Valuing queer identity in Monster High doll fandom

Sara Mariel Austin

University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, United States

[0.1] Abstract—According to Mattel, Monster High dolls topped $500 million in annual sales in 2014, quickly gaining on Barbie, whose $1.3 billion in annual revenue plummeted for the fourth quarter in a row. Monster High's recent ad campaign claims, "We are monsters. We are proud." Race, ethnicity, and disability are coded into the dolls as selling points. The allure of Monster High is, in part, that political identity and the celebration of difference become consumable. The female body, the racialized body, and the disabled body have long been coded as monstrous. Monster High reclaims this label, queering it. Using Jack Halberstam's work on children's culture and Richard Berger's and Rosalind Hanmer's work on fandom, this article explores the queer potential of Monster High. Fans rewrite the Mattel narrative through fan fiction, repainting the dolls, and embodying them through virtual avatars, makeup, and costume play. These fan practices both queer the dolls' identity politics and create communities of interest that act as safe spaces for expressing queer identity and generating fan activism. These fan practices have also influenced Mattel's branding of the dolls, specifically with the recent inclusion of activism campaigns such as WeStopHate and The Kind Campaign into the Monster High Webisodes and Web site. By exploring the queer politics of Monster High fandom, this paper explains how that queering generates social change.

[0.2] Keywords—Children; Consumer; Fashion; Gender; Sexuality

Austin, Sara Mariel. 2016. "Valuing Queer Identity in Monster High Doll Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In 2007, Garrett Sander introduced Monster High to Mattel, just as MGA Entertainment's Bratz dolls gained momentum as Barbie's first real challenger for the hearts and dollars of little girls. Monster High functions as Mattel's answer to Bratz and includes all the elements that made the original Bratz dolls successful. As a member of one open access fan site explains in her introductory message, "I was amazed that a toyline fashion doll wasn't pale or light haired or ambiguously brown but someone I could read as a person of color AND she had rocket boots." Mattel markets the Monster High dolls as "freaky fabulous," celebrating their monstrous identities; but the fan culture that has grown up around the dolls queers their identity politics even further. Though queer identity can refer specifically to nonheterosexual desire, I use the term more broadly to connote both a connection to queer theory as well as the cultural valuing of any identity position outside of a hegemonic cis, heterosexual, able-bodied sexual or gender identity.

[1.2] Monster High is a transmedia narrative that includes a collection of two-minute Webisodes, novels, 12 movies, dolls, an official Web site, and various other licensed merchandise. The franchise follows four friends who are the teen daughters of famous movie monsters: Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolfman. These girls, along with a larger cast of teen monsters, attend high school together and navigate the trials of being a teen. Despite a first season with no clear direction and a host of bad monster-related puns, the current incarnation of the show promotes female friendship and body acceptance. The movies and many of the episodes feature the narrator, Frankie Stein, welcoming new students to Monster High while proclaiming that everyone should "love their freaky flaws." In addition to its body-positive message, Monster High is unique in that it is one of the first toy lines to commit financially to a transmedia narrative as marketing strategy.

[1.3] As Henry Jenkins points out, transmedia storytelling lends itself to doll play. Jenkins's Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) defines the fan practice of textual poaching, derived from Michel de Certeau, as a form of appropriation that values the fan's own meaning of the text over that of the creators or producers (1992, 33–35). While Monster High fans could be described as poachers, Jenkins acknowledges the limitations of poaching as a model in reference to online spaces, since the Internet allows a broader range of textual interpretation and sharing via memes, videos, artwork, and so on. In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), Jenkins explores Internet fandoms in more detail, specifically addressing transmedia storytelling and concluding that major publishers have yet to work out exactly what the boundaries of transmedia storytelling are and how it should be employed (2006, 167). Despite this lack of brand clarity, many fandoms, such as Star Wars and Monster High, use the licensed ephemera of transmedia storytelling, including soundtracks, costumes, and toys, as a way to generate their own narratives within online spaces (2006, 146).

[1.4] Monster High's online presence, as well as its interactive characters, has helped build a large fan base, ranging from the target demographic of girls ages 10 to 14 to a perhaps expected audience of adult men and women. While the Hasbro property My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic also boasts a large adult male fandom, Monster High may be unique in its appeal to fans of multiple queer identities. Many fans self-report as queer on their own or in group social media sites. For example, one Monster High fan site includes a thread "Boys Club" that asks adult male fans to discuss their experiences within the fandom. Based on the self-reported data of the 15 men who responded, three identify as straight, three as bisexual, one as asexual, and eight as gay. Gender binaries also break down here, as four of the men who responded are transmen. While there is no concise listing of female sexual or gender identity on the site, many female members do self-identify in various comment threads as lesbian, bisexual, asexual, or transgender. Ruth Deller (2015) explains that though fan practices surrounding sexual desire are ridiculed by those outside the community, sexuality and preferences, especially the preferences of female fans, are often criticized by members of the community as well. Since not all fan space is safe space, it is especially important that Monster High fans are able to be open about sexual identity and preference, both within the community and in more public online spaces.

