Beyond Merida: Toy Industry Complicity in Marketing Vapid Values

Update May 11, 2015 Could the caped crusader cavalry be coming in the form of sheroes and indie offerings like IAmElemental and Roominate and Lottie Dolls? Sure hope so! If you need a bit of joy juice, here’s a glimpse of some positive progress with brands avenging gender stereotypes in the toy aisle.

And here’s an overview of ‘where we are now’…Two short videos I created for a recent presentation that bring hope and promise. Part One: A Salute: Why we need to Let Toys Be Toys! Part Two: We need “All Hands on Deck” to make change! 

Original post: May 6, 2013

“How can we stop this?” and “What are they thinking?”

…are the two most common phrases coming out of children’s health and wellness circles right now, as fatigued advocates and parents in the trenches deal with the fallout of misguided toy industry decision-making that amounts to idiocy served on a platter.

Pick a toy giant, ANY giant.

Mattel. Lego. Hasbro. Disney. 

They’re all doing the churn and burn of ‘freshening’ play products by actually DEVOLVING into appearance-based, empty-headed renditions of their once healthier ‘classic’ toy selves.

Candyland’s been sexed up. (I agree with colleague Peggy Orenstein, Queen Frostine now looks like a Bratz doll) American Girl’s been dumbed down. (Removal of history for ‘relatable’ storylines? Gee, will texting drama or a lost phone adventure be next?) And Disney morphed Brave’s shero Merida from an impetuous naturalist with her freckle-faced, tousled, could give a care mane, to a prettified princess with raven, tumbled-to-perfection hottie locks and eyeliner (no doubt there will be accessory grooming brushes of some sort).

Et tu Lego? C’mon, what can you do with a plastic toy block right? Well…er…um…

Lego lobbed a double-whammy of ‘you’vegottabekiddinme’ managing to turn a benign geometric chunk of plastic into a freakin’ body image ‘sexy warrior’ statement sporting ripped abs, drawn-on breasts, weaponry, wounds and wardrobe back slits (use Google images to see Lego Star Wars Padme Amidala de(evolution) over time for a glimpse of ‘that was then, this is now’ sheesh—is this really necessary, people?)

Lego also made waves with their “Hey Baby!” wolf-whistling toy construction workers/sticker set (thankfully pulled and mea culpas galore, but it’s disturbing to see a ‘who let the thugs out’ mindset of sexual harassment move beyond “normalizing and desensitizing” into actually “seeding” behaviors in young minds)…


Dear toy industry: How about more “Maker Faire” mind-stretching and brain over bod resourcefulness and less make-up-n-model mania drenched in hottie body sexualization?

The mass market purveyors of play are saturating the shelves with vapid values and shallow productization that feels more like ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’ in the kids’ culture aisle.

As my teen would say, “that’s just messed up.”

The good news? Maker Faire is coming up in two weeks and I’m always inspired by the toy creations and innovation coming out of there, plus the Sandbox Summit and Toy Fair reports from industry colleagues show some remarkable play products that appeal across the board for positive picks…it’s just that they dwarf by comparison with the behemoths of mass market big box retail.

Granted, there’s an upside to the downward spiral too…As industry trots out skewed research with morally bankrupt justifications shouting“it’s what kids want,” and we hear rote responses saying “just don’t buy it” (an absurdly elementary translation of “if we can make a buck, we will…public health be damned”) it’s raising the ire of public health advocates, media orgs, veteran branding pros and informed parents alike…That’s right, industry good guys are parents too, hipsters.

FAR from knuckling under in white-flag surrender to these manufacturing misfires, I’m seeing some rip-snortin,’ red-flag waving, raging bull stampedes ahead…long overdue actually, as we’re in dire need of a “market correction” to change the channel of influence.

Let’s be clear on the rhetoric too…

It’s NOT “what kids want”…

…It’s what adults (who know better) CHOOSE to produce and put out there to make a quick buck with a broken moral compass that goes ‘sproing!’

Did kids ‘want’ the tasteless insta-videogame created after the Boston bombing? Or did adults bait the outrage in media for ratings, coverage and profits?

Here’s a thoughtful interview with Center for Media & Children’s Health Dr. Michael Rich aka The Mediatrician conducted with the use of media mindfulness discussing the gamification of the Boston bomb tragedy without feeding into it.

