Let Girls Be Girls – Why “Sexy” Dolls Perpetuate Harmful Objectification

By Jodi Bondi Norgaard

“What is being marketed to our girls? What’s going on right underneath our noses?” This is one mother’s response to a hidden feature of LOL Surprise! dolls by MGA Entertainment. A recent video has gone viral demonstrating the LOL Surprise! water feature, which is not publicly promoted by the company. When the dolls are dipped in cold water sexy lingerie appears. One even has a devil tail on her backside and another reveals “caution” over her private area and shackles on her wrists. How could anyone in the toy industry sign off on that?

Having kept a close eye on the toy industry the last fifteen years, I have seen overt examples of the sexualization of girls’ toys, starting when I encountered “Lovely Lola” while shopping with my then 9-year-old daughter. This doll was sitting on a shelf in a crop top, high heels and make up. The juxtaposition between my daughter—pigtails askew, still sweaty and flushed from her soccer game—made me angry, and still does.

But some “toy experts” say such dolls are on-trend and relatable to kids. How again are sexualized dolls relatable to kids? When I imagine a young girl left to engage in creative play with a sexy-looking doll (most likely marketed and sold by a company led by men), I wonder if that could very well be her first #MeToo moment. The assault is in the message: “Your value is in your appearance, and by the way, here is your standard.”

I’ll be blunt. My motivation to start my doll company was to provide an alternative to dolls that look like overly sexualized and objectified women. As the founder of the Go! Go! Sports Girl, I have been trying to create change and shatter stereotypes in the toy industry for over a decade. Industry leaders told me repeatedly, “I love your product, but it’ll never sell because it’s not mainstream. It’s not a fashion doll and girls like fashion.”

Aside from the fact some “fashion” dolls have crossed the line into an entirely different profession, not all girls are obsessed with fashion. In fact, ask any girl about her interests and you’re likely to get a wide array of answers. Not only should toys represent their true interests, they also have the opportunity to inspire them.

Research shows that children’s interests, ambitions, and skills can be shaped early on by the media they consume and the toys around them—potentially influencing everything from the subjects they choose to study, to the careers they ultimately pursue. By exposing children to toys, media and role models beyond gender stereotypes, we offer them the opportunity to authentically develop their talents and pursue their passions. Girls need encouragement to embrace their strength and assertiveness, as much as boys need validation to be vulnerable and nurturing. Tired, even damaging, stereotypes cannot be the only option.

For far too long we have overlooked the gravity of influence the toy industry has on our children. MGA Entertainment and other toy companies like them promote and financially benefit from highly sexualized products marketed to girls. According to NPD Group, the LOL Surprise! brand generated more than $1.67 billion in sales in 2018.

In response to the criticism, an MGA spokesperson said, “L.O.L Surprise! is a fashion-forward doll brand designed to be fun and expressive. We work very hard to be a brand that listens and adapts to our fans’ requests.”

I’d like to know who, exactly, they’re listening to. I don’t know a single parent who wants their little girls playing with a doll that’s dressed for a night of S&M.

Parents buy toys in good faith they are appropriate. Consumers assume toy makers have our children’s best interest at heart. But today’s toys have become far too sexualized and gendered to be innocent playthings. In a world where women and girls are climbing out of the pits of sexism and stereotypes, and fighting back on issues of pay equity, representation, and sexual harassment, it’s time to take our case to younger and younger stakeholders and hold companies like MGA and the toy industry accountable for their treatment—I’d even say harassment—of young girls.

Just because a large toy company launches a new product doesn’t make it a good product. Just because “toy experts” want you to believe their product is on-trend doesn’t make it a good choice. We don’t have to be passive buyers. As parents and consumers, we have a lot of power. You can send a strong message to retailers and manufacturers with your buying habits.

Jodi Bondi Norgaard is the founder of the Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls and books, Keynote Speaker, and Consultant. Her book, More Than a Doll, is forthcoming.