[1.5] Rosalind Hanmer and Richard Berger have both asserted that the Internet opens up possible sites for queer identity and politics that can be mobilized through fandoms. Hanmer identifies fandoms as possible safe spaces for queer discourse. Her discussion of the Xenasubtexttalk (XSTT) forum concludes that women utilize the confidence they gain from both the empowering storylines of the show as well as the friendships made in the online forum to challenge hegemonic identity categories (Hanmer 2010, 156–57). Hanmer suggests that fandoms act as an ideal convergence point for queer online communities, since sexuality is not the primary focus of the group and one does not have to openly identify as queer to join. Berger echoes and expands on Hanmer, claiming that not only do fandoms create safe spaces online for queer identity, but also fandoms are essentially queer, enacting "subversion through play, rather than necessarily direct[ing] politics" (Berger 2010, 183). Mattel's Monster High line capitalizes on this subversion through play; fans must literally buy into Monster High to gain membership in the fan community, which then self-polices its boundaries and supports its members in both physical spaces such as comic cons and online spaces such as Tumblr, Wikia, and others. While many communities police their boundaries and the behavior of members, Monster High emphasizes the buy-in of fans rather than shaming as a primary means of regulation. By emphasizing fan buy-in, Monster High fandom generates welcoming online space, which in turn contributes to subversion through play and the queering the canon of cultural properties through fan fiction and slash fiction (Berger 2010, 177).

2. Methods

[2.1] Just as Berger suggests, fans rewrite the Mattel narrative through fan fiction, doll repaints, virtual avatars, makeup, and costume play. These fan practices both queer the dolls' identity politics and create communities of interest that act as safe spaces for expressing queer identity. These communities are loosely separated by age, but the practices of each group are similar and often overlap, creating a vibrant and socially active community. Writing from my position as a fan, I will identify general trends in how fans are appropriating and queering Monster High, and how Mattel has responded to these fan practices. This essay will utilize teen and adult fan communities, since many online spaces require users be at least 13 years old. To investigate if Monster High fandom supports queer identity rather than if fans would express sexual identity in any password-protected or monitored community, the online conversations and art referenced here are only those openly available for public view and comment without joining a community or relinquishing anonymity. Though these communities might be interpreted as public spaces, written permission was obtained for the fan art used in the essay and pseudonyms are used to protect the artists' privacy.

[2.2] Fan studies can be celebratory of fan culture and the properties that generate fandom; thus, this article does not function as a critique of Mattel, but rather as an exploration of how Mattel's profit motive works with fandom to provide spaces for identity exploration and play. While I may be more laudatory of Mattel than some critics would expect, I hope to open a dialogue concerning both who Monster High is leaving out or misrepresenting and how the fan practice of buying in can function as exclusionary. Using Jack Halberstam's work on children's culture (Halberstam 2011), this article will discuss the queer politics of Monster High fandom, which opens up a space in popular culture to discuss monstrous identities, including the female body, the racialized body, the disabled body, and childhood sexual identity. Monster High attempts to reclaim the label of monster as "freaky fabulous," by telling consumers to "be proud of who you are" without directly challenging normative social assumptions about gender, race, and so forth. Monster High fandom queers the "monster" label within the tradition of fan activism outlined by Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova (2012), mobilizing around charitable causes and using popular culture to draw attention to humanitarian concerns such as bullying. Through this queering, online Monster High fan communities suggest that Monster High could become a flashpoint for social change.

[2.3] In volume 10 of Transformative Works and Cultures, entitled "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova broadly define fan activism to include mobilization around charitable causes, the use of popular culture to draw attention to humanitarian concerns, and direct political action by fan groups (Brough and Shresthova 2012, ¶2.4–2.9). In their explanation, Brough and Shresthova discuss the role of fandoms in changing cultural narratives, and the usefulness of communities of interest in getting young people involved in political action. Brough and Shresthova also acknowledge that longevity is one of the main challenges of fan activism, since popular culture changes so rapidly (Brough and Shresthova 2012, ¶6.6). Monster High addresses this concern in part, since the nostalgia associated with children's culture slows the pace of cultural change, as do the continued physical presence of toys and Mattel's periodic introduction of new characters and storylines. These new characters also illustrate how Mattel's product line and marketing are directly influenced by fans, expanding the cultural visibility and corporate acceptance of different types of bodies.