He also reminds that we reap what we sow in desensitized societal reverb and cross-cultural meanness(along those reckless lines, don’t even get me started on the ‘bleeding ex-girlfriend’ rifle target  promoting violence against women aggressively; it’s not about ‘censorship’ it’s about public health, just as I wrote years back when they were coming up with the ‘hands on Wii videogame murder simulation’ Manhunt) 

These are the kinds of outrageous instances of sexism, violence against women/misogyny being called out via Miss Representation’s social media campaign #Not Buying It provoking parental pushback beyond the usual public advocates in a battle for the hearts and minds of our children and our culture itself. I’m actually kind of glad the tipping point of toxicity is finally inching toward critical mass as it’s starting to be a shoulder shake and a wake up jolt to spur everyday souls into action. Many of us who are world-weary with exhaustion after years in this battle are quite ready for some cavalry to kick in and lend a hand. Along those lines…

Extending Peggy Orenstein’s pertinent post, “Seriously, Disney, I’m Trying to Take a Little Break Here, Must You?”

…I’ll add that in my own 7-day hiatus for “Screen Free Week” I was inundated by over two dozen parents pointing to petitions, policy, boycotts and blog posts on myriad media and marketing misfires BEYOND the ‘toy story’ fodder mentioned here…

ALL involved some form of “why are they doing this?” And “what is WRONG with our culture?” tapping into issues waaaaaaay beyond Merida makeovers. In a twisted way, that’s encouraging. People are starting to care.

As well they should. The systemic duplicitous featherweight marketing of kids’ fare disturbs me greatly and needs called out. Loudly.

“Featherweighting” is my own coinage for what happens when toy giants knock the stuffing out of robust products to strip them of substance.

It’s not just disposing of informal learning, positive development cues or any semblance of wholesomeness when these branding updates revamp, it’s the insertion of ‘edgier,’ often negative, behavioral sass and sexy scenarios that are put IN to the toy stories. This goes for cartoon makeovers and TV updates as well. Here are this week’s toy gaffes at a glance:

Mattel: I winced with ‘watch what they do with this’ prescient predictions when Mattel initially bought the American Girl doll line…and sure enough, sadly, this week’s Washington Post points to what’s come to pass. (the earlier Atlantic article was my siren to start asking parents and young girls directly what they think about this…story to come) 

Witness the dumbing down of character development and nuanced backstories of each new doll until any semblance of learning about an era, hardship, or slice of life in history is nil…Note the diluted plotlines in the name of ‘relatable’ personalities with vapid first world problems…These are all ‘market indicators’ of what’s being pushed on store shelves, rebranding fluff and stuff.

I recognize the wholesomeness of the American Girl dolls represent the mass profit potential for healthier fare, so I’ll admit I’m a bit torn on coming out ablaze on this one, but their brand makeover still represents backsliding on the brain trust front. (And Saige, pictured here, will be featured in film, coming direct to video July 2, 2013, which is a positive lift from the Mattel Monster High money-maker but a negative wash on cerebral/storytelling/historic substantive content)

Admittedly, I was never a big American Girl doll fan to begin with due to the high price-tag, pre-scripted fare and ‘collectibles’ buy-in with accessory-laden ‘add-ons’ necessitating far too much consumption for this meager mama…but the empirical evidence of shallow simplification and the shifts toward ‘lighter drama’ versus adventure, mirrors the pop culture dynamics of what constitutes a ‘challenge’ today amidst our Reality TV culture…that’s disconcerting.

Disney: Let’s hope former “Brave” Director Brenda Chapman blogs the bejeebers out of this one, as the cowardly merchandising makeover of Merida is FAR from brave, both figuratively and literally.

