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Fangs And Fishnets For The Win: 'Goth Barbie' Is Monstrously Successful

Mattel executives say they did not anticipate the runaway success of the goth-influenced Monster High brand when it debuted in 2010.
Mattel executives say they did not anticipate the runaway success of the goth-influenced Monster High brand when it debuted in 2010.

We've got two words for you: Goth Barbie.

Not only does such a thing exist, but after Barbie, it's the best-selling doll in the world. The dolls of Monster High are bone-thin beauties all related to famous monsters. They come with books and Web episodes that follow their stories in that place where everyone feels like a freak — in high school.

Monster High is made by the world's biggest toy company, which also manufactures Barbie. But no one at Mattel expected Monster High to become one of the biggest retail sensations of the past several years. Last winter at Toy Fair, New York's annual showcase of top toys, Monster High wannabes were everywhere — even zombie princesses that Walt Disney could have never imagined, including zombie Snow White and a zombie Little Mermaid.

In the hopping Toy Fair compound run by Mattel, Barbie's pink displays seemed almost dowdy and passe next to Monster High's glamorous dolls, which look like the underfed love children of Tim Burton and Lady Gaga. Mattel's Dana De Celis is showing off a pretty brunette doll with flowing hair and wolfish ears: "She's our werewolf so she's gonna howl for us," De Celis says as the doll issues an electronic wolf howl. "She tosses her head back, she arches her back, she closes her eyes and she is literally howling at the moon."

"The message about the brand is really to celebrate your own freaky flaws, especially as bullying has become such a hot topic," says Cathy Cline. She's in charge of marketing for Mattel's girls' brands — and sales have surged 56 percent this year, thanks to Monster High. "And it's also one of the fastest growing brands within the entire toy industry," Cline adds.

Mattel had no idea Monster High would — in just three years — become a billion dollar brand, says Kiyomi Haverly, vice president of design at Mattel. "Honestly, it was very surprising to us. We just noticed girls were into darker goth fashion." And Twilight and zombies — but Monster High dolls are designed for girls ages 6 to 12, so they're not too terribly dark.

The characters are plugged into the same kind of things a cool 16-year-old might enjoy, like rockabilly, snowboarding and environmental activism. Draculaura, for example (she's Dracula's daughter), can't stand the thought of blood. "She's a vegan. She's turned off by meat," says Haverly. "Girls could really relate to that because that's part of what they're thinking of these days."

But that 21st century relatability surprised toy analyst Gerrick Johnson, who says he didn't take Monster High seriously when the dolls debuted in 2010. "I didn't think it would work. Why does Barbie work? Barbie works because she's aspirational. Girls want to be like Barbie." Johnson says he figured the "ghoulfriends" of Monster High would be more like Shrek. "Shrek has never worked in toy format, because no boy wants to be a green ogre from the swamp. He wants to be Luke Skywalker."

But for Rebecca Salms, Monster High, with all its fangs and fishnets, feels far more relatable than Barbie. Salms is the mother of a 9-year-old and is a self-described ex-goth. But, she says, there is one thing about them that really turns her off. Monster High dolls make Barbie look fat. "Their arms are so skinny that you need to take off the hands to get the sleeves on the arms," she says. "That's how scrawny they've made them."

That hasn't deterred Salm's daughter, Keiko, who's playing with her Monster High dolls in her sunny, lavender-painted upstairs bedroom with her friend, Jade. They have between them exactly 30 Monster High dolls, and together they play out a scene where two of the dolls set out to teach snooty mummy Cleo DeNile a lesson.

The doll that may ultimately learn a lesson is the toy world's reigning queen. Recently, Barbie sales have been dropping.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio and a previous Web version of this story, we imply that Toy Fair takes place in the spring. In fact, the New York showcase is held every year in February.
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.