3. Monster as metaphor

[3.1] Making monstrosity a commodity is the founding principle behind Mattel's Monster High product line. Using catchphrases such as "be yourself. be unique. be a monster" and "embrace your freaky flaws," Mattel actively promotes the acceptance of bodily difference. Fans take this monstrous identity a step farther, using it as a starting point to access a queer identity politic. Intersections of identity have long been described by queer theorists such as Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and Jack Halberstam in terms of fluidity—identity categories that leak and bleed into one another. These intersections of identity create a queer subject who does not fit into normative models of identity performance. Racialized or disabled subjects, nongender-conforming subjects, and subjects with alternative desires are all queer bodies. Kathryn Bond Stockton suggests that children are also queer subjects, since social convention constructs childhood as a space innocent of knowledge and sexuality, but real children cannot and do not occupy this space (Stockton 2009, 6). Jack Halberstam's work on animation explores this connection between children's culture and queer identity politics. According to Halberstam, identity categories in animation create "a new space for the imagining of alternatives" since "gender in these films is shifty and ambiguous," "sexualities are amorphous and polymorphous," "class is clearly marked in terms of labor and species diversity," and "bodily ability is quite often at issue" (Halberstam 2011, 47–48). According to Halberstam, only race is left unexplored in the animated movies. As an example of the queer potential of animation, Halberstam claims that Pixar's Monsters Inc. (2001):

[3.2] makes monstrosity into a commodity and imagines what happens when the child victim of monstrous bogeymen speaks back to her demons and in the process both scares them and creates bonds of affection, affiliation, identification, and desire between her and the monsters. This bond between child and monster…is unusual because it allows for the crossing of the divide between the fantasy world and the human world, but also because it imagines a girl child as the vehicle for the transgression of boundaries. The human-monster bond is queer in its reorganization of family and affinity. (Halberstam 2011, 44)

[3.3] In contrast to Pixar, Mattel does include a discussion of race by mapping these identities directly onto the teen characters in both character bios and through Monster High movies like Fright On! that explore the racial tensions between werewolves and vampires. Mattel also encourages fans to appropriate, inhabit, and expand these identities through games, apps, virtual avatars, fan video contests, costumes, antibullying campaigns, and by the very nature of doll play itself.

[3.4] Monstrosity has long been bound up with sex, disability, and race. According to 16th-century texts like Martin Luther and Phillip Melancthon's pamphlet Of Two Wonderful Popish Monsters (1523) and Ambroise Pare's Monsters and Prodigies (1573), if a mother was overly sexual, sinful, or was frightened during pregnancy and had unholy thoughts, then the baby would be born monstrous (Davidson 2004, 97–101). Freud's "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1975) describes women as already castrated, lacking the penis they desire and blaming their mothers for this deformity. In this way Western culture has described the female body and female sexuality as responsible for monstrosity. Naomi Wolf explains in The Beauty Myth that "Where women do not fit the Iron Maiden [societal expectations/assumptions about women's bodies], we are now being called monstrous, and the Iron Maiden is exactly that which no woman fits, or fits forever. A woman is being asked to feel like a monster now though she is whole and fully physically functional" (Wolf 1990, 228). Wolf's description links the female body to disability and monstrosity; a "whole" and "functional" female body is socially coded as disabled.

[3.5] Susan M. Schweik and Felicity Nussbaum explain that in a Western context, the white male body is the social ideal, and therefore women and nonwhites belong to "the category of the monstrous…[which] loosely refers to many varieties of unfamiliar beings" (Nussbaum 1997, 167). While Schweik discusses 20th-century America and Nussbaum 18th-century England, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson bridges this gap. Garland-Thomson describes the treatment of Sarah Saartjie Baartman, whose "monstrously" sexualized African body was exhibited all over Europe in the 19th century. After Baartman's death, her body was publicly dissected and her genitals, an example of monstrous African womanhood, excised for display in the Musée de l'Homme (they were not removed until 1974) (Garland-Thomson 1997, 72). Garland-Thomson explores the conflation of femininity and disability, showing how phallocentric authors, including Aristotle and Freud, see feminine identity as disability, but feminist scholars like Jane Flax turn this rhetoric on its head, asserting that sexism and women's social roles deform them (Garland-Thomson 1997, 19). Garland-Thomson links her work to that of Eve Sedgwick and hopes that disability studies will add to a "spectrum of identities," suggesting that sex, race, queer identity, and disability are all political identities to which an individual might lay claim, even if the larger social structure deems them monstrous (Garland-Thomson 1997, 22). Thus, while the contemporary Teratology Society (Greek for "study of monsters") does not blame mothers for birth defects, traveling freak shows have mostly disappeared, and psychologists do not diagnose women with penis envy, the long tradition of labeling women's, nonwhite, and disabled bodies as monstrous has had a profound effect on Western cultural discourse surrounding bodies and identity.

