Thursday, November 11, 2010

Passing Grade

Slowly, steadily, I am becoming comfortable with admitting that I do like the Monster High franchise--Mattel’s attempts to create a multimedia franchise about cute monster girls in high school, starting with the dolls but also including animated shorts and novels--a little bit. It started with seeing that other geek girls were getting into it, followed by trying to resist the temptation to buy a Clawdeen Wolf doll, then eventually giving in and admitting I really did want it, a werewolf that looks more like a beautiful girl with fangs and wolf ears, sporting platform shoes and a minidress.
 I’m still confused as to what Clawdeen is doing here in my apartment. Ever since I was a nerdling, I’ve held an undying grudge against the concept that every female monster must be pretty or a pretty version of a male monster. Furthermore, fashion and what’s called “beauty” these days just isn’t my thing.

Any larger-reaching complaints about either of these things are more about them being the only options available for girl’s toys or (almost for) female monsters, and not being intrinsically bad themselves. If this weren’t true, I’d have less of an issue with pretty-girl monsters or fashion-focused toylines when they did appear. I’m particularly irked by the suggestion that the werewolf girl must shave her entire body, ensuring she’s freaky, but not too freaky, y’know?

(This is not an issue of making monsters “wimpy”, either. It’s not really possible to “damage” the reputation of a fictional creature by providing softer depictions of it.)

Monster High does try for some equality with two monster boys that also look nearly human. It deserves points for this, and it’s probably more than a male-targeted toyline would do. However, all things are not equal, as the background of the animated shorts, you’ll find plenty of more conventional male monsters inhabiting the school, while all the female students still look pretty.

There’s also a bit of a “bad fanfic” vibe to the premise that someone not steeped in fandom would probably not recognize or react to: not only are the MH characters in (dramatic voice) HIGH SCHOOL, but they are meant to be the children of “legendary monsters,” in some cases naming their progenitors as the exact figures from movies and mythology. It’s so danged subcultural of me , but I can’t help my knee-jerk response to this, thinking ill thoughts about the many fictional characters have been transformed into high school students or saddled with bastard offspring.

And then there are the puns; oh my god the puns. Help!

Despite these criticisms, I decided to give the issue more consideration. Besides pretty-girl monsters, “Monsters in high school” has also been done a lot, including Gravedale High, which I grew up with, so what made it different? Well, Monster High isn’t exactly different, but I’ve observed a few things about it that are a cut above.

First of all, loathing of pretty-girl monsters aside, I like the art style of the packaging and the webtoons. I have this weird, moth-like attraction to bright, colourful objects, and on this it delivers. The colour schemes of the characters are striking, even if their shoes are painful. And sometimes, the cartoons do get a chuckle out of me.

Secondly, No matter how much I bemoan the lack of true female grotesques in popular culture, Monster High is still unlike most girls’ toys. I’ve always been disturbed by that most girls’ toylines deal with “normal” (if privileged) life instead of anything supernatural or fanciful, and those that do involve fantasy elements are relegated to an even younger set, as if being a girl leads to only thinking about what is possible in the real world.

Monster High is only just a little dissimilar to this, but I might have underestimated the power of geek girls and women seeing something “freakish” targeted explicitly towards them, rather than having to eternally piggyback off boys’ toylines if they want to deal with anything behind the glitzy mundane.

I also get the impression that many fans consider the storyline behind the dolls to be more considered and positive than the usual “shopping, flirting, fashion” mien of girls’ toys, but that doesn’t right true. Yes, Mattel did put some work into defining the characters’ profiles and personalities, but so do a lot of toys, and these are still “normal” high school girls organized into neat archetypes, despite their exteriors.

Overall, the reasons I have for being interested n Monster High are only small ones, stacked low against my difficulties with it. I don’t believe Monster High is really all that subversive, but at least it can be an entertaining diversion in small doses.

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