Culture At Large

Goth Barbies and cultural desires

Karen Swallow Prior

As it turns out, I hate camping.

This in spite of the fact that one of my most treasured toys as a girl was my Barbie camper. It had been the big package under the tree that Christmas when I was 7. Once I unwrapped it, I luxuriated in its vinyl smell, hip ’70s yellow-and-orange hues and its awesome sliding door on one side and pop-out tent on the other. That camper was cool, and the twins next door were jealous.

Even so, I didn’t grow up to be a camper.

So I wouldn’t be too worried if your little girl gets a hankering for Mattel’s newest line of toys, which are almost as hot as Barbie: the freakish dolls of Monster High.

Monster High has become the No. 2 doll brand in just three years, right behind Barbie (naturally). With more than $500 million in annual sales, the dolls are one of the toy industry’s biggest retail sensations of the past several years. Modeled (some in gender-bending fashion) after famous monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s creature, the dolls come with names like Abbey Bominable, Ghoulia Yelps and Draculaur and sport bright neon hair and Gothic garb. The accompanying website includes back stories, books and web episodes.

In this age of Lady Gaga, it’s not surprising that such dolls would sell well. As a Mattel spokeswoman explained, "The message about the brand is really to celebrate your own freaky flaws, especially as bullying has become such a hot topic." Marketed for girls a bit older than the typical Barbie fan, the dolls of Monster High are “intended to send the message that being different is OK.” The brand’s motto is, “Be yourself, be unique, be a monster.” (Two out of three ain’t bad.) The dolls are also touted for promoting standards of beauty that break the blue-eyed, blond-haired Barbie mold, which is certainly a good thing (although it should be noted that the dolls look even more anorexic than their classier cousin).

Many of our desires are more culturally constructed than it’s convenient to admit.

Even so, some of us might be uneasy about cultivating a penchant for fangs, fishnet stockings, miniskirts, skulls and black eyeliner to 7-year-old girls.

Yet the fact is that many of our desires are more culturally constructed than it’s convenient to admit. Little girls aren’t born with the desire for Monster High dolls any more than I was born with a desire for clothes from Anthropologie. (I may have rejected camping from my Barbie days, but I did fully embrace fashion.) Consumer tastes - like many (perhaps most) of our desires - are cultivated.

It brings to mind the well-known passage from Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God, where he describes having decided to give his son a blue bicycle on the boy’s upcoming 6th birthday. The bicycle was purchased and hidden away. The only thing left to be done, Blackaby explains, was to convince the boy, who “had become enamored with some popular toys that would have been quickly broken or discarded,” that he wanted the bike. So the two parents did just that: convinced their son that what he really wanted for his birthday was a blue Schwinn. Lo and behold, “he asked for it, and he got it,” Blackaby writes.

Blackaby’s purpose here is to explain one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in us to align our desires with God’s will. It is not so different with our cultural consumption or our deepest desires. Those desires are going to be cultivated from somewhere.

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James. K. A. Smith says that “we are what we love.” He argues that we humans “are fundamentally desiring creatures.” Modern marketing practices, like those that Mattel has so obviously mastered, can “capture, form and direct our desires” because the marketing industry “has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination.”

Something is going to captivate our imagination - and thus our desires and our loves - whether it be toy campers, monster dolls or Anthropologie. Bikes and Barbies aren’t bad; but they are so much better when our desire for them is in proper proportion. As Christians, being aware of this empowers us to more intentionally seek to have our desires cultivated and fulfilled by God rather than skillful marketers.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment, Home & Family, Parenting