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

by: 

Susan Linn, Ed.D.

A new study adds 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?

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