This is long.
Also, as of time of posting, Wizards’ website is down for maintenance, so links may or may not work.
You may or may not know that I have two major fandoms. (I like a great many books and most things that are European melodic metal, but they’re not fandoms for me; most of the time I don’t discover that Eluveitie or Dark Tranquillity released their new album until six months after the fact. Likewise, I can wait a few months to get the latest Robin Hobb, even though every time I read her books I grin because I had a friend who was ultra-conservative Catholic and a Hobb fan, but cut off contact with me as soon as I started coming out, and I bet she just about imploded when she started reading about Sedric and Carson in The Rain Wild Chronicles.) One is Magic the Gathering, because it’s a trading card game that’s amazingly feminist for a mainstream property targeted at dudes, and while I think the technical writing in Uncharted Realms is most often terrible, predictable or bleh, I’m always impressed by both the worldbuilding and the lack of gender-essentialism in MtG’s terms, titles and characters. Now, if Wizards can only continue their impressive work on gender-equality in Legendary characters (in Tarkir block more than half of all Legendary characters are female, and the number goes up when you count twice-printed characters like the original Khans and the Dragonlords) with equality in their roster of Planeswalkers, and take the great move that is Alesha, Who Smiles at Death and Ashiok (but only if they stop avoiding pronouns and declare Ashiok to be specifically genderless, please) to more queer Legendaries and Walkers, I’ll die happy.
(Alas, Origins has four dude Legendaries and two dude Walkers compared to two lady Legendaries and three lady Walkers, which is a fairly good balance when we live in a world where one girl to three dudes is still considered an acceptable ratio, but I’ll never have enough female characters. I’m dying to know which lady Walkers, besides Nissa and Kiora, apparently, we get in Battle for Zendikar/Oath of the Gatewatch. If we don’t get a Standard-legal Nahiri I’m going to be very pissed. I need strong Kor ladies who generate tokens, damn it!)
Seriously, Alesha’s story is all about names … something many cis people take for granted and something trans people, be they binary or non-binary, know to be complicated, powerful and self-declarative. It’s amazing to get that truth and validation, for all of Magic’s many flaws, in the story connected to a game that is basically poker played with fantasy archetype. I can tell you how many times I’ve picked up a mainstream fantasy property and discovered a surprise well-thought-out trans character whose trans status has no bearing on the rest of her larger narrative: once. If Wizards can do that with other forms of queerness, with the same quiet skill (the social commentary is there for fans of narrative; people who only play cards won’t give a fuck, while queer and trans players feel as though we too have a place in the Magic multiverse), I will gladly sign up to being broke for the rest of my life.
This article (“Vorthos” is the Magic term for a fan who’s in it for the flavor, a la character and narrative and art, a la moi) summarises Wizards’ awareness of the role of story, and it certainly outlines how I’ve gone from someone who couldn’t bear Chandra, Yet Another Firebrand Girl With Ridiculous Boobs Who Exists For One Thing Only, to, post-Origins, quite liking her. Unfortunately, I’m 99% sure that Jace, Yet Another Handsome Cishet White Dude Who Is Good At Everything, will be the movie’s protagonist, despite the fact that literally every other Planeswalker, including Chandra, is more interesting, which … well, rather invalidates that article. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but we know Hollywood demands that type of protagonist, and dudes who play Magic for the game aren’t going to be turned away by Alesha’s narrative, but probably won’t go and see a Magic movie all about her or Elspeth or Liliana. So it’ll be about Jace or Gideon (who is, granted, a more interesting dude, but still a dude) or Garruk, and maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get Liliana as the antagonist, but she’ll probably be reduced to Jace’s love interest. Again. Snore.
So, yes, I’ll roll my eyes heavenward for all the Jaces in the world, but I’ll stay for Alesha, as I’ll stay for female characters like Elspeth and Anafenza and even the monstrous-meets-occasionally-ethical vampire vampire Sorin Markov (by which I mean: dude looks undead and behaves like a vampire without being Dracula, a really nice balance between monster and protagonist), and keep praying, desperately, for more queerness. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I was getting vibes between Nissa and Ashaya … maybe that’s just me.
