" about hairy legs, nor do they nix fabulousness, if that matters to you. So, 6-8 year olds: Have you learned to hate your bodies yet?
No? Don't worry, the Monster High web series has you covered with this charmer:
Warning: Contains body shame and terrible music.
On the less-sucky side, said profiles include a space for "Favorite School Subject," so these high school students actually do occasionally mention, y'know, school. While most of their answers are based in the monster gimmick (eg. Cleo likes geometry because shapes=pyramids=Egypt, geddit?) they are legitimate subjects, so that's something. Then there's the fact that the main players aren't all coded as white, as I feared when I first saw the sherbet-y skin of Draculaura and Lagoona Blue. Both Cleo de Nile and Clawdeen Wolf appear to be women of color.
Unfortunately, the two of them are written as the most vicious in the group. They also hate each other.
So, what's more disheartening: the failure of a pretty good premise or the fact that it's hardly even surprising anymore? After the epic slimming down of Strawberry Shortcake, Angelina Ballerina and, yes, even the Care Bears (don't get me started), absurdly bodied, appearance-obsessed monster offspring are disappointing but almost par for the Toys R Us course. And I don't know about you, but I find that pretty scary.