Peter Pan may never have grown up, but Tinker Bell and her fairy friends definitely have. The Disney Fairies boast hourglass figures, coy glances and barely-there mini dresses. In short, these girls aren’t your mama’s pixies.
Even trolls have come of age. Those formerly stout, pug-nosed kewpies have reemerged in a new slim, thigh-baring line called Trollz. Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have become tweens and shed their baby fat. And et tu, Holly Hobbie? She’s traded her prairie dresses for a saucy wardrobe and lightened locks.
In recent years, Disney, Mattel and other major companies have revisited a host of iconic dolls and turned them into freshly tarted-up — or at least more grown-up — toys. New lines, like the Monster High Dolls and hot-to-trot Struts horses (yes, horses), came out of the gate tramping it up and they're making some parents — and psychologists — uncomfortable.
“They send the message to kids that you can’t just be you,” says Lori Mayfield, a 30-year-old mother of four from Draper, Utah. “It seems like [toy makers] are setting up our kids.”
While she likes the Disney fairies because they “have a good friendship and there’s always a lesson to be learned,” she says that even she and her husband, Chad, were startled by their saucy style. The actually found themselves recently debating which fairy is the hottest. (Consensus: Silvermist.)
Mayfield, who runs the blog Twinfinity from her home, says she and her husband strive to teach the kids that beauty comes from within, but frets that her 6-year-old daughter is already asking to wear makeup and worrying whether her coat makes her look fat.
Dale Atkins, a psychologist and TODAY show contributor, says she's upset about what the revved-up dolls are teaching girls about their own appearance.
“When we have these ridiculous models — sexualized children, and horses with long eyelashes that are flirtatious and all of that — it sets up this ideal of beauty and body image that kids have to pay attention to because they can’t not pay attention to it. And they feel less good as they’re trying to develop a good sense about their own bodies," she says. "The sexualized aspect just makes them feel like they're only good if they are objectified. ... And it's all so subtle, for a child anyway. We parents and adults look at this and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so blatant,’ but in fact it's subtle because kids are playing with these things and then they look in the mirror."
But representatives at Mattel, the makers of the wildly popular Monster High Dolls, say its controversial line of toy dolls, featuring the teen offspring of monsters, aims to show kids it's OK to be different.
“Monster High is all about celebrating your imperfections and accepting the imperfections of others," says Margaux Vega, spokeswoman for Mattel.
She acknowledges that the dolls, which sport fishnet stockings, heavy makeup and ultrashort skirts, appeal mostly to 5- to 7-year-olds. But they also have online personas and webisodes aimed at older kids that tell each doll's backstory.
“Clawdeen Wolf is the teenage daughter of a werewolf. In the webisodes, she has to shave and wax and pluck between classes,” Vega says. “Girls of a certain age know about the embarrassment of unwanted hair in unwanted places.”
‘Why does she look like a boy?’
It's gotten so that some kids, even young tots, expect that dolls will look like they’ve already been through puberty.
When Joy Oglesby showed her daughter, Lauren Welmaker, a picture of the old version of Tinker Bell in a library book, the 4-year-old, who has all the new Disney fairies, wondered: “Why does she look like a boy?”
Oglesby, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has seen Struts horses, which have long eyelashes and wear high heels on their hooves, and says her daughter would love one. “The mane is silky and she would be attracted to the eyes, and the accessories that come with it. It looks very girly, I'm not sure why she gravitates to this kind of toy, but I'm not worried about it yet.”
But the effect of titillating toys creeps in slowly, says Peggy Orenstein, the author of the bestseller “Cinderella Ate my Daughter.”
“Girls don’t naturally want to be sexy — they want to be girls,” says Orenstein. “That is natural. [But] when they continue to see images of toys that are supposed to be age appropriate emulating sexiness, then that un-natural aspiration becomes natural.”
Orenstein says toy manufacturers began following the marketing strategy “Kids Getting Older Younger” when they realized that toys marketed toward kids between the ages of 8 and 12 were attracting kids who were in the 3-year-old to 8-year-old age range because they wanted to emulate their older brothers and sisters.
But Donna Tobin, director of global brand strategy and marketing for Hasbro, says the company actually has gone the opposite direction with makeovers for its toy My Little Pony, aimed at girls ages 3 to 6.
“We want our girls to stay little longer!” she says. “Look at My Little Pony. She’s cute. She’s pretty. She’s pink. She may have a different look, but she has always stood for friendship. We’re not about lipstick or shaving.”
As younger kids gravitate to older toys earlier, their big sisters and brothers often have already closed up their toy boxes and moved on to other things.
At ages 6 and 8, sisters Amanda and Sophia Oliva of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., aren't interested in playing princess anymore, says their mom, Lauri. When they play dress-up, they pretend to be models. And their newest obsession is with teen music sensation Taylor Swift.
“Now, everything in our house is about Taylor Swift,” says Lauri Oliva, 46. “Sophia tries to emulate her. She’ll sing and dance Taylor Swift karaoke songs in the mirror.”
For Sophia’s birthday, all she wanted was tickets to a Swift concert.
“Kids are 8 going on 15 these days,” she says.
What is old is new again
Some kids’ toys aren’t necessarily being marketed to kids, but rather to their parents, says Reyne Rice, trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association. She says updating the look of a toy is a way manufacturers can appeal to the new generation of consumers while still tapping into the nostalgic interest and collector dollars of the older generation.
“A lot of these toy manufacturers realized the interest in brands that have been around for generations and realized there was still interest in the brands — from both the children as young as 3, as well as their parents,” says Rice.
But Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and TODAY show contributor, suggests parents actually seek out their old favorites instead of embracing some of the “refreshed” versions. “You have to use your judgment,” she says — and maybe hit up eBay or garage sales for the classic versions. “If you have a choice, I’d take the old Strawberry Shortcake.”
Saltz says these sexed-up toys and childhood icons go in the same category as violent video games and PG-13 movies: Parents need to take a close look, evaluate them for themselves, and decide whether they’re appropriate.
Melissa Walker, 41, of Southlake, Texas, walks the line of finding suitable toys for her daughters Gabrielle, 6, and Adeline, 4, while letting them indulge their interests.
Gabrielle loves the Disney fairies and says her favorite is Rosetta, “because she’s pink and that's my favorite color. And because I like flowers and she makes flowers.” (Rosetta is the redheaded fairy with a “garden talent.”)
Walker doesn’t mind the Disney fairy makeover because of the overall message they send. “They control everything. They are in charge of seasons, of things working. They are good role models,” says Walker.
But she draws the line at slutty doll clothes. On a recent shopping trip to Costco, Walker saw a big bin of Barbie clothes, but despite her daughters’ love for the doll, her cart remained empty.
“There was not one outfit that wasn't a ‘hoochie’ dress. I guess it was the ‘Barbie Goes Wild’ collection. We didn't buy anything. There’s no reason for that,” adding that she’s happy to buy Barbie outfits where she looks like a doctor or a princess or a soccer player.
Walker has a strict “no exposed belly buttons” rule in her house, and figures her kids’ dolls should follow it, too. “We don't want to plant that too soon,” she says. “We’ll have that fight soon enough.”
TODAY Money editor Al Olson and contributor Hitha Prabhakar added to this report.