The second is the doll property that has changed the face of the “girl” aisle over the last four years – Mattel’s Monster High. Basically, a bunch of offspring from (initially) classic movie monsters and (later) diverse culturally-specific monsters (and entities) who all go to high school, the narrative being about acceptance of one’s freaky flaw among the usual spots about dates and tests and everything else high school students in stories care about that never, ever happened to me as a queer reclusive Aussie who pretended to like boys because I didn’t know that queer identities existed. Ahem.
(Like most adults, I couldn’t care less about the High part; I’m in it for the Monster.)
This is Monster High FCA Elissabat, a gothic vampire queen. Her name reminds me of Abe’s Great-Aunty Lizzie and her habit of ensuring all her female descendants are named some variation of Elizabeth (in the 21st century, they’re starting to run out of unique names) but I pretty much adore her for the goth and the vampire. I have an exception for whatever the precious socially-anxious monster Jane Boolittle might be, but my favourite MH dolls tend to be members of the undead or alternatively animated (zombies, pirate ghosts, regular ghosts, skeletons, steampunk robots of colour), so Elissabat is pretty much perfection in my biased eyes.
The fact that Elissabat suffers chronic stage fright and is a bad-arse actress anyway is inspiring to me, as a creative. (Which is why Jane, who suffers social anxiety, also must be in my collection.) But this is really just added icing on the awesome cake. I love this doll so much I have one in her stock dress and one to play with, even though my camera skills are shocking.
Why am I talking about this? I am aware that the majority of people who read this blog don’t care about Monster High dolls and aren’t here to listen to me prattle about something that non-doll collectors consider a little bit creepy anyway.
Well, there’s something else about Elissabat that’s way fucking cool, and that’s her name. Sure, a kid is going to read bat as a rather uninspired reference to vampires (Monster High is all about the puns, some better than others), but a nerdy adult is going to read bat and go oh my fucking god, Elizabeth Bathory. We have a goth vampire-queen fashion doll whose name is a reference to Elizabeth Bathory. Sure, it’s a subtle reference, but it’s not assumed or headcanon; there’s no other reason to call a vampire doll any variation on Elizabeth without it being a reference. (And yes, the vampire aspects of the story, a la bathing in the blood of virgins, are myth, but who cares?)
That’s not counting Frankie Stein, who might have had a zillion releases but is still a mass-market fashion doll referencing Mary Shelley’s seminal science-fiction work (and, okay, a long history of 20th century horror movies). That’s not counting Vandala Dubloons, who is a ghost pirate with a fucking peg leg/prosthesis. That’s not counting characters based on Greek mythology (Viperine, Deuce, Cupid, Avea the fucking centaur). That’s not counting an ever-growing selection of dolls referencing not just horror movie culture but monsters and creatures from global mythology and dolls that are clearly coded to be characters of colour (the werewolves, mummies Cleo and Nefera, Honey Swamp, Marisol, Isi Dawndancer, Skelita to name a few). Sure, not all of these portrayals are as complex as they could be; sometimes the representation barely scratches the surface or is based on stereotype. (And, please, queer characters. I need a vampire girl called Carmilla for bloody obvious reasons.) I’m not saying it’s perfect, because it’s far from it. I am saying that Monster High is a property that transforms literary, film, traditional, mythological and cultural narratives, personages and identities into a form with a good message (embracing one’s freaky flaw) that’s accessible for young girls, which is simultaneously fucking geeky and bloody awesome.
And while Monster High’s spin-off series/property, Ever After High, is somewhat more traditional in its roster of princesses and princess dresses and girly-girls, we do have dolls based on fairy tales that aren’t just Disney-fied retellings. Western/European fairy tales, true, so work needs to be done on this account of a terrible lack of racial diversity, but fairy tales nonetheless, speaking as a kid who read Mum’s collection of Grimm’s so often the spine wore off. And we do have a goth girl as one of the protagonists. We also have a doll made from wood (Cedar), a doll referencing Swan Lake (Duchess) and an array of dolls from Alice in Wonderland … Carroll’s wonderland. How is this not geeky?
