Monday, September 12, 2011

Julia Phelps

I’ve bought more girls’ toys in the past couple of years since...ever, and that includes my actual childhood. The natural culprit is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but just as that show began making waves outside the target little-girl demographic, Monster High was making something of the same headway. There’s been no explosion of guy nerds or notably visible fandom interest in Monster High, but there’s still the feeling that this is another little girls’ property that has made more nerd headway than I usually see.

My relationship with girls’ toys is complicated. I’ve come to realize that fandoms do exist in the same way for girls’ American cartoons as they do for boys’ ones, but I still find that things targeted towards boys have more appeal to me. Not necessarily in that they’re more “butch”, but they tend to have storylines with more conflict and more firmly rooted in fantasy and science fiction, all of which I prefer. Femininity needs to be respected, but it also needs to be said that storyline types shouldn’t be gendered, and that stories with conflict and non-saccharine fantasy aren’t necessarily masculine things. I still can’t shake the feeling that the parameters for female entertainment are actually narrower than those for male, and it’s not just a matter of what women like being automatically disrespected.

Anyway, I know that its high school setting dooms it to a more domestic conflict, but it still bothers me that Monster High’s adventures usually have little to do with the fact that the characters are monsters. I also still consider the positive qualities of Monster High to be overrated: it’s not that much more developed or daring than most other girls’ toylines, and to call it such depends on a far too pessimistic vision of what girls’ toys promote. Girl’s toys have always been about friendship and “being yourself”, and only try to promote a narrow female ideal through unspoken means.

Just as with FiM, my primary focus was on a nerdy female character. My favourite character in the toyline is undoubtedly zombie girl Ghoulia Yelps. I don’t like zombies as a monster genre: I just see them as dull and gross. However, Mattel keeps making me adore Ghoulia, who started out as the smartest kid in the cast and is now portrayed as a bona fide nerd.

I’m always drawn to the intellectual characters, and Ghoulia, being a zombie, can only speak in groans of various pitches. It’s an appealing and funny contrast between her intelligence and her physical mannerisms, as well as the expectations of zombie smarts. There’s a further joke about a zombie being “brainy”, which the doll manufacturers have been playing up by putting brain patterns onto her latest outfits.

Besides this small cleverness, Ghoulia is also the closest the cast has to an actual female grotesque. While Monster High bills itself as being about “freaky being cool”, naturally the characters are still designed to be mostly human and attractive, with small features like odd ears or skin tones, or tiny fangs--although to the series’ credit, it mostly goes for handsome male monsters, too (mostly). Ghoulia, however, has a twisted spine, shuffling legs and her mouth often hanging open, with the occasional thousand-yard stare or twisted smile; in one cartoon short, a fly comes from her mouth. Her toy likenesses eliminate these tells, and she isn’t really that “monstrous” at all (and as if to make up for it, her “boyfriend” character is probably the ugliest one), but I like to give some props to the fact.

In her own way Ghoulia still has a great character design, one of those whose colour and shape immediately strike the viewer as memorable, in ways they usually cannot define. I love most of Ghoulia’s outfits and the way her red and black and white clothing works with her blue colouring, even if her enormous platform heels still hurt to look at.

For the San Diego Comic Con, the Monster High exclusive toy was Ghoulia sporting some in-universe cosplay. She was dressed as the Flash-like Deadfast, a jokey play on zombie slowness. She had her own tiny fan-comic accessory and con badge, and it was enough to induce a sugar coma. Not enough to make me dig out my wallet to buy one, but thrilling enough that a girl’s toyline had considered such blatant displays of nerdery.

This continues outside of the SDCC exclusive, with the related web short “Daydream of the Dead”, in which the costumed Ghoulia imagines herself saving a rare comic at a convention. If Ghoulia were real and Deadfast fictional, we would all be crying “Mary ‘Sue!”, but because they’re both fictional, the story becomes cute instead.

Another toy release for Ghoulia was a set of extra clothes to dress one of her dolls in. Said set includes a tiny comic book, a Deadfast t-shirt, and a tiny action figure on a teensy blister card. It’s absolutely adorable, and is another purchase to add to my Monster High collection when it reaches Canada, even if I’ll have to rebuy a Ghoulia doll to dress her in it.

 In addition, there have been small hints throughout the franchise that horror nerds might be part of the process, in the form of little references and injokes. In Ghoulia’s case (the one I’ve paid the most attention to), her long hair and hairband may be reminiscent of Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, and her red and black outfit with musical decoration might be an oblique reference to “Thriller”. Her pose in the artwork for the “Dawn of the Dance” sub-line is also quite reminiscent of the Thriller Dance.

Kid’s toys don’t directly and malevolently slam intelligence, but girl’s toylines tend to push “normal” characters far harder, setting their premise in the real world and leaving them as ordinary humans. Who would have thought they would have gotten nerdiness so spot-on?

What is sadly not surprising, however, is that while Ghoulia is considered part of the main cast, “Daydream of the Dead” is the first time she has been the central character in a cartoon (“Cyrano de Ghoulia” doesn’t count, since the viewpoint characters actually were the rest of the cast who were helping her). It might just be because she can’t speak English and so would be harder to interpret without other characters to filter her words through, but it’s hard not to imagine that the world isn’t ready for a nerdy character as a lead, even if she is fashionably dressed and relatively conventionally beautiful. Thank goodness FiM had better luck with Twilight Sparkle.

I also like that she enjoys fast food and is best friends with Rich Bitch Cleo De Nile, and attracted to jock zombie Slow-Moe…it makes her a little bit different than other nerd characters, showing that Monster High isn’t quite so strongly bound to the weird American obsession with high school class divisions.

However, Ghoulia isn’t exactly a deep or resonating character; I’ve pretty much said all there is to know about her. There’s a lot of clever little jokes and a good character design, but that’s it. This ensures Ghoulia is confined strictly to the C-list. But it’s a good C.

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