Upheavals are common between film and merchandising, but I can almost envision Merida’s Scottish spunky character stomping her feet in a dither over the unjustness of it all. If anyone needs ‘rescued’ from the clutches of the mouse house glamorama, it’s this lass. (which is ironic, since she’s a self-rescuing princess if I ever saw one)

Disney’s Merida will be officially launching May 11 as the 11th Disney princess (and first Pixar character crowned) but hear ye, hear ye, thou hast been deemed a royal sellout…

The Pixar wholesome mussed and no fuss pre-Disneyfied shero gave us all hope and promise of a princess without come-hitherness, including our friends at ReelGirl, but alas, Disney has placed her in an altered state, complete with a coy, canted-pose, big-haired hotness and eye-lined, bare-shouldered beauty…

…A vast departure from her freckled and forthright authenticity and couldn’t give a toss ‘tude in the original characterization (though it’s clear Disney is head-patting critics with a glimmer of hips on her hourglass figure and a twinkle of sass in her stance)

A media literacy footnote on diversity: Peggy Orenstein wryly observes with visual insight the placement of ‘princesses of color’ at the very fringes of the Disney princess group graphics. Coming in 2014? Princess #12 Anna from Frozen which premieres Nov 27, 2013.

Want to help send a message to Disney?

Update 5-9: Here’s a petition by A Mighty Girl already up to 36, 000 signatures in 4 days! And here’s a petition I’m signing to redefine girly and ‘return Merida’ to her proper non-sexualized, bold, brave, and boisterous presence, created by Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals.

I’ve signed BOTH, as I strongly feel childhood should not be narrowcast into sparkle silos and kids’ personas should be ‘free reign’ to be as bold, boisterous and brave as they wish, sans alteration and princessification!)

Again, it’s not about ‘one princess’ —use media literacy to view the messages in a larger cultural context. Feel free to sign, send, share, and sound off!

Lego: Their fabulous Idea Conference and ongoing school/STEM and Serious Play creations amaze, making it all the more gobsmacking when Lego missteps with sexist gaffes. 

Nothing wrong with ‘updating’ but I still don’t see the need for newly-breasted lady-figs with cinched in waistlines via the girly girl “Friends” line and am still ticked Lego threw neuroplasticity under the bus for a pink think opportunity and a day at the salon…

As for the two sexist instances cited earlier (and at left) I hope we won’t be seeing more of this, as Lego, like Playdough remains one of the few toys I always keep in the cupboard as staple ingredients for imagination soup.

It’s still hard for me to see Lego segue from a free form excellent building toy for limitless imagination for ANY gender end up as ‘assembly’ boxed sets with licensed accoutrement and plenty of gender pigeon-holing…Painful, actually. And the more detailed those mini-figs get trying to mimic and mirror their movie counterparts, the less imagination for pretend play and interchangeable roles. Le sigh. Profit trumps progress in play…

Hasbro: Candyland’s “Frostine as a Bratz doll” comment by Peggy Orenstein in the Atlantic was spot on, and she dutifully notes “I’m not the only one who finds this evolution alarming.” Nope, not in the least.

Her hottie sightings of sexualized toy changes mirror my own ‘manga makeovers’ in comics, and critical thinking analysis of cartoon art ‘facelifts’ over the last 7 years too.

Ever the princess pro, Peggy points to specifics I hadn’t noticed though, like how the Disney Princesses have gradually become more skinny and coy over time. She sums the damage of ever-earlier age compression and sexualization embedded in sociological images at the Pre-K Candyland level with one poignant quote:

“Gary Cross, an historian of childhood, once told me that toys traditionally have communicated to children our expectations of their adult roles. What are we telling girls we expect of them with this?”

Ouch. Point, Peggy.

So what CAN we do?

For starters, we can all take the blinders off and start connecting the dots to the larger societal context and environmental exposure of these media and marketing messages, and see how they play out in the real world…

Rather than remain with ‘eyes wide shut’ in single-lens myopia pooh-poohing and shoulder shrugging with superficial analysis about ‘one image’ or ‘one instance’ or ‘one swimsuit we need to revisit the cultural context of how these messages appear amidst volumes of indoctrination.

It’s reminiscent of readers’ over-simplification of my infamous Target/Times Square debacle of yesteryear (visual by Bennett at left) which reduced my objectification theme to a ‘one-off’ argument about whether it’s a “crotch shot vs snow angel” eventually diluting context altogether and focusing on the ‘non-responsiveness to bloggers brouhaha. Frustrating.

We need to look at how the creation of these toy branding overhauls and product messaging significantly alters, shapes, depicts, and frames children’s identity, ambition, and self-worth, and hold media and marketing behemoths accountable in ‘reap what we sow’ reality checks…especially those who try to scrape off children’s health and wellness mistakes like gum on the bottom of their shoe after they’ve profited on the backs of kids.