[3.6] The cross-media narrative and queer politics of Monster High utilize children's culture to push the boundaries of discussions of identity within social media. Monster High fan culture has been integrated into existing social media spaces, including Wikia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LiveJournal, Deviant Art, Pinterest,, and Archive of Our Own. Original domains such as Monster High Arena and Monster High Online also exist, creating a digital community of interest that acts as a space for promoting queer cultures and shifting public conversations about identity. Queer theorists Margaret Cooper and Kristina Dzara note that social media, specifically Facebook, offers an opportunity for those previously confined by geography to find support networks online and engage in discussions relating to LGBT issues. The "one-to-many" communication platform of social media, however, makes it almost impossible for users to completely control the image of themselves that social media projects. Cooper and Dzara give the example of a man who is not out online but joins a gay rights group on Facebook. All of his Facebook friends will get a notification that he has joined this group (Cooper and Dzara 2010, 105). Fandoms increase the safety of online communities, since they promise a shared interest with other users and often allow for more anonymity than Facebook.

[3.7] The combination of Internet communities and children's culture opens up space for younger fans to enter the discussion. As Halberstam notes, "A cynical reading of the world of animation will always return to the notion that difficult topics are raised and contained in children's films precisely so that they do not have to be discussed elsewhere and also so that the politics of rebellion can be cast as immature, pre-Oedipal, childish, foolish, fantastical, and rooted in a commitment to failure" (Halberstam 2011, 52). Grounding discussions of identity in children's culture also gives children purchase on the material basis for debates about identity. By celebrating monstrous embodied differences and allowing both adult and child fans a space to enact identity subversion through play, Monster High brings these discussions out into both the commercial discourse of media and marketing and the active discourses of play and fandom.

4. Monstrous bodies

[4.1] Market analysts and columnists such as Dominique Mosbergen (2013) from the Huffington Post have labeled Monster High "Goth Barbie"; but unlike Barbie or Bratz, Monster High incorporates character variation, disability, and narrative into the product line. Margaret Talbot's 2006 New Yorker article "Little Hotties: Barbie's New Rivals" explains that while Barbie has been a mainstay of the toy market since her introduction in 1959 (the category "fashion doll" was created to describe her many imitators and competitors), Bratz dolls, introduced in 2005, captured 40 percent of the fashion-doll market share by 2006. That same year, Barbie accounted for 60 percent of the market (note 1). Though Mattel attempted to compete by introducing the My Scene Barbie, the close imitation of Bratz's style ignited a lawsuit. Even though Mattel lost the suit, MGA Entertainment was left drained of resources, unable to invest in Bratz and keep apace of the market. While Barbie may have exhibited more staying power than Bratz overall, the My Scene dolls lacked what Talbot identifies as the major draw of Bratz: "ethnically indeterminate…dark skin, almond eyes, and full lips" and "'sassy'—the toy industry's favored euphemism for sexy" clothing. Talbot's article quotes Naomi Wolf as saying, "If I were betting on culture as a form of stocks, I would get out of skinny Barbie and into multiethnic, imaginative Bratz dolls." Though black and Hispanic Barbie dolls were introduced in 1969 and 1980, respectively (Leonard 2009), the physical forms of the dolls support Talbot's and Wolf's analysis of Barbie as less ethnically diverse than Bratz.

[4.2] Until the release of the So In Style dolls in 2009, all Barbie dolls were designed with white features, with pigment added to the plastic to give the dolls darker skin tones denoting ethnicity. In contrast to both Barbie's one-size-fits-all and Bratz's "ethnically indeterminate" approaches, Monster High uses an individual face mold for each character and gives the dolls specific ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese, Jewish, Incan, and Tibetan. These ethnicities, however, are subsumed into the dolls' metaphor of monstrosity in ways that are sometimes clumsy or off-putting, such as Clawdeen, the African American Werewolf character with a Long Island accent, whose freaky flaw in Mattel's Web bio reads, "My hair is worthy of a shampoo commercial and that's just what grows on my legs. Plucking and shaving is definitely a full-time job, but that's a small price to pay for being scarily fabulous." The Monster High dolls are also thinner than Barbie or Bratz, with curved backs, small breasts, and splayed fingers and toes. The thinner bodies combined with short skirts and high heels have generated some concern that the dolls' monstrous bodies are too sexy and unrealistic. Monster High dolls, like Bratz, have detachable limbs. Bratz shoes were molded onto their feet so the whole foot had to be removed at the ankle to change the shoes.