(As far as I’m concerned, Signature Cerise Hood, the daughter of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, which is a subversion smacking so much of Angela Carter I refuse to believe it unintentional, and therefore is so geeky I don’t even, is one of the most important mass-market dolls to be made in the last five years. She’s a doll in boots, leggings, a not-excessively-feminine tunic top and not a lick of pink. Don’t get me wrong: I despise the I hate pink attitude shouted by pseudo-feminists. I’m all for pink. However, dolls that don pink, mini dresses, princess dresses or highly-feminine-designated clothing are still the very-vast majority of dolls made available, and as someone designated-female who grew up as a tomboy and identified as trans masculine before falling into declaring my gender as non-existent but with a masculine-leaning expression, I’d have killed for Cerise, growing up. I sewed my own dolls clothes, as a kid, because I was so damn tired of the pink and dresses. Sure, I could have played with action figures, but I liked my ponies and Barbies and Grand Champions and their rider dolls. I just wanted dolls that came wearing trousers and boots and plain t-shirts in colours that aren’t pink. I just wanted dolls that dressed like me, and I never had that. Cerise, finally – even if surrounded by a majority of traditionally-coded-feminine dolls – is that doll.)
Hold on. I have a point to all this, now I’ve made the case that Monster High is as geeky as Magic’s psuedo-mythological-Greece plane of Theros.
When I worked at Oz Comic Con back in June, I was the only person I saw wearing a Monster High T-shirt. I wore it under my Threadless ‘pick your powers’ hoodie (which is pretty much a masculine-super-power hoodie cut to a small-person size), and I wasn’t planning to take said hoodie off, save that I underestimated how high the heating would be turned up for the cosplayers. I figured I could wear a T-shirt I don’t feel comfortable wearing to work (on account of work being a pretty masculine place) because nobody would see it; all they’d see was a traditionally-geeky hoodie. Alas, after about half an hour I was boiling, so off came the hoodie.
I spent all day feeling embarrassed and ashamed, in a building that must have seen the massing of a hundred thousand Doctor Who shirts and a million Marvel or DC shirts, quite aside from the costumes, because I felt that I wasn’t geeky enough even though I was working at a geek store … and even though I have all the feelings about these dolls such that I’ve burdened you with excessive exposition before getting to the point.
Sure, I have an anxiety disorder, so that’s half of it.
The other half is this: in a world filled with My Little Pony and a million different anime heroines in skimpy clothes and male-gaze Chandra-esque Boob poses, there was nothing Monster High.
(Well, save for an awesome little girl who saw my T-shirt and told me all about her favourite Monster High characters.)
For the same reason I’m uncomfortable wearing a T-shirt with Draculaura and Rochelle to work, I was uncomfortable wearing it to the con. The property that has a goth vampire-queen fashion doll whose name is a reference to Elizabeth Bathory, not to mention every other way in which MH is geekiness in doll form, isn’t considered geeky enough for conventions that celebrate geekiness.
It’s just considered a thing young girls like.
We all know that My Little Pony is geek culture, but I can tell you, as someone who had ponies for years and has been on the fringes of the collecting scene for the last five after being right in the scene for several years, that, before Friendship is Magic existed, vintage (gen 1), gen 2 and gen 3 ponies weren’t geeky. They were pink and girly (the horror). It wasn’t until the existence of bronies (male fans of gen 4/Friendship is Magic My Little Pony, a la the phenomenon of guy liner and man-sized tissues, because being a male fan of a female-targeted property makes you special) that MLP went from this thing that girls like to this thing that everybody likes. Guys made MLP something that has a presence in the mainstream convention/geek scene, not its long-standing, loyal fanbase comprised primarily of women (and a minority of men/non-female people). Guys made MLP cool, not the girls at which it’s targeted.