I used to give the benefit of the doubt, thinking these toy industry misfires were just lazy formulaic copycat thinking. The ‘no choices out there’ sameness of the thread-thin, uber-sexualized Monster High, Bratzillaz, Novi Stars dolls for example, seemed like sloppy “me too” marketing with a dollop of Snookification.

Now I view from a larger panorama lens…we are literally MANUFACTURING public health problems.

We need to start asking bigger, tougher, hardball questions; look deeper into the effects of playing with thin dolls on body image and food intake in young girls for example, or the increase of sexual assault, dating violence and “rape culture” with social norming of misogynistic media, hyper masculine toys and monstrous marketing messages.

Also, when we see the vast potential to use toys for innovation and education in STEM fun for girls, for example (see Little Bits, Roominate, Goldie Blox and other Maker Faire finds) we need to also remind ourselves that these products are a DIRECT reaction and counter-balance to the mass marketing proliferation of gendered toys that have emerged in the marketplace in VERY recent 21st century times.

They are in effect trying to ‘fix’ some of the problems that mass marketing put there.

Ironically, when Lego chose to carve deeper ruts in brain plasticity paths with presets for societal cues with their new Lego Friends line, I didn’t view them as purposely stereotyping…I figured they were going for the ‘fast fix’ in mopping up their own self-created mess, diverging from “let toys be toys” into a narrowcast, male centric focus which essentially kicked 50% of their market potential to the curb.

To address this in TODAY’s heavily gendered marketplace they decided to play it safe with the pink think spa, puppy, beauty friendship route, though they could’ve used that research/opportunity to think inclusively, holistically, and strategically without ticking off copious quantities of us who support their product.

Critical thinking for parents to ponder: who, why, and how did the marketplace change so fast to begin with? It points right back to the media/marketing messages. It didn’t come out of the ether, nor is it a chicken or egg gender question.

Own it. Stop it. Fix it. In that order, people.

As I said before in my Lego Friends post, “How (and why) are we missing profound opportunities to leverage neuroscience breakthroughs for positive change, wellness and play?

…”With all this Lego research ‘anthropology,’ why aren’t we closing learning gaps with  innovation? How can we finally be tossing aside ‘hardwired’ corpus calossum theories on differences in boys/girls, acknowledging brain plasticity and realizing this play pattern/edu deficit stuff is NOT ‘set in stone’ and yet simultaneously standby to see Lego spend $40 million in mega-marketing bucks to proceed to SET it in stone. Truly baffling. Why would we DO that?”

Finally, we DO have choices here as both producers and consumers of media and marketing messages beyond ‘not buying it’…

Ask “if this is what we deserve” when it comes to gender roles, children’s place in society, and how we choose to walk through the world? Parents are taking a stand against children being narrowcast and boxed into finite dimensions to make a buck at the expense of their emerging selves.

Youth themselves CAN and DO speak out and make a difference, just ask our SPARK partner pals igniting movements that matter.

We CAN stand for open-ended discovery and meaningful play. And we can stand down corporations that choose to be tone deaf with hands firmly clasped over their profiteering ears in monkey see, monkey do mimicry mode.

Right now on the ethics front, the media and marketing toy industry giants seem to have boldly eliminated the word ‘no’ in the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” adage.

This is the way 21st century marketing strategies are taking shape; a twisted blend of baiting outrage, ‘ask forgiveness rather than permission’ and ‘toss it out there until enough people make a stink.’

In short, anything goes if nothing goes down.

“People don’t change because they see the light, people change because they feel the heat”…

Pass me the blow torch.

