The Kind Campaign's recently announced partnership with Mattel is an opportunity for any of us who advocate for children or any social cause to think about a very difficult question; how do we collaborate with larger, more powerful organizations and corporations to get our message across?
I know about the Kind Campaign because two years ago, its founders, Lauren Parsekian and Molly Stroud, asked to interview me for the documentary they were making. A few weeks later, two beautiful young women who had not yet graduated from college, arrived at my house, schlepping all their gear into my living room. As they quickly set up lights and cameras, they immediately gained my respect. That feeling grew as they asked thoughtful questions (substantially better than many journalists who interview me) and they cleaned up after themselves. When they left, I wished them the best and hoped for their success.
I knew the road to their success wasn't going to be easy. They were young, had little professional experience, and no connection to an established organization to give them credibility. Exactly the same position I was in when I first began my work seventeen years ago. I knew what they were up against: convincing people to take a chance on you, raising money, forgoing salary, and depending on family and friends for support, driven by the need to get the message out.
Two years later, Mattel announced that their Monster High Doll line was partnering with the Kind Campaign. My understanding of the campaign is that Lauren and Molly will act as KIND characters within the Monster High webisodes. As I read people's reactions to this, and Amy Jussel's comments, it caused some amount of personal pain. It's not that I'm against corporate partnerships. How could I be? I'm a spokesperson for Unilever's "Don't Fret the Sweat" Campaign and LG's Text-Ed Council and I'm proud of the work I have done with both of them. I have worked on and off with Liz Claiborne for years. I sold the rights to my book, Queen Bees and Wannabes to Paramount so Tina Fey could turn it into Mean Girls.
For better and for worse, I believe that working within institutions is worth the effort.
Yes, the power dynamic can be unequal as you feel insecure compared to their money or influence. Yes, as an advocate you may be hesitant to say what you really think and progress can be slow. Yes, if you aren't careful you can be co-opted by the system and/or perceived to have compromised yourself and your mission by people on the outside. But overall I believe the majority of people employed at these companies are decent people who want to do good work and it's better to work within systems than be on the outside where you have less chance of having your voice heard. And the fact is that corporations are the best at getting messages to the cultural marketplace. We need to be at the table when those messages are being crafted.
I really get why Kind Campaign did it. By agreeing to work with Mattel they could reach the girls Mattel reaches. That's huge.
But here's my problem: The Monster High doll line continues the skinny and sexy/super cute cultural ideal that is so toxic for girls and women.
One of the primary ways girls can be incredibly unkind to each other is by degrading a girl who doesn't fit into this ideal. I worry that the girls will see the mixed message within this program and the more visual message (i.e. of the skinny/sexy/supercute girl) will dominate. In addition, while Mattel says Monster High is targeted at tweens and teens, I have a hard time believing that is the case. Dolls and the marketing campaigns created around them are targeted at girls between 5-10; not tweens and teens. And my review of some, albeit not all, Monster High webisodes makes me extremely uneasy because the "Monsters" story line comes across to me as the characters being "cooler" than everyone else.
Emily Bartek, marketing and brand strategy consultant for Scout Strategies looks at it differently, "A partnership with Mattel reflects on some level their [Kind's] intuitive understanding that looking the part of cool is a vehicle for delivering a message. No one looks at two attractive girls and assumes they've been bullied -- no one looks at sexy dolls and assumes they will sneak in messaging about friendship and equality. Regardless of whether or not the dolls create a whole layer of problems in addition to those they intend to solve, it's easy to see how both KIND and Mattel could stand by the assertion that young girls love these toys and how they look and that they're getting positive messaging into something girls and their parents would buy anyhow."
My counter to Bartek's argument is two fold: I believe that companies that sell products to children not only have a responsibility to their shareholders but a higher obligation to consider their products' impact on children's well-being. The bottom line is, you can still make the dolls cute without having them wear tiny mini-skirts and high heels. And parents, of course, must be educated and empowered to not buy things that are reinforcing of these images.
But there's more at stake here than this one campaign. How we discuss this topic is critical because so often the substance of the problem is lost in the dynamics going on between the people on the opposing sides.
Here's what I am worried about:
In a world where a particular look takes up more space in our often culturally vapid landscape, we have to face our own anxiety and reactions to it. And it's certainly not new that attractive women doing good work are received skeptically at best. We owe it to each other to raise the level of dialogue whenever we can and we can start by admitting when we ourselves are caught in this mix; possibly blind to a more nuanced understanding of a situation.
That means that this can't devolve into another case of older women criticizing younger women for being naive. Not only is it patronizing, but it will come across to the general public as women sniping at each other. That is an old, tired script that needs to be put through the shredder. It doesn't give any of us, or the substance of our work, the respect we and it deserve.
From a women's leadership standpoint, if we are to walk the walk we have to stand for allowing girls and young women to reach for big goals, put themselves out there, do things we may not agree with and still let them know they are valuable, thoughtful, and are making meaningful contributions. The message to come out of this cannot be "you partnered with Mattel and no real expert with any integrity would have done so."
So the questions to the Kind Campaign's founders are: Will they use their voice as advocates to speak out to Mattel? Will they advise them on how to change the dolls look so that, while still making something girls want to buy, aren't sexualized? Will they point out the mixed messages? Can they talk to Mattel about the impact of growing up as a young woman in today's culture and the part that Mattel plays within it?
It comes down to this: their success and credibility demands that they expand the definition and application of being kind and the unkindness of "girl on girl crime" from the girls themselves to the corporations they partner with who target girls. Because it's wonderful to change a girl's life when she realizes the worth of being kind to others but it's transformational to the culture if institutions like Mattel can similarly own up to "girl on girl" crime and become more KIND, and truly support girls in the process.