[4.3] Mattel's commitment to the monster as a metaphor for ethnicity and gender can manifest itself in problematic ways. The ability to literally take apart the dolls to change their clothes (their arms pop off at the elbow, their hands at the wrist, their legs at the knee), suggests a fraught relationship between the female body and fashion. Yet it is worth noting that limbs, including those of the male characters, can also be swapped between dolls. Swapping body parts between dolls could encourage a uniform standard of female beauty, a sense that women are interchangeable, or the idea that female bodies merely exist to be dressed and modified. However, Mattel's production of dollmaker toys such as the Create-A-Monster Design Lab that allows fans to draw on blank dolls, also suggests that interchangeable limbs could be another invitation for fans to personalize the dolls and play with bodies and body image. By making the dolls interchangeable, Mattel has created a line of toys in which all body parts are prosthetic and all embodied identity is mutable.

[4.4] Monster High is capitalizing on self-acceptance and difference and is changing its marketing strategy to reflect a fan base that embraces these narratives. Parents' activist Melissa Atkins Wardy met with Mattel in September 2012 to discuss the overall message of the dolls. Her blog describes a meeting with Mattel executives in which they listen and respond to concerns about both the sexualization of the dolls and their effectiveness as antibullying tools. Wardy concludes that the brand could "create something that is truly empowering to its young fans" (note 2). While Wardy's focus is only on the gendered aspects of the dolls, Mattel has demonstrated an investment in a range of visible embodied identities, including race and disability. Mattel's Web site describes Monster High's newest line, Freaky Fusion Hybrids, as "the frightful children of two completely different, completely creepy cool creatures!" One character, Bonita Femur, is "part Skeleton and part Moth but 100 percent monster!" The rhetoric of "100 percent monster" acknowledges the mixed-race status of these characters. In the Webisode "Happy Howlidays," character Sirena Von Boo explains that she knows very little about either her mermaid or ghost cultures because her parents were careful to "never to push one of their scaritages over the other." The diary that comes with the doll uses similar examples: "Today I had to stop at the ghostery store for my dad, and this little vampire was all like, 'Mommy, is that a ghoul, a ghost or a mermaid?!' (*cringe*) …Sometimes I think if I was just one thing, I wouldn't feel so divided all the time. But which would I choose???" Sirena and the other Fusion monsters are cautious about attending Monster High because their racial status has made them outsiders. Mattel not only sells the Fusion movie and the Fusion dolls, but race-bent Fusion versions of the major Monster High characters as well. By adopting the fan practice of changing a character's race, Mattel both capitalizes on fan culture and introduces this disruptive fan practice to a larger and possibly younger audience.

[4.5] Another fan practice Mattel has adopted is the fan poll, soliciting votes at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con and online in 2014. In each case, Mattel offered three possible characters and asked fans to choose one that would be made into a doll in the following year. While all three of the 2011 contenders (Scarah Screams, Headmistress Bloodgood, and Wydowna Spider) are now available as Toys R Us exclusives, the 2014 winner, Finnegan Wake, made his appearance in 2015. Interestingly, Finnegan Wake is a merperson who uses a wheelchair, adding to Monster High's growing list of embodied identity positions. Finnegan is arguably not the first Monster High doll with a disability. The other male characters often require assistive devices. Gil Webber must wear a diving helmet containing water in order to breathe on land, and Deuce Gorgon wears glasses to prevent him turning passers-by into stone. Other male characters experience mental or psychological disability. The zombie Slowman "Slo Mo" Mortavich is coded as intellectually disabled (note 3), and Jackson Jekyll/Holt Hyde has a split personality, complete with blackouts. Though these representations of masculinity may seem socially inadequate, all of these characters are embraced by the other students and integrated into their social and romantic lives. Thus, male fans are also given the option to embrace their "freaky flaws."

[4.6] Since its launch in 2010, Monster High's marketing campaign has shifted away from fashion toward highlighting the diversity of the Monster High line and actively incorporating not only young girls but also boys and adult fans into marketing materials. The initial taglines for Monster High featured in commercials and on product boxes were "freaky just got fabulous" and "high school just got scary cool." As the brand evolved, these taglines changed to "Don't you want to be a monster too?," "Imperfect is totally perfect," and "We are Monster High." The new taglines both highlight what makes individual monsters different from each other and invites fans into the monster community. The "We are Monster High" campaign launched with two music videos produced by Mattel and featured on the Monster High Web site. One video features YouTube personality Madison Beer singing "We Are Monster High" with a complement of back-up dancers. The other video uses the same song, but includes a compilation of young fans, who appear to range in age from three or four to about 12, dancing to the song. Mattel conducted a contest to collect these videos and spliced them together into the version featured on the site. The fans who dance in this video are diverse in terms of gender, race, and nationality. The song featured in these videos includes the lyrics: "We are monsters, we are proud. We are monsters. Say it loud," "stay fierce forever," "perfectly imperfect," "we're drop dead gorgeous each and every day," and "friends like these will never die" (video 1). The "We are Monster High" campaign invites fans to embody monster characters or create characters that reflect themselves.