At work, there’s MLP comic singles, graphic novels, card boxes, trading card games, socks, Pop! Vinyls, wallets … plenty of merch for guys and girls and people. Not the toy ponies themselves, because we can’t buy them cheaper than Target or K-Mart sells them, but a small selection of everything else. Most of it is purchased by girls, sure, but most of it exists because guys have made the fandom big enough that Ultra Pro (who generally markets accessories and merch for trading card games bought and played by a majority of boys/men, exceptions being like the now-retired Bella Sara, which is a non-competitive trading card game specifically for girls) sees the financial merit in acquiring licenses and promoting these products. Things that guys like – trading card games, comics – and things that girls like – the Equestria High spin-off, the toy lines, colouring books, stationery – are equal approaches to merchandising.
(MH’s presence on TV is limited to specials, but there’s a book series, the webisodes and the diaries that come with dolls. I’d say MLP and MH have just as much narrative to support/flog the toy line that we can make a fair comparison.)
Monster High? Well, I’ve seen a few dolls in the horror section at Minotaur (near the Living Dead dolls), and that’s about it. It’s just not heavily merchandised outside of the girls’ section in department stores. Things that girls like – toy lines, colouring books, stationery, make-up kits – are the sole approach to merchandising.
The T-shirts I am provided to wear at work are really lousy quality. ($29 for a T-shirt worn once a week that doesn’t last four months? Lousy.) Being small, I hit up the children’s sections of department stores for cheaper (and often better quality) alternatives. Unfortunately, boys’ T-shirts don’t fit well in the shoulder and torso, so I’m still limited to girls’ shirts … which means I browse through Elsa and Adventure Time and MH and Strawberry Shortcake, all the while looking wistfully at the Batman and Avengers and Spiderman and Superman T-shirts on the other side of the rack.
These things – Batman, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman – are all considered acceptably geeky such that we sell their merch.
(Adventure Time, again, is considered acceptably geeky because boys also like it.)
Elsa, Strawberry Shortcake, MH? Not so much.
You can make the argument that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is also one long fucking advertisement for Marvel merch, of course – these Monster High characters and stories, as much as I love Elissabat and Jane, are invented because they’ll sell shit. The writers of the MCU might love storytelling, but they’re also writing highly-commercial films designed to make a profit … in part because profit means an ability to keep telling stories, but also because production houses, like Marvel and like Mattel, exist to make money.
But if you don’t want to look at it with such a cynical viewpoint … well, there’s Elsa. Another character from a highly-commercial film from a commercial production house, yes, but, like the MCU, possibly designed with an eye to story first, marketing second. (I don’t believe that, but some might think that MH webisodes are just advertisements and the MCU or Frozen is “purer” storytelling. However, if you claim that the MCU is pure storytelling and Frozen is Disney being super-commercial with a catchy song, I will call misogyny.) Elsa’s merchandising has been saturating shopping centres for the last eighteen months (although if you claim there’s more Frozen merch than that for the Avengers, I will also call misogyny), highly targeted at girls (costumes, T-shirts, stickers, jewellery, dolls, books … you name it, it has Elsa and/or Anna on it, including a ridiculous selection of fake Frozen merch). But Frozen isn’t considered a geek property, for all that it has as many adult as child fans. It’s a girl property. The fact we even have the phrase “Disney princess movie” is indicative of that. The Toy Story franchise is targeted at kids, but nobody disses it as a thing just for kids. Big Hero 6 is fucking geek culture in Pixar-animated form, right down to the Stan Lee cameo. Tangled? Princess movie. Despite involving a proactive protagonist who wields a fucking frying pan.
This is all a very long way of saying that geek culture is defined by men.
(Remember: women might be the largest portion of the modern Dr Who fanbase, these days, but women aren’t seen as the first Dr Who fanbase or the people who made it worth watching. Women are seen as the people who caught the Dr Who bandwagon only when the Doctors became pretty, and I’ve heard people in the geek merch industry talk like this. And women are the people who are belittled, dismissed, mocked and ignored with every female character Steven Moffat creates.)
