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The Lisa Frank Website: What is it Really Saying to Young Girls?

*NOTE: I realize that the images are not working right now… I will fix them as soon as I have a chance. I just wanted to get this posted up before I fly home!

Gender and Technology

Professors Dalke and Blankenship

May 15, 2009

The Lisa Frank Website: What is it Really Saying to Young Girls?

A few weeks ago, I went to Rite-Aid to get body wash and other assorted items, and upon walking down the school supply aisle, discovered a Lisa Frank