Ages 2-5Parenting StylesPlay

Monsters vs Barbies

When my five-year old came home from preschool raving about Monsters Hive (sic), I didn’t pay much attention. All I knew (oh, ignorance is bliss) was that there was a TV show called Monster High which some family friends’ kids watched, and that it was about vampires and zombies and stuff.

When she asked for a Monsters Hive (sic) doll for Christmas, I payed slightly closer attention.

To start my education, we rented a Monster High DVD from the store. It was the worst kind of inane, but I reckon one could have a few meaningful conversations about diversity and minorities, so I wasn’t too annoyed. The shoes and clothes were rather disconcerting though.

Christmas rolled around and an over-generous (grand)Father Christmas sent along not one, but two Monster High dolls accompanied by various other dolly paraphernalia. All other presents went into the cupboard and Frankie Stein and Cleo De Nile (yes, those are their given names) have accompanied my daughter pretty much everywhere since then.

In the last week, this obsession has taken on a whole new level. Our neighbours have returned from holiday, and lo-and-behold, their five-year old also received a Monster High doll for Christmas. So now the kids play happily for hours and hours and hours with their Monster High dolls and a collection of Barbies.

Now, Rose herself does not own any Barbies. I have very successfully undermined the Barbie marketing (that has been taken care by the experts from for the last five years by simply saying that I personally don’t like Barbie, I think she is silly and I won’t buy Barbie stuff. But since I won’t buy any branded stuff at all, this isn’t a big deal. (Yoghurt is the exception; Barbie yoghurt is permitted as long as it is alternated with Spiderman yoghurt.) Rose’s school has been very helpful in supporting this view by banning all character clothing. However, Rose’s friends are all fairly fond of Barbie and she gets a “healthy” dose of Barbie play at other people’s houses.

Astronaut BarbieFor the record, my objections to Barbie are as follows:

    • Their anatomy represents an almost unobtainable (and for most unhealthy) ideal
    • They are over-sexualised
    • There is limited racial or cultural diversity
    • They tend to have girly occupations (even the astronaut wears high heels! And Mars Barbie, though her shoes are more practical, still wears a pink and white space suit. And she doesn’t have any gloves which means her hands will explode.)
    • They epitomize the massive consumer marketing machine.

Now, however, my keenness to find a Barbie alternative has come back to bite me. Zombarbie. That is what Monster High dolls are. And since they are also made by Mattel, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Have you seen how thin these things are? Have you noticed how deformed their feet are? Granted, they have cool hair, but do you know how much make-up they wear? Oh, and they cost about four times as much.

And why, oh why must all little girls sit down with these kinds of dolls and instantly start planning a wedding? Since Mou and I are not married, why is my daughter so obsessed with this? I do my best to subvert the Disney-like narrative by proposing that the two dolls marry each other, rather than waiting for their boyfriends to pitch up, but nope, that is not an option. (Because on the TV show they actually have boyfriends, not because there is an in principle objection – I am grateful for the small things).

Having witnessed, and/or participated in a number of monster weddings since Christmas morning, I was fully expecting the same kinds of games when the two girls played together with the combination of Monster High dolls and Barbies. Imagine my surprise when in fact the Monster High dolls, with a few Barbie allies, gang up on the “bad” Barbies. It’s Monsters vs Barbies folks! Bring on the popcorn.

I’m not particularly keen on games that involve violence and death, but a little reading has reassured me that when it comes to Barbie (and so why not Zombarbie) this is normal. A 2005 study led by Dr Agnes Nairn found that it was common for girls to mutilate and torture their Barbies.

“Of all of the products we asked the children to describe as ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’, Barbie aroused the most complex and violent emotions,” said Dr Nairn. “The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity in contrast to other forms of play with the doll. “The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving.” (Press Release)*

Erm, what?! Now my anxiety about what my child is playing and why has just taken on a whole new level!

The researchers found that the children were treating Barbie in this manner because she is “babyish’ (we’re talking about 7-year olds here!) ‘unfashionable’, ‘plastic’, has multiple selves and because she is a feminine icon.” All good reasons for rejecting Barbie, but really kids, torture?

We haven’t quite reached that level of play (yet). So for now, while Rose and her friend battle it out with the Barbies, I’ll just keep inserting my subversive narratives and hope that, while my opinion is still valued a little, I can counter some of the rubbish to which my daughter is being subjected. Hopefully, without turning her into a raving psychopath.