Girls, women, feminine people who aren’t women, genderless/genderfluid/non-binary people and anyone who isn’t a dude who doesn’t want to don the clothes of masculine-accepted geek culture are forced to stand on the edges feeling not geeky enough in the spaces that are supposed to be ours. Or we’re subjected to The Big Bang Theory where geek culture is something women mock men for engaging in and women/people who aren’t men can’t ever be true geeks in our own right. We don’t need Penny proclaiming her boredom with Mystic Warlords of Ka’a as though this game is incomprehensible for anybody female and thereby disregarding the many, many female and not-male players and fans of Magic; we need Felicia Day. But we also need to celebrate, too, the feminine sides of geek culture … which are geek properties primarily by women or for women. We need Monster High, Jem, Disney princesses and paranormal romances to be considered geeky pursuits of the same worth as Magic and the MCU. We need Penny’s Care Bear collection to become as significant as the boys’ collections of DC cookie jars, Star Trek figurines and Cylon toasters.
Hate me for saying this, but in my opinion the Twilight film franchise is no better written than Transformers. They both fail, terribly, on the feminism and race front (so if you start judging Twilight alone for its misogyny and racism, I shriek misogyny), not to mention in terms of sheer scriptwriting ability.
Guess which one is still considered (if a terrible) part of geek culture?
I’m saying, with many words, that what I felt at the con – the anxiety and isolation – has only something to do with my diagnoses.
The rest of it? Misogyny.
Because we are being told, every day, that properties targeted at women, for women, aren’t geeky enough. We are telling the little girl who talked to me, at the con, about her favourite Monster High characters, that her love for monsters isn’t geeky enough … and we are telling her that it’s only safe to like female-targeted properties that have been approved by dudes. It’s already dangerous enough for women to venture into convention spaces, especially for female cosplayers, but when we’re making people feel as though they don’t belong if their geekiness doesn’t fit a dude-approved list? When people feel self-conscious about what they love such that they do the very un-geeky thing of not expressing it?
No, nobody’s told me to my face that monsters don’t belong at the shop.
Nobody has to.
When I’m the only person wearing a MH shirt, and when I’m often part of a non-cis-dude minority, never mind a separate queer and trans minority, and when it’s risky enough for me to step into the shop just being me, when even the nicest geek dudes ask me challenging questions about Dr Who in order to check my geek cred, a cred that is assumed the cis dudes possess as a matter of course, you bet I think twice about wearing that shirt. The fact is that even when I wear a TARDIS shirt and beat down with my Abzan Company deck, I’m still a bit less geeky than the guys. The fact is that it takes me longer to form connections with staff and players in other game stores because I have to prove that I belong. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen guys get asked questions about their decks thirty seconds after they enter the shop while I get the barest minimum service in buying my Gavony Townships, well.) The fact is that I often can’t afford to be seen as even less geeky than the dudes because I’m working harder than they are to be seen as the geek and gamer I am – as their equal in their passions.
I love geek spaces, as I am able to have conversations about the things I love in ways I often can’t in broader mainstream society, but it’s hard for me to be accepted there and, for all that I think the Magic community is amazing, it’s less safe for me to be myself there. At the end of the day, I’m trading my geeky love of Monster High for my acceptance as a geeky Magic player.
(I certainly can’t have real feminist conversations about the MCU!)
This is why we need to write long essays on the geek wonderment that is Monster High. This is, in fact, why I need to wear that MH T-shirt, and my Elsa T-shirt, even though I’m making it harder for me to belong (in an environment where I should belong as a matter of course). This is why I have a girly-decorated game box with girly-decorated deck boxes and a pink fish dice bag. This is why I wince and suck up being designated as a woman, because there aren’t enough women in Magic and gaming that I can not be a woman, at least in part.
We need properties like Magic to go all out on the feminism front; we need properties like Magic to become safe spaces for minority players, and the best way to do that is to include us in the narrative and art.
Quite frankly, though, we need properties like Monster High, girl properties, all the more.
And we need to make sure girls know that there’s everything geeky about the things they love.