Monday, August 9, 2010

Beyond Barbie: Mattel's Monster of an Assault on Girls

A new study ads heft to the argument that girls are entering puberty earlier than ever before. No one knows why more girls than ever are developing breasts at seven or eight—some scientists attribute it to childhood obesity, others cite environmental factors. Whatever the reason, there’s cause for concern. How do girls so young deal with feelings heightened by hormonal surges, changes in their bodies, and how people think about them in their bodies?

What these seven year olds need is support from their families and communities to help them understand and cope with the unsettling changes occurring in their bodies. What they don’t need are anorexic junior dominatrix dolls for girls as young as six. Oops, I mean the Monster High brand (“Freaky Just Got Fabulous”), Mattel’s latest multi-platform assault on children.

Come to think of it, what girl does need these dolls? Or the Monster High clothing, toys, accessories, video games, movies, TV specials, virtual worlds, and books for “young readers.”

All girls are vulnerable to harm from sexualized images, but girls in the throes of early sexual maturity are especially vulnerable. Companies like Mattel that market sexualized this and that to girls often justify their campaigns and products by pointing to early physical maturation as one more sign that “Kids are getting older younger.” But, as I’ve said before, “Breast buds do not a woman make.” Girls’ bodies may be maturing, but there’s no evidence that their judgment is keeping pace.

The market strategy of sexualizing little girls has become so usual these days—from Hannah Montana, to the Bratz (which are coming back), My Scene Barbies, Twilight Kids Meals, and endless other products, it’s easy to feel jaded about Monster High. But that’s a mistake. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mattel is aiming for nothing less than an “entertainment juggernaut.”

By foisting fashionistas on little girls and providing them with the trappings of maturity—sexualized toys, clothing, and media—we deprive them of middle childhood. That’s the glorious time between preschool and adolescence that’s should be a time of great creative flowering for girls—because they’ve mastered basic skills and aren’t hampered by the self-consciousness of teenagers.

But we’re making it harder and harder for girls to have a middle childhood. We should be doing everything we can to identify and rectify whatever is launching seven-year-old girls into puberty. We also need to talk with them honestly and carefully about their bodily changes and what they mean. But sex education is different than the sex sold in commercial culture. Given the hormonal upheaval many girls are going through at ever younger ages, shouldn’t we be even more careful than ever about protecting them from sexualization?


  1. Ugh. Those dolls are the worst. How can you make something like that for little girls and feel okay about it?

  2. I really appreciate your point, but I take issue with your use of "anorexic" to mean "extremely thin." As common as the conflation is, it reinforces two harmful notions: that all anorexic people are extremely thin and that all extremely thin people are anorexic. I suspect that this was not a malicious mistake, and hope that -- in the future -- you will find ways to express your compassion and concern for young people, with respect to those who have eating disorders or are underweight for other reasons. Thank you!

  3. There's a large body of evidence suggesting that girls are entering puberty earlier because of their exposure to synthetic estrogens in cow's milk. This jump in age of menarche happened in such a short period of time, and corresponds exactly with the practice of giving dairy cows hormones in order to increase their production of milk (and compensate for the fact that they are routinely separated from their calves, which, obviously, interferes with their milk production). Anyway, that's beside the point regarding these horrific dolls and accessories, but it's not exactly a mystery who the culprit is in the case of the sexually mature seven year old.

  4. actually missmarymax, anorixia is just the medical term for a lack of appetite, regardless of cause. anorexia nervosa is a lack of appetite due to a mental disorder, of which you reference in your comment. i do feel that we should be careful in how we comment about the trend of overly thin women and dolls for young girls. many girls in middle childhood ARE this thin. its a normal developmental stage. its not until puberty that girls develop the curves and broader hips and such of womanhood.

    that said, i am in NO way defending these dolls and similar bratz, princess, barbie etc dolls. just wanted to add i think the weight and thinness issue itself is very delicate and should be approached with utmost care and compassion.

    its similar to my feelings on the "real women" campaign that says women of a larger size are "real women" which i feel is/can be offensive to those of us who may happen to be a smaller size, implying they are somehow not "real women."

  5. Great article, thanks for writing it. I'm not sure why people keep producing these dolls for little girls, or why people keep buying them!
    I think this point you made about little girls maturing younger is so important:
    "What these seven year olds need is support from their families and communities to help them understand and cope with the unsettling changes occurring in their bodies."
    Currently the trend is to exploit them.
    I'm based in Australia with Collective Shout and one of the goals of our oranisation is to encourage and facilitate people to speak out against 'sexploitation.' Thanks for all you're doing to challenge the culture.

  6. I believe that marketers started about two generations ago by easing parents back then into the parents that we have now. I think that grandmothers and mothers nowadays think of this stuff as cute and harmless because they have been pimped by the media to be overly sexualized themselves. Just check out what grandmothers and mothers are wearing. The older generation of women are dressing like girls and acting like pre-teenagers. Just check out the media shows that grown women watch. If they can't see through the hype in their own lives how do we expect them to know what's appropriate for their daughters?

  7. Marketing tactics are the same since the cave people.
    Companies will produce anything for profit and many of your husbands earn their wages through such "vile" products.
    Try to be real mothers and raise your children right, be the filter instead of the accusing finger.
    And remember, the society is not a multi faced monster, its the mirror image of us.

  8. Really, George? The cave people had advertising on televisions, the Internet,& cell phones? They had licensed merchandise and marketing in schools? I must have missed that day of anthropology class.

    I also must have missed the day when we traveled back in time to the 1950's. I didn't realize the husband=wage earner/wife=mother dichotomy was still so firmly intact.

  9. Yes, we CAN and SHOULD be more careful than ever about protecting them from sexualization and "thinspiration" cues but when we've got ad agencies that 'don't get it' (like this "do-over" of the Pretzel Crisps spot which is a double-face palm moment to say the least or this Ann Taylor retouch that takes it down a notch where there's no notch to take down (eep!) it makes me realize that we all have a HUGE way to go imparting the message of a mass media mindshift toward healthier cues, not just with girls/puberty, sigh.

    Alas, like you, we're in it for the long haul; thanks for all you do. Onward!

    p.s. Will you be at the SPARKsummit challenging the sexualization of girls in media Oct 22, 2010? Hope so! :-)

    Amy @ShapingYouth

  10. Thank you CCFC for being the constant reminder of why I don't and won't have children in this day and age.

  11. How about interacting with your kids instead of letting the TV babysit your children? I grew up playing outside, not watching television ads.