Video 1. Mattel's Web site hosts this compilation fan video made from contest entries in which fans dance to the Madison Beer song "We Are Monster High." Monster Videos, November 24, 2015.

5. Expanding the canon

[5.1] Even though the Monster High novels include one ambiguously queer character, Draculaura's uncle Vlad, none of the teen characters represent nongender-binary or nonheterosexual identities. Vlad is also not given a love interest, nor is his sexuality discussed in the novels. Fans do not concentrate on Vlad's sexuality, perhaps because he is a minor adult character who only appears in the novels. While Vlad may not be a popular choice, fan art does expand the Mattel narrative to challenge canonical depictions of race, gender, and sexual identity. One Tumblr user's blog dedicated to Monster High includes alternative sexualities and gender-bending such as original artwork of Holt Hyde as David Bowie or Sailor Moon, and Jackson Jekyll and Deuce Gorgon kissing (figures 1 and 2).

Gender-bent Holt Hyde. Drawing.

Figure 1. Gender-bent Holt Hyde. Monsterhime. Fan art, Tumblr, May 1, 2014. [View larger image.]

Deuce and Jackson Jekyll ship. Drawing of characters kissing.

Figure 2. Deuce and Jackson Jekyll ship. Monsterhime. Fan art, Tumblr, May 1, 2015.

[5.2] While fan art on Tumblr can change the visual narrative, repainting changes the actual bodies of the dolls, remaking them in the image of the individual fan's identity politics (figure 3).

Spectra Repaint as Beetlejuice. Doll painted with bright red fingernails, light green hair, and black T-Shirt and spiderweb skirt.

Figure 3. Spectra Repaint as Beetlejuice. Evilunicorn97. DeviantArt, November 15, 2015. [View larger image.]

[5.3] Repainting involves artistically remaking the doll and can include painting the face, rerooting the hair, and making new clothes. Repainting allows fans to read race, sexuality, and disability onto the dolls in ways not authorized by Mattel, separating the dolls from corporate control. Yet the production of Monster Maker toys, and Mattel's conversations with activists like Melissa Atkins Wardy, all suggest the company invites fan participation.

[5.4] In addition to changing the dolls' identities, fandom queers the Monster High canon through shipping. Shipping is a way for artists to add sexuality to characters to include same-sex desire as well as heteronormative desire. The images ascribe an overt sexuality to the characters that Mattel avoids. Some fan artists cross Mattel properties by depicting Clawdeen Wolf from Monster High and Cerise Hood from Ever After High (another Mattel property that inhabits the same world as Monster High) together. The Clawdeen/Cherise ship is based on the girls' shared identity as werewolves (figure 4).

Clawdeen and Cerise Hood ship. Drawing of characters in bed together, embracing. Pink background and color scheme.

Figure 4. Clawdeen and Cerise Hood ship. The Wonder Wolf. Fan art, Tumblr, September 22, 2013. [View larger image.]

[5.5] Shipping also occurs in fan fiction. Stories that depict romantic relationships between same-sex characters are called slash fiction, referring to the fiction labeling that uses a slash between the character's names to denote a romantic pairing. Berger claims that slash fiction allows fans (mostly young women) to engage in a semi-public and "sexually explicit exploration of desire" in a safe environment that does not involve a partner and benefits from the relative anonymity of the Internet (Berger 2010, 181). Yet slash fiction is not the only way fan fiction can expand on a character's canonical identity.

[5.6] Fan fiction also expands the narratives of identity formation by writing about the adult lives of the Monster High characters, and backstories of the characters and their parents. Though Monster High Yeti Abbey Bomidable is a major character in Web series, her background is rarely explored in the Mattel canon. Canonical Abbey does seem occasionally confused by Western concepts of gender norms, but identifies and performs as female. Fan fiction, however, expands Abbey's confusion into a genderqueer identity. The fan fiction novel Moon Ice, published on both Archive of Our Own and, explores gender and sexuality as it tells the backstory of Abbey Bomidable. In the fan fiction novel, Yeti initiation ritual requires Abbey to kill a human. When she fails, her tribe casts her out and a human boy finds her. As she negotiates cultural difference, Abbey learns to construct gender within a specific cultural context. Because Yetis do not highlight gender difference, the humans interpret her as male. It is not until Abbey makes friends with another teen girl, learns "'girly' practices" (chapter 10), and removes her clothes (chapter 12) that the humans begin to figure out her biological sex. The novel's explanations of sex and parenting in Yeti communities also invert gender norms:

[5.7] How did she explain that most Yetis were mainly attracted to those of their own gender and were encouraged to share a bed with those of the same gender except when they must reproduce. Males and females did interact and often there was a bit of trouble here and there, but usually an unexpected child was discovered only after the babe had died from not having their father near them. (Silverbulletsdeath 2014, chapter 10)

[5.8] The fan fiction explains that Yetis are a warrior culture, and strict gender roles would be a waste of resources. Abbey is confused by the differing gender roles of humans and has to learn how to act like a girl, since the category of girl does not exist in her culture.

