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Sara Austin is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on intersections of identity in children’s literature and culture. Today, Sarah talks about a recent article she wrote for Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) titled Valuing queer identity in Monster High doll fandom
What first brought your attention to the Monster High doll fandom?
My daughter did, actually. She came home from preschool a few years ago talking about these dolls and how we had to get them. Thirty dolls, five movies, and countless webisodes later, it is safe to say that we are both fans. I was surprised that the show embraced the sexuality of its characters and treated it seriously and in discreet ways, such as acknowledging crushes or incorporating nods to the Twilight series. When my daughter wanted to be a Monster High character for Halloween, we looked up cosplay and makeup tips and just stumbled onto the fan sites. From there I started reading fanfiction and message boards to understand how active and diverse the fandom is.
What about it made you feel it was important to study?
Children’s culture influences everyone, yet children are not often involved in the discussions centering on media made for them. A simple Google search will turn up pages and pages of adults concerned about how Monster High dolls set unrealistic body standards or are too sexy for young girls, and while those are valid concerns, fewer people acknowledge the queer potential of Monster High or discuss why children might want to play with these dolls.
Studying fandom filters children’s voices through an adult perspective. I read fanfiction or look at fan art created by young people, and then I write about it. Writing about fandom is not the same thing as having children speak directly to scholars, but it does at least bring these voices into the conversation. By providing examples of fan art, writing, and other creations by young people I want to expand the conversation surrounding this one example of children’s media. Monster High and Monster High fandom are only part of larger conversations about gender and sexuality in children’s culture. Studying how children interact with the toys and media made for them is a first step in bringing those with the most at stake (i.e. children) into this discussion.
Your paper discusses how fan practices have influenced Mattel’s branding of the dolls, specifically the inclusion of activism campaigns. How was this perceived by the fan community and what was your own take on this development?
There’s no one answer to how something is received by the fan community because it isn’t a hive mind or a single entity; it’s individuals taking part in one discussion from a myriad of different perspectives. I can say that the parent groups who actually met with Mattel reported that they were happy with the changes to the series, that there are people on YouTube who claim the Kind Campaign Shockumentary is their favorite episode, and there are some custom dolls painted to look like Molly and Lauren, the campaign founders featured in the episode. There are also blog posts saying that Mattel is exploiting a good cause to make money and that the dolls are too skinny and sexy to address bullying, but most of these types of posts are by mainstream news outlets and perhaps should not be considered part of the fan discussions.
I do think the series changed for the better after activist groups got involved with Mattel. The emphasis on embracing “freaky flaws” probably would not have happened if it weren’t for these partnerships. Monster High is more diverse than most other fashion dolls at the conceptual level, but the emphasis on diversity and loving yourself really seems to have come from Mattel’s interaction with fans and activists. One of my favorite characters, Finnegan Wake, a merman who uses a wheelchair, only became a doll because he won a fan vote. And fans are not done. There is still activism urging the brand to release an openly queer character, which they have not really done yet. I would love to see this happen in Monster High and in the sister series, Ever After High, which has engaged in queerbaiting in the past.
How did you hear about Transformative Works and Cultures and decide to submit your paper to it?
I have a scholar friend, Kathryn Coto, who writes Harry Potter fanfiction and researches queer young adult literature and fandom, and another scholar friend, Alysa Auriemma, who reads and writes Captain America fanfiction and works with queer narratives and trauma. When I started talking to them about Monster High they sent me to Archive of Our Own and to TWC. I came across the TWC special issue on fan activism and ended up teaching one of the essays in my freshman writing class. While writing this essay I used resources from TWC in my research, so it seemed like the natural place to send the finished essay. Not only did the journal seem like a good fit, but I also really like that the journal is open access so that anyone can read it and that the journal uses web links and images in the articles to help connect them to the fandoms they discuss. TWC is one of the few, or perhaps the only journal that has such a supportive relationship with fandoms.
What things about fandom do you see inspiring others?
Fandom should be a place of safety. Groups that focus on a common interest offer people an opportunity to meet and talk about that interest and gain a sort of automatic acceptance regardless of other factors. What I found interesting about the Monster High fandom was how open everyone was about personal identity. Conversation topics that we would normally consider taboo with strangers such as sexuality, depression, family issues, etc. people will discuss openly on fan message boards. Fandom creates these open friendships and safe spaces online for people, especially young people, who might feel pressure to conform in physical spaces.
Fan communities are not all rainbows and sunshine—there are concerns such as “Cosplay is Not Consent,” protecting female fans in costume at conventions from people who might touch them or make inappropriate comments about their bodies without their consent—but these communities do have the potential to be great sources of inclusion and acceptance. Monster High fandom I find particularly interesting because the dolls are geared toward children and so the fandom has a lot of young members. I think Monster High is also unique in that its premise is self-acceptance and friendship, and that message influences the fandom as well. If you are a child or young teen looking for self-acceptance, this group might have a real draw for you. Even people outside of the fandom can appreciate a group that offers love and support to young people who might feel socially excluded because they are different. In this article I focused on the queer elements of fandom, but there are so many other reasons that young people might find solace and hope in a group like this one.
Catch up on earlier guest posts