We've run articles on many a controversial subject here at Bitch, and readers have responded with appropriate ardor to such topics as fat suits, pro-porn theory, eating disorders, the "hasbian" phenomenon, and more. Yet some of the most impassioned letters we've gotten in the past year or so hinged on a short piece in issue #35 about the disturbing equine makeover of My Little Pony. (It's not archived on the site yet, unfortunately.) Responses to Jesse Rutherford's Love/Shove — which took a close look at the evolution of the 1980s toy-box staple and concluded that Hasbro's aesthetic tinkering has yielded an undeniably sexualized parade of ponies — ranged from assertions that it was "terrifically over the top" and "creepily overstated" to veiled accusations that Rutherford's interest in the redesign was "the kind of logic only someone who is unreasonably sexually obsessed with ponies would arrive at."
I was reminded of this the other day when I read a recent New York Times piece on the new makeover of Strawberry Shortcake, another classic of '80s playtime who continues to be a touchstone for girly nostalgia. It seems, according to the American Greetings company —Shortcake's sugar daddy — that today's girls weren't feeling the icon's Raggedy Anne styling, Calico-cat companion, and unhealthy preference for gumdrops over fresh fruit. (I was never a fan of the doll, so I can't verify personally whether I ever got the latter directive from Shortcake and her pals, but I will say that my childhood friend Pilar had the whole fruity family — Apple Dumplin', Huckleberry Pie, Orange Blossom — and the sickly, chemical scent of them emanated from her bedroom as a kind of pastel fog.)
Anyway, the new Shortcake is, to put it mildly, femmed-up to the max — long, smooth fuschia hair instead of yarny locks, bigger eyes that are green rather than brown and rimmed with mascara-ad lashes, a smaller nose, fewer freckles, lip gloss. It will surprise no one to hear that she's also a good deal thinner. What American Greetings deems a "fruit-forward" makeover also involves Strawberry's declining interest in the aforementioned gumdrops — a move that recalls Cookie Monster's now-famous renouncing of his namesake treat back in 2005, when concerns about childhood obesity prompted the furry Muppet to declare that cookies were now "a sometimes food." As for the fact that Shortcake's beloved cat has been replaced with a cell phone — where to even start with that?
Responses to the makeover announcement on blogs from AfterEllen to Retroactivist to MainStreet (which crunched the numbers on the real-life cost of the character's cosmetic overhaul) have been, unsurprisingly, none too sweet. And, as with My Little Ponies, the concern has less to do with preserving nostalgia than with a very real concern that little girls have fewer and fewer existing spaces that are free from aesthetic indoctrination. The NYT also mentions that Care Bears are being revamped with their own makeover — "less belly fat, longer eyelashes," and that beloved kid's-lit mouse Angelina Ballerina has also been slimmed down for an upcoming animated series, and, I'm sorry, call me unreasonably sexually obsessed with ponies, but that's ridiculous. Strawberry Shortcake is one thing, but bears and mice aren't supposed to mimic mainstream beauty standards. Or, at least, up until now they weren't.
Interestingly, the NYT piece explains these revamps, in part, with the statement, "For parents, nostalgia is considered a bigger sales hook than ever because of the increasingly violent and hyper-sexualized media landscape." But if that's the case, wouldn't it make more sense to, I don't know, preserve a corner of the toy realm — especially toys marketed chiefly to girls — that doesn't reflect, however tangentially, that very landscape?