[5.9] Gender becomes a more pronounced cultural barrier in the fan fiction when the villagers want to get rid of Abbey because she is gender nonconforming; "'The yeti is male and yet he allows himself to be called Abbey,' said the human man… What was it with humans and their obsession with gender? 'More than that we've heard he's been picking up female habits. He is a deviant and worse still a threat to our women'" (chapter 12). When Abbey is revealed as female, the humans no longer see her sexuality as a threat, probably since Abbey is not represented as a reproductive body after she is separated from her tribe. The lack of possible mates and her age remove the threat of Abbey as mother. Instead, the humans question her sexual identity, since she refers to her mate as female. In this story, Yetis reproduce sexually, but their long-term partners can be of either sex. In other fan fiction, and to a lesser degree in Monster High canon, Abbey's reactions to gendered and sexual norms represent these categories as cultural constructions, opening a space for nonconforming fans to see themselves reflected and normalized in the expanded and queered Monster High narrative.

6. Role-playing monstrosity

[6.1] While fan art queers characters to reflect a variety of identity positions, fans may also choose to enact identity subversion through play, by embodying monster characters through costumes or virtual avatars. Monster High Wikis allow users to expand the canon by generating Original Characters (OCs). Users can then embody either OCs or canonical characters through a Roleplay tab. In online role-play, users chat with each other in real time or over a period of days or weeks. Embodying virtual monsters generates a safe space for fans to explore issues of gender and sexual identity. Users can interact with one another as a character until they are comfortable speaking as themselves. Wikis and fan forums also maintain a safe space by policing the boundaries of the sites through both formal and informal means.

[6.2] Though it may not offer the same support network as independent fan forums, allows fans to role-play in a digital world of monsters, subverting a connection between physical embodiment and gender identity. The Web site invites fans into the narrative of Monster High, in which the Maul, School, and Student Lounge sections of the site allow players to generate their own monster avatar and interact with other fans in the online space of the game by attending classes, shopping, and creating a digital scrapbook. Like independent forums, which use consumption as a form of informal policing, in all sections of the corporate site identity is constructed through both interaction and consumption. Fans can make themselves into digital monsters that can then buy digital clothes, or they can buy the toys to generate the same effect in the physical world. Mattel capitalizes directly on fan identity through advertising, and also benefits when independent fan forums require buying into the franchise as a cost of admission.

[6.3] While the Mattel and fan forums facilitate monstrous embodiment through virtual avatars, fans can also physically embody their favorite characters through role-play. Makeup and costume play attach the metaphor of the monster to material reality more firmly than even the dolls, since costume play (cosplay) connects the Monster High character to the physical bodies of fans. YouTube channels that focus on Monster High costume play police fan identity in the same way the wikis and forums do; the background of the videos often shows off the poster's Monster High collection, proving their fan credentials through buying in. Yet the comments sections of these videos suggest there is more at stake in identity subversion through play that connects to a physical body. While a majority of these comments are positive, outsiders, especially adults, may be critical of the identities these posts reflect, and so are often not welcome in the comment threads.

[6.4] Identity politics are a major source of contention even for the youngest fans, and questions of childhood sexual agency, race, class, and gender all surface in these discussions. Many adult commenters praise users for their creativity, but some adults or older teens question what is appropriate for children. The most common of these concerns center on agency and sexuality. On a YouTube channel devoted to Monster High cosplay, a young fan uses makeup tutorials as a way to connect to the fan community and her favorite characters; but for some viewers, a child using makeup is an issue of boundary crossing. Questions and comments such as "Hw old r u," "ur so young 2 wer make up by ur self☺☺☺☺," or "your just a kid what do u think ur doing" are common. Younger members of the community who self-report as nine, 10, or 11 years old immediately jump to the YouTube fan's defense with "also so what if it uses a lot of make up??? you sure didn't have to buy it for her, and it's not like it's a limited resource. ppl just look for things to be mad about," "Playing and having fun. That's what she's doing," "I hope this is a troll, if not, that's really sad…" "Shut up!! Know before u comment…she only uses if for tutorials," "ITS FANCY DRESS! did you never dress up as a kid? if so poor you. this kids creative and clever for her age, she'll go far in life. probably further than you." The readiness of young users to defend the YouTube fan suggests a common concern about the limiting of childhood agency. As Deller explains by referencing Joli Jensen and Bethan Jones, "Fannish practices, particularly those of young and female fans, are often ridiculed by those outside of the community" (2015, ¶1.8). By proclaiming the YouTube fan's right to play with makeup, these young fans are pushing back against the attempts of those outside of Monster High fandom to regulate their behavior as well as the adult impulse that suggests young girls should not play with dolls that have short skirts and high heels. These young fans use the Monster High community to reject adult attempts to regulate child sexual identity and preserve the myth of the innocent child within public discourse.