Mom: I can see that these really are monsters.
Rose: No they’re not, they’re people.
Mom: But look how thin their arms are. Only monsters could have arms so thin.
Rose: blank stare
Mom: And their eyes are so big. Like the wolf in little Red Riding Hood.
Rose: even more blank
Mom: And look at their hands!
Rose: slightly annoyed Come on, we need to get ready for the wedding!

* Apologies to those for whom this is old news. In 2005 I had no children and wasn’t yet keeping a beady eye on Barbie research so it took me rather my surprize.


The mother of two girls (Rose, 6, and Fynn, 11 months), Mombot is a feminist and human rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has a fairly laid back approach to parenting if you ignore the regular rants about the proliferation of the colour pink, the lack of diversity amongst "girls' " toys, the scarcity of good role models for girls in the media etc etc etc.

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    1. Once upon a time, there was an evil fairy called Mattelious who cast a spell on the sons and daughters of all the fairytale characters who had ever outwitted her. “Your children,” she croaked in her evilest voice, “will do lots of drugs and be Ever After High!”

  1. Well, my daughter can make a shampoo bottle and hand soap into people (she’s 3), so I figure all she wants is to tell a story. And well, Monster High dolls are much more entertaining than Barbie. But I also find them so much more “out there”, so to speak, that I can’t really think of them as something a kid can really strive to look like. I think it’s all about balance.

    Also, she picked out her own Monster High doll at a consignment shop on a day when my will was weak. So we have one. And I got such a snide comment about letting my child play with one from another mother. I suppose what I ideally want to do is expose her to enough choices that she’ll pick what she truly wants, rather than what marketing thinks little girls should have. And if I do that and she still wants to play with princess dolls and barbies, so be it.

    1. I also feel that my kid should be able to choose her toys, so there is no blanket ban on anything ( except mayb guns – it hasn’t come up). I have framed my objections in terms of my own preference (or disapproval) making it clear that this is my opinion. In the same way I have made it clear that I don ‘t like pink very much but that lots of other people do and that’s ok. Rose is still young enough to be influenced by my views, and I intersperse them with conversation topics like, why are most Barbie dolls blonde? I don’t want to set up a back-lash scenario.

  2. Among the worst I found so far are Winxx
    There were little figures of them in the “Girl Surprise Eggs” (an actually banned item in this household). My sister had two and I took pictures:
    Especially the second one is striking a hyper-sexualized porn pose. Oh, and the little leaflet informed us that she “loves shopping and shoes” puke.
    Fortunately, both girls have so far not really taken to Barbie-ish dolls although they got several given to them by well-meaning people.
    But we have an insufferable amount of Filly-horses* and, since it was the one thing I had explicitly told my parents that my children should NOT have for christmas a huge “treehouse” that is made of the cheapest plastic on earth, has annoying music and totally no play-worth.

    * I plead guilty. I’m a total sucker for unicorns, dragons, gryphins and all things fantasy, so it’s hard to tell them why mummy gets the stuff but they don’t

  3. Zombarbie! Yes!! And here’s their song:

    My son is three years older than my daughter and when they were young my son clearly overheard my wife and I talking about the horrible bad rotten evils of Barbie on more than one occasion. At some point he internalized this and when his sister was old enough to know what a Barbie doll was and brought Barbie up in conversation he would always say “if a Barbie enters this house it will disappear without a trace!” He knew it was funny and would get a reaction but he was also somewhat serious because I suspect he was anxious that if she had something like a Barbie doll she wouldn’t want to play with him and do the things they enjoyed doing together.

  4. My kid had a kind of “Forest Barbie” knock-off as a toddler. I did kind of the same thing. “Where do you suppose she gets make-up in the forest?” Why is she wearing high heels? I don’t think those would be so handy for someone who is hunting for a living.”

    Got the same blank stares and impatient answers. But don’t worry — she’s a feminist now!

  5. I just read a great book about how to counteract the “girls only like pink, shopping, and boys” marketing that hits our kids depressingly young. Its called “Packaging Girlhood” by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown. It not only discusses the what the problems are and how to spot them consistently, but addresses how to talk to our kids about them at different ages. I am dreading having to deal with this (my daughter isn’t even in preschool yet), but she will be a part of this world and be affected by it – the best I can do is be aware and try to give her a different way to look at the crap messages she will be getting her entire life. The book really helped me feel more prepared in that regard!

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