Monster High, Reluctantly Revisited: Kindness and Confusion

"kind campaign" logo, first word mostly in black with the "i" replaced with a pink silhouette of a little girl, second word all in pink. Next to the logo, there is a glaring image of Cleo de Nile, an animated Monster High character with light brown skin, heavy purple eye makeup and long, black-brown-and-gold-striped hair.

Remember our Douchebag Decree recipient, Monster High? Prepare yourselves, because things are about to get weird. Mattel has announced a partnership between Monster High and the anti-bullying Kind Campaign:

Monster High™, Mattel's popular tween and teen-targeted franchise, which encourages girls to celebrate their imperfections and embrace those of others, today announced that it is partnering with the Kind Campaign, a movement, documentary and school program dedicated to spreading the message of kindness. [...] "The Monster High brand uses the monster metaphor to show girls that it is ok to be different and that our unique differences should be celebrated," said Lori Pantel, VP Marketing, Global Mattel Girls Brands. "We see our partnership with Kind Campaign as a natural fit because their message of kindness and acceptance goes hand-in-hand with the Monster High brand's message to embrace our own and each other's imperfections."

Uh... it does?

(Here's Reuters' copy of Mattel's entire press release. For lolz, I recommend 4-traders' copy, which translates "™" into "?" and is therefore riddled, appropriately, with the dubious-sounding question, "Monster High?")

For those of you not too familiar with the Monster High franchise, let's just say it's more about intense grooming routines, boyfriend envy and ruthless, sometimes violent competition than "spreading the message of kindness." As for embracing imperfections, do we need to re-watch that webisode in which everyone's horrified that an undead teenager has a pimple? Monster High is a world in which it's not "ok" to be different; it's basically unheard of, being that every female student shares exactly the same height and (tiny) waist size. Even Pantel's pat description of a "monster metaphor" for acceptance doesn't work, given that the characters' otherworldly attributes are described as shortcomings, albeit ridiculous ones. (The vampire can't look at herself in the mirror! The sea creature must moisturize!)

So, what is this Kind Campaign, anyway?

Photo of the Kind Campaign's founders, Lauren and Molly, from the shoulders up against a pink background. Both women have pale skin, long light brown hair and white sweaters, and both are smiling.

A movement and documentary, based upon the powerful belief in KINDness, that brings awareness and healing to the negative and lasting effects of girl-against-girl "crime". [...] Every single girl has encountered an experience at some point within their lives in which they become aggressors or victims of girl-against-girl "crime". Physical fighting, name-calling, threats, power struggles, competition, manipulation, secrets, rumors, and ostracizing other girls, all fall under the category of girl-against-girl "crime". [...] With various media outlets that mock and even glamorize the issue, it seems that society has simply concluded, "That's the way girls are." We disagree, because we believe that there is goodness within all females, even if that goodness has been shoved aside by the pressures society has placed upon us. What we fail to realize and choose to ignore is the fact that these experiences very often lead to depression, anxiety, loss of self worth, eating disorders, drug abuse, alcoholism, attempted suicide and actual suicide in millions of girls lives.

When I see a female-driven group with a solid core message—eg. bullying is bad—I'm instantly tempted to support them and turn a blind eye to shortcomings... like essentialist statements about "girls," simplistic explanations for mental health problems, and ads for cosmetic anti-"blemish" products on their homepage. I'm happy to see acknowledgement that the media is preoccupied with rivalry between young women and that society encourages females to view each other as adversaries. Indeed, it's heartening that conversations about bullying are happening at all, between this small but already much-publicized group and Dan Savage's far-reaching "It Gets Better" campaign.

In fact, the two movements are similar in that both are potentially valuable but also clearly limited. Savage has been called out for acting anti-POC, anti-trans* and anti-female despite his pro-gay message; the Kind Campaign avoids discussing difference by presenting bullying as solely peer-to-peer rather than institutional. As a result, apparently white and able-bodied women are still put front and center... figuratively and literally:

Five women stand with their bare backs facing the camera, against a background pattern of tiny Kind Campaign logos. The first has dark skin and her hair is wrapped in a black scarf. The next three have light skin and red, brown and blonde hair, respectively. All three have long hair, but the redhead's is down and the brunette's and blonde's are in buns. The last woman is the only one looking directly at the camera. She has a still expression, a medium skin tone and untied long black hair with bangs. Across their backs, insults are projected in pink capital letters: "FAKE", "TRASHY", "UNTRUSTWORTHY" and more.

Glancing at the above, the namecalling referenced includes a few sizeist, lookist and classist smears ("fat," "ugly," "poor") but racially motivated bullying remains unexplored, as does that rooted in homophobia or policing of gender expression. The failure to even allude to QUILTBAG issues is especially curious, given the media's recent focus on queer suicide. Only on the Truth Wall, for which readers are invited to tell their own stories, is homophobic bullying mentioned, and then only by girls who are angry about being called lesbians. (A typical example: "The only reason [the rumor that I was gay] spread [was] because we were playing spin the bottle and even though it landed on a girl i still had to kiss her (worst experience ever for me.)") In the end, the Kind Campaign portrays bullying as unconnected to prejudice and simply a component of girl culture that needs to be eradicated.

The question is, is Monster High really a way to take the conversation further?

In an interview with Jess Weiner, Kind Campaign founders Lauren Parsekian and Molly Stroud emphasized that Mattel will have no place in their in-school assemblies, a bit of good news for those of us worried about the insidious power of branding in classrooms. They also gave us hints as to what, exactly, this collaboration will entail:

The two of us are being animated into monster versions of ourselves and going into Monster High to hold a Kind Campaign assembly, teaching the monster girls: Frankie Stein, Draculaura, Cleo De Nile and the rest of the Monster High students how important it is for them to be kind to each other.

While I am, to put it mildly, not sure what this will look like, I can't help but be intrigued. Being that Monster High has thus far been very much an example of media that "glamorizes the issue" of women fighting, I'm rooting for a total overhaul once the Kind Campaign steps on campus.

In Monster High's Douchebag Decree, I commented on the franchise's depiction of the two women of color as the meanest. Interestingly, the most recent webisodes have featured the six main female characters mostly getting along. I would be pleased if not for the fact that the ghouls are busy stoking a rivalry with another group, a trio of werecats.

Animated picture of the three werecats at Monster High. They look mostly like humans but have feline faces and ears and tiger stripes across their arms and legs. Like the other Monster High students, they have very tiny waists. The first and third are grey-colored; the first has long black hair, and the third has long white hair. The werecat in the middle is orange with short hair in a darker shade of orange. All three are dressed as cheerleaders, with short black uniforms and pink pompoms. The orange cat is jumping into the air with her eyes closed and her limbs extended.

"Catfight" jokes may be the one thing Monster High and the Kind Campaign already have in common; check out Finding Kind's smarmy guys here.

When this webisode is released, I'll be watching, nervously hopeful. If everyone becomes all nice 'n' stuff, MH may still have problems—compulsory heterosexuality, absurd bodily proportions—but at least the characters will stop breaking each other's legs and shoving bags over heads.

Kind Campaign images via kindcampaign.com. Monster High images via monsterhigh.wikia.com.

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