Visual Credits: Stylized Merida-FanPop logo; Disney Merida/E! Online; Original Merida screenshot/Pixar via Rose-Merida.tumblr, Padme Amidala Brickipedia, snorting bull/patch:, 7 year old’s not buying it via, feather via The Daily, Saige AG doll via, Disney Merida via, Lego construction crew via; Princess Frostine; Merida keep her brave graphic via via

Related Reading on Sexualization of Children by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Public Health: Domestic Violence at the Grammys, Too Short of a Memory

The Bro Code: Media, Masculinity and Misogynistic Misfires

Bratzillaz, Novi Stars and Monster High, Same Sexualized Snorefest

Ground Hog Day: Super Bowl Sexism Keeps Popping Up: The Impact on Kids

Girl Caught: New Moon Girls Slams Sexualization of Kids, Calls Out Harm

Kids, Media, and Intimacy/Relationships: The Hottie Factor

Vogue Cadeaux: Children ARE Gifts, Not To Be Bought or Sold

Bottom Feeders Like American Apparel Need Whacked in The Assets

Vamp Tramp Toys: A Monster Problem (Mattel)

Tips From the Trenches: Re-Imagining Youth Activism

Body Blitz: APA Shows Harm of Early Sexualization

Steamed About Sexualization? Healthy Media for Youth Act: Pt1

Healthy Youth Media Act: Can Change Be Legislated? Pt2

Teen Girls: Ready for a Rebel Yell to Spark Change?

Toxic Messaging: K-Mart/Alloy Episodic Back to School

Girls Are Not Candies, Tweens Are Not Teens, Thongs Are Not Undies

Baiting Outrage: Using Hooks With Media Mindfulness

Sexualization Summit to Spark Change!

Spark Ignites a Summit of Powerhouses, Geena Davis & More

The Girl Revolution: Empowering Girls Vs. Consuming Them

New Moon Girl Media Community Online

Girls Prescription for Self-Worth: Respect Rx

Raising Girls Amidst Meat Marketing: Carl’s Jr, Burger King Raunch

Taking Aim at Target: Think That V is a Coinkydink?

When It’s Not Hip to Be Square, Sexist Spongebob & Burger Shots

Sexed Up M&Ms Sell Fashionably Decadent Premium Sleaze

Mama’s Got A Brand New Bag…Er…Face. Nose. Belly.

Body Image: Tips for Teens (Both Genders!) To Survive the Media Morass

What Sells: Infants As Fashion Statements & Joke Props?

So Sexy So Soon, Shaping Youth Talks to Jean Kilbourne

Beyonce’s Dereon Divas: PopTarts and Sesame Streetwalkers?

Sexist Undies: Slimy Santa Innuendo Gets the Heave Ho-Ho-Ho!

Bratz Movie Seeps Bratitude Into Kid Culture

Where My Dogs At? A Misogynistic Misfire-MTV2

Pussycat Dolls Vamp for Lame TV-the ‘F’ Word is Feminist? Hardly.

Celeb Pop Culture and Media’s Tipping Point of Toxicity

Hollywood Walk of Lame—Victoria’s Secret Models ‘Earn’ Star? For WHAT?

Mommy, Why Are Her Legs Spread Like That?

Shaping Youth Is In the L.A. Times (Miley Mess

Kids Are A Captive Audience With Ambient Advertising

Race, Gender, Sexism: Pop Culture Cues & Kids (3-part series)

Commodification of Kids: The Backlash Has Begun

Shaping Youth Through Ambient Advertising

Manga Makeovers And Other Body Image Cartoon Capers

Facelifts for Kiddie Characters?

Gender, Race & Sexism: Shaping Youth Through Pop Culture Cues

Girls As Boy Toys Takes an Even More Toxic Turn

Preteen Tips/How to Say it To Girls

America the Beautiful: See it. Support it.

Childhood Matters Radio Show: Raising Strong, Healthy Girls Today

Related Resources on Gender, Stereotypes & Early Sexualization

APA Task Force on the Early Sexualization of Children (full 72pp pdf)

Miss Representation Education Curriculum

Miss Representation Resources and Stats/Facts

Resource List from So Sexy So Soon

Fact Sheet on Sexualizing Childhood

Stats & resources on sexualization “Sex on TV4″ Program for the study of media & health

Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent Sexuality Jane Brown et al (Eds)

Girls Shape the Future: Study/Girls Inc: Early Predictors of Girls’ Adolescent Sexual Activity (summary: 8 pp pdf)

Packaging Girlhood, Hardy Girls, Healthy Women etc.

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes (Also see Packaging Boyhood; S.Y. Board Advisers:
Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown)

Coming Soon: Jan. 1, 2014:

Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping & Sexualizing of Girlhood From Birth to Tween by Melissa Atkins Wardy (Shaping Youth is honored to be a contributor in the book too!) 



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