By Nik Shultz
When I was just about the age when it was no longer cool to care about dolls, Monster High dolls came out, creating a phenomenon that I am still puzzling over.
Monster High was created and launched by Mattel in 2010, and included not just dolls but a YouTube web series following a group of high school-aged monsters with a love of fashion. The franchise also has had several movies and books and a rather unpopular reboot. The franchise pushes a message of loving your “freaky flaws” and accepting differences, although there is significant re-enforcing of gender roles and little variation in body types among the main cast, fantastical elements excluded, which may be expected from a franchised based around selling fashion dolls.
In 2013, Mattel followed up Monster High with Ever After High, a franchise of fashion dolls based around fairytales. This also consisted of an animated web series on YouTube and a couple book series, as well as a Netflix series based on the YouTube show. Ever After High was less popular than Monster High, but I preferred it, as I believe I have already confessed to having a soft spot for fairytale princess type stories. The characters are the children of classic fairytale characters, and destined to inherent their stories. But Raven Queen, daughter of the Evil Queen from Snow White’s story, decides she wants to choose her own destiny, much to the dismay of Apple White, who is content to follow in the Snow White storyline and get her happily ever after. This causes a divide throughout the entire school, between the Royals, who are happy with their fairytale destinies, and the Rebels, who want to choose their own paths. The show was cut short, and while many fans theorize that if it had continued the conclusion would’ve ultimately favored the Rebels, what material was published largely supports a narrative of equivalency between those who just want to be themselves, and those who want them perform their fairytale roles so that they can have an expected happy ending, I message that I find troubling.
Ever After High and Monster High end up with similar problems, which have been discussed with many other doll lines as well. The narratives seem to have positive messages of accepting others and yourself, but they are ultimately meant to sell fashion dolls, which by definition focus on and reflect the mainstream. Thus, the characters and their stories don’t go very far beyond what is safe and acceptable, outside of metaphor.
Now within the last year, MGA, the company behind Bratz dolls, released a new doll line, Rainbow High, which was also accompanied by a YouTube animated show. This series, while taking obvious inspiration from its predecessors, is based more in reality, with the main characters being new students at a prestigious art school where their first group project is to design a runway show. Of course, there are still moral lessons for children in the show, and a narrative celebrating everyone’s unique artistic expression. I personally find it less compelling, as with a lack of more imaginative elements to support these themes it’s left with just characters who aren’t really as different from each other, or mainstream acceptable femininity, as the brand wants them to seem.
I have to wonder why the idea of high school is so compelling for selling fashion dolls, especially since originally Barbie dolls became so popular because they filled the need for kids to have dolls modelled after adults. But kids like seeing characters that are older than them, and therefore cooler, as I learned in a class on writing for children. And media has become very interested in stories centered on high schoolers during my lifetime. Additionally, the age at which girls are expected to learn how to do their makeup and dress fashionably has gotten noticeably younger, in part I believe because of internet access. It’s also worth noting that these dolls are often highly sexualized, and criticized for that to an extent that Barbie isn’t. The sexualization of teenagers may not be a new problem in our society, but it is one that has been very prominent as I’ve grown up, and can be seen in our mainstream media, including dolls.
I’m going to leave you with some questions that I’m turning over. Do these brands warrant the criticism they receive for being “too sexual”? Are they any more problematic than other fashion doll brands? Are the issues surrounding them perhaps indicative of a larger issue, not isolated to one brand or even dolls at all?