Under the knife: A thinner, sexier Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears

We've run articles on many a controversial subject here at Bitch, and readers have responded with appropriate ardor to such topics as fat suits, pro-porn theory, eating disorders, the "hasbian" phenomenon, and more. Yet some of the most impassioned letters we've gotten in the past year or so hinged on a short piece in issue #35 about the disturbing equine makeover of My Little Pony. (It's not archived on the site yet, unfortunately.) Responses to Jesse Rutherford's Love/Shove — which took a close look at the evolution of the 1980s toy-box staple and concluded that Hasbro's aesthetic tinkering has yielded an undeniably sexualized parade of ponies — ranged from assertions that it was "terrifically over the top" and "creepily overstated" to veiled accusations that Rutherford's interest in the redesign was "the kind of logic only someone who is unreasonably sexually obsessed with ponies would arrive at."

I was reminded of this the other day when I read a recent New York Times piece on the new makeover of Strawberry Shortcake, another classic of '80s playtime who continues to be a touchstone for girly nostalgia. It seems, according to the American Greetings company —Shortcake's sugar daddy — that today's girls weren't feeling the icon's Raggedy Anne styling, Calico-cat companion, and unhealthy preference for gumdrops over fresh fruit. (I was never a fan of the doll, so I can't verify personally whether I ever got the latter directive from Shortcake and her pals, but I will say that my childhood friend Pilar had the whole fruity family — Apple Dumplin', Huckleberry Pie, Orange Blossom — and the sickly, chemical scent of them emanated from her bedroom as a kind of pastel fog.)

Anyway, the new Shortcake is, to put it mildly, femmed-up to the max — long, smooth fuschia hair instead of yarny locks, bigger eyes that are green rather than brown and rimmed with mascara-ad lashes, a smaller nose, fewer freckles, lip gloss. It will surprise no one to hear that she's also a good deal thinner. What American Greetings deems a "fruit-forward" makeover also involves Strawberry's declining interest in the aforementioned gumdrops — a move that recalls Cookie Monster's now-famous renouncing of his namesake treat back in 2005, when concerns about childhood obesity prompted the furry Muppet to declare that cookies were now "a sometimes food." As for the fact that Shortcake's beloved cat has been replaced with a cell phone — where to even start with that?

Responses to the makeover announcement on blogs from AfterEllen to Retroactivist to MainStreet (which crunched the numbers on the real-life cost of the character's cosmetic overhaul) have been, unsurprisingly, none too sweet. And, as with My Little Ponies, the concern has less to do with preserving nostalgia than with a very real concern that little girls have fewer and fewer existing spaces that are free from aesthetic indoctrination. The NYT also mentions that Care Bears are being revamped with their own makeover — "less belly fat, longer eyelashes," and that beloved kid's-lit mouse Angelina Ballerina has also been slimmed down for an upcoming animated series, and, I'm sorry, call me unreasonably sexually obsessed with ponies, but that's ridiculous. Strawberry Shortcake is one thing, but bears and mice aren't supposed to mimic mainstream beauty standards. Or, at least, up until now they weren't.

Interestingly, the NYT piece explains these revamps, in part, with the statement, "For parents, nostalgia is considered a bigger sales hook than ever because of the increasingly violent and hyper-sexualized media landscape." But if that's the case, wouldn't it make more sense to, I don't know, preserve a corner of the toy realm — especially toys marketed chiefly to girls — that doesn't reflect, however tangentially, that very landscape?

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Modernizing doesn't tap nostalgia

I'd be interested to know about the decisions to change My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake, whether they were generated by the companies or by focus groups. I read once that My Little Pony was invented by Hasbro polling thousands of little girls asking them what they liked and the overwhelming response was "Horses and Hairstyling."

I remember at the same time that Strawberry Shortcake was all the rage, there were tons of small scale dolls that I liked playing with who were pretty normally proportioned, like She-Ra (my favorite), the Wish Fairies, and so forth. So by updating SS by making her a mini-Bratz doll, I think the companies are missing the point of nostalgia. It's nice to play with dolls that are interesting rather than just pretty playthings.

I wonder how much of this is influenced by the popularity of the Bratz dolls, which I consider the ultimate in over-sexualizing pitched at young girls. Next to the Bratz, Barbie looks like a poster girl for normality. I think what I miss from my childhood is dolls (or action figures) that *did* something, had some special powers, or had real personalities. A vapid skinny SS with a cell phone appeals to me nowhere near as much as the friendly kid with a cat.

Plasticizing girlie for the win?

The first thing that came to my mind upon reading your post was a second, plasticizing factor that comes into play when these toys become more sexy. The two in fact seem almost inextricably linked. You mention above Strawberry Shortcake's switch away from the trademark yarny locks. The Cabbage Patch Kids, too, have become less yarny, thinner, and altogether unagreeable. Far from the squishy, cuddly, child-friends of my past, these figures are remote, their smiles inaccessible, and their ability to relate compelling stories from anywhere near nature seems unlikely. If toys are an art from, and art holds a mirror to our culture, I think these toys are quite effectively relaying pop-culture's plasticine-obsession with youth. FOX's "The Swan" may have been the most morally disgusting media I have yet come into contact with, and I believe these toys are just the trickle-down effect of the misogynist idea that women can never be beautiful enough the way they are born.

With that said, I don't necessarily disagree with the slimming down of some of these toys. Frankly, if Strawberry Shortcake wants to eat strawberries, I think it's great! I never could stand her, anyways, she always sorta reminded me of those markers that got shoved in my face in elementary school... "eeew, this one's gross! Here, smell it!!" Remember those? I am definitely in favor of children's toys becoming healthier. However, I mean healthier all-around.

In short, I would call for a subtle medium. I don't want my cabbage patch kids less yarny or playful, but I also don't want them showing my children that obesity is okay, because I find obesity to be self-destructive behavior. Honestly, I just want my old Angelina Ballerina back. She was not ultra-thin, she was healthily-sized, and her mama mouse always made sure she ate good things before she danced off to her performances. My youngest sister (we're 20yrs apart) is in love with the new Angelina Ballerina, who is frankly as thin as a rail and as hard as a rock. She isn't even mouse-shaped anymore!

More fabric, less cell-phones, more fruit.

I might argue

that good eating habits don't necessarily bring about weight loss in all individuals. That being said, I am--like you--all for iconic figures having healthy diets, but I don't see why that necessitates drastic visual makeovers. Especially not for dolls like Strawberry Shortcake, who may have been a bit smelly, but whose original figure is hardly in need of slimming.

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