[6.5] Community members also police the gender boundaries of the group as a way to shut down disapproving outsiders. Phrases like "are u a boy" and "why are even commenting on a girl video" are common insults in the comments. This policing around gender only happens when someone challenges the YouTube fan's right to make these videos. The assumed Monster High fan identity of a girl between the ages of six and 12 can be mobilized as a way to mark anyone who opposes the community as an outsider. Monster High is unique in that rather than deriding fans for acting like young girls (Deller 2015, ¶4.23), the fandom promotes young women as the fandom's ideal members. Oddly, this identity policing within the fan community opens a space for fans to explore various identity positions. The YouTube fan's right to use makeup to embody different monstrous characters transgresses boundaries of childhood sexual agency, disability, and race. The YouTube fan's commenters use assumptions about acceptable fan identity to bind the fan community and protect their right to play with these very identity categories, generating a potential for both subversion through play and direct activism.

7. Potential for fan activism

[7.1] Just as Mattel and the fan community both require a monetary buying into the Monster High narrative, both groups also support activism as described by Brough and Shresthova. In much the same way Hasbro incorporates fan characters into the canon of the shows and comics of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Monster High utilizes canon to promote fan activism. Mattel teamed up with the Kind Campaign to produce an antibullying Webisode called "Kind: The Shockumentary" and with WeStopHate for an episode of the same name. The antibullying message of these episodes is aimed at body shaming and young girls, but could also apply more broadly to an acceptance of difference in gender and sexual identity. Though this corporate activism has been limited to publicity and small donations to the groups, Mattel seems devoted to promoting philanthropy directed by young girls. Besides inviting young fans to participate in activism and focusing on an antibullying message, Monster High is generating fan conversations around identity politics that question social norms.

[7.2] Mattel's purpose may have been to colonize issues of identity to generate profit, but by bringing queer bodies into popular culture, Monster High gives fans both an anchor text and a supportive community to begin questioning social constructions of identity. Fan authors and artists use Monster High as a source text to deal with race, gender, disability, and sexuality as social constructions. Fans extend the existing narratives, but they remain true to the canonical character traits by maintaining the personalities and monstrous metaphor of the characters that Mattel has written into the official novels and Webisodes. The discussions of race, sexuality, and disability are merely extensions of threads already present in the Mattel Webisodes and other media. Even when fans further queer Monster High characters, these stories fit within the established Mattel universe. Though the current Web series does not include any characters with alternate sexualities or gender expressions, the novels do include the background character of Vlad, and such a character would easily fit into the Web series. Since Mattel is currently adding more racially diverse characters and characters with visible disabilities, queer characters cannot be far behind. In fact, many fans have already taken to YouTube and Tumblr to request Mattel produce such a doll.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] Through both its product narratives and active fan culture, Monster High reappropriates negative labels like "freaky," "flawed," and "monster" as desirable queer identities. While the Monster High narrative is certainly flawed (presenting teen girls as fashion-obsessed, reifying the feminine beauty ideal as skinny with long hair, absenting queer or genderqueer characters, etc.), by playing on "monstrous" identity, Mattel invites a queer reading of the dolls, a reading taken up and expanded on by fans around the world that promotes queer visibility and activism online and in popular and children's culture. The requirement to buy into the Monster High line may be exclusionary for some fans, yet the profitability of toys like those of Monster High demonstrates the buying power of marginalized identity groups, including children. If Monster High continues to be a dominant force in both sales and fandom, perhaps this economic power will lead to an increased political voice for these same marginalized identity groups.

9. Notes

1. Pesce (2014) notes, "Barbie is still America's top-selling doll, but her market share dwindled to just 19.6% last year, down from 25% in 2010…Barbie's biggest competition comes from her own company, Mattel, which also produces the "Frozen," Monster High and Ever After High dolls."

2. Melissa Atkins Wardy is the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualization of Girlhood, From Birth to Tween (2014). She blogs at

3. In addition to Slo Mo's speech and body language, several specific episodes suggest that zombies generally, and Slo Mo in particular, are intellectually disabled. "Flowers for Slo Mo" depicts the title character using an amulet to make himself smarter, only to realize he was happier before. "Dodgeskull" shows all of the zombies being picked on because they are physically and mentally "slow." "Student Disembodied President" shows Slo Mo becoming school president to stand up for the frequently bullied zombies.

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