There's been a fair amount of buzz in the news about Monster High dolls, calling them “GothBarbies,” or arguing that parents who let their children play with them are turning their kids into fishnet-obsessed, anorexic, sexualized fashion zombies.
This kind of coverage frustrates me something fierce – because not only am I a parent (to a smart, strong, amazing 20-year-old daughter), I'm also an adult Monster High collector.
Part of the reason why I love the dolls so much, and why it's the only toy line that I passionately collect as an adult, has been the warmth, humor, and genuinely positive message that I've seen their creators choosing to emphasize -- so the really shallow, appearance-focused media criticism feels like it's entirely missing the point.
I've been a Goth since I was 13 (which makes 24 years at this point -- if it's a phase, it hasn't passed yet!), but that never stopped me from being a loving parent, a successful professional, or a happy, emotionally-healthy, fully-realized person. In fact, I've made some really amazing, lifelong friends among people who I initially met through a shared interest in black clothes, historical fashion, metal and Goth music, macabre and fantastic literature, classic horror movies, and a sometimes-Tim Burton-esque sp00ky sense of self-deprecating humor.
When I first saw Monster High dolls in the toy aisle, I was pleasantly surprised. They had detailed outfits/accessories, they were fully-articulated (a requirement for me, and a new development in playline toys), and they had fun cartoon proportions (large head, narrow shoulders, wide hips, a little belly, long curvy legs, and slender arms with spread-fingered hands.) The thing that hooked me, though (and caused me to leave Target with the first five dolls in hand) was the underlying concept – that they were the high-school-age children of famous filmland monsters.
When I was a kid, I wished for toys that appealed to my aesthetics –- I played with my brother's He-Man toys because I liked their design creativity, and I adored My Little Pony because of their crazy-colored hair and fun worldbuilding (although I wished that they were poseable!)
I was never very into Barbie or baby dolls or anything along those lines, because the “blank slate” characters and more-bland world that they lived in didn't appeal to me. I even built my own dragons out of papier-mâché (I read the “Dragonriders of Pern” book at an early and impressionable age), but my enthusiasm exceeded my skills by several orders of magnitude.
If Monster High had existed during my childhood, I would have LOVED them. The tongue-in-cheek, punny humor of the names/character biographies, and the positive, embrace-your-uniqueness message they sent would have appealed to me (and would have been fantastic for my self-esteem, since my Very Controlling Mother was hell-bent on turning me into a “proper little lady,” and I was shamed for everything from my out-of-control hair to my early breast development.)
The Monster High world is a place where everyone is welcome, a school where bullying is actually punished, a social environment where the traits that the characters initially characterize as “freaky flaws” are really just part of what makes them special. I would have been in heaven.
As an adult, I discovered that I have a genetic disorder (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome -– if that sounds familiar, Fem and I have the same disease) which has resulted in a number of disabling physical issues, including diminished strength and dexterity in my hands, which is hell for an artist. I had to transition from pencil and brush-and-ink/watercolor to digital media, because the 'undo' button is the savior of people with hand spasms, but, after a certain point, I struggled with producing digital art, as well.
I finally had to leave the job I loved, and I was very much at loose ends, and struggling with depression. Finding out that you have a lifelong disease that has no prospect of a cure, or even effective treatment other than pain management, is pretty hard on the psyche -- especially when we found out that my daughter has it, too.
Around the time I stopped working, I began collecting Asian Ball-Jointed Dolls. Their design aesthetic appeals to me, and I enjoy their versatility, customizability, and variety. I view them as beautiful pieces of fine art to adorn my home, as models for my photography, and as opportunities to exercise my art skills and my love of tinkering. I've never shied away from ambitious custom attempts or artistic risk-taking, and I love to take things apart and see how they work! After several years of this, I discovered Monster High, and fell in love.
My interest in doll collecting actually wound up to be the thing that helped to salvage my sanity – working on my dolls, painting in small scale, learning to hand-make wigs or re-root, teaching myself how to become a better photographer even when my hands wouldn't hold a pencil or stylus – that absolutely saved me. It's important for me to create, and having something tangible to show for my efforts meant a lot – because, even if I couldn't do anything on any given day, it showed that I had done something the day before, and would be able to again tomorrow.
These days, Monster High is my primary focus –- ABJDs are gorgeous and I still love them to bits, but they're outside my budget at the moment -- and I adore MH on their own creepy-cute merits.
One thing that I appreciate about Monster High is that, like Jem, their pastel-haired cousin of the past, they don't shy away from tackling social issues, while still giving screen time to fashion, shoes, and the trials and travails of being a rock star with a secret identity (Jem) or a monster-ous high-school student (MH).
Monster High has partnered with various real-life anti-bullying and positive-self-esteem campaigns, including several headed by teen and tween girls, to get their message out. It's great to see an immensely popular toy line directly say that bullying isn't something that anyone should have to accept (something that I wish my own parents and school authorities had been a little more clued-into), that it's cool to be kind, and that you can celebrate your own uniqueness without ostracizing people who look different or come from another cultural background.
They've done a fantastic job of it, in my opinion –- for example, one of the main webisode/doll character couples are a werewolf boy (Clawd) and a vampire girl (Draculaura). When they're first getting to know each other, they wonder whether their differences are irreconcilable (Clawd loves steaks, Draculaura is a vegetarian), but they eventually find ways to respectfully deal with their disagreements, and to be considerate to each other. Clawd doesn't have to give up his steaks, but he's not going to eat a big raw one at the table with Draculaura –- and Draculaura isn't going to try to convince him to switch to tofu and bean sprouts.
Here's the thing, though. Mattel took a major retailing risk with this couple, but it's one that I applaud. Clawd is a big, broad-shouldered, brown-skinned werewolf, with short kinky-curly hair. He and his siblings present as characters of color (which, again, is something I love about MH – they prominently feature characters of color, as well as characters with strictly fantasy colors/origins). Draculaura is a cute, petite, pink-skinned (visually presents as white) vampire, with straight hair and a slight Transylvanian accent.
Having two of the main characters in an interracial relationship (whether or not you view them as having an ethnicity, they're a werewolf and a vampire), having what reads as a tall black guy dating a petite white girl, is pretty groundbreaking in a kid's line. Barbies don't tend to cross color lines (African-American Barbie is paired up with African-American Ken, etc). Even when interracial couples are portrayed in general media, much less children's media, they're often a white male and an “exotic” woman of color (often one who is half-European in ancestry). To present it the other way around is a brave decision for a toy line, and one that makes me happy to support Monster High -- even if I didn't just plain love the dolls!
While the “Goth Barbie”-type articles would have you believe that the characters are “sexualized” (which always irks me -– it's an adult judgment that a child isn't going to make, unless some adult tells them that wearing a short skirt is all about sexual availability), there's an undertone of “OH MY GOTH” hysteria that underlies the text. They feed into the fear that your child might want to be “different,” that they might want to stand out, or become part of a subculture that the parent disapproves of, or do anything that allows their desire for individuality to override the parent's desire for conformity.
I *get* the conflict between wanting your child to “be themselves” and wanting them to be well-liked at school, to be treated favorably by teachers and other adults, and to make sure that they're being safe in a world where people who stand out are sometimes singled out for unwelcome attention. I really do.
On the other hand, as I was parenting my daughter, I enforced firm, reasonable boundaries, explained why I was enforcing them, and let her make her own decisions about the “little stuff” that didn't matter –- if she wanted to buy her clothes in the boys' department, fine! If she wanted to dye her bangs pink with Manic Panic, so be it! If it was time to do her homework, she knew that I was going to be kind but firm in telling her to get off the computer and go do her schoolwork.
And it worked –- when she was a little girl, people commented on how well-spoken and polite she was. She pushed the usual boundaries about not wanting to do the dishes or staying up too late reading on a school night, but our foundation of mutual love and respect meant that she didn't feel a huge need to “rebel” –- by doing what? Dyeing her hair? (“Don't turn the bathroom purple!”) Wearing whatever clothes she wanted, within reason? (“I don't think you should wear the Chibi Death shirt to the hospital, it might make someone sad.”) I raised a smart, savvy, well-balanced, self-respecting, articulate, socially and politically active, kind, generous, and good-hearted young woman. I am immensely proud of her.
(And her hair has been purple since she was 15 – it looks gorgeous.)
Parents who are afraid that Monster High will somehow lead their kids into perdition (like D&D in the 80's) might be well-served to realize that, because it presents a worldview where it's cool to embrace your differences and to respect and accept other people, Monster High is actually a pretty damn good role model.
But if the clerk at Toys R Us asks if I want a gift receipt (as recently happened to another adult-collector friend), I'm just going to smile brightly and say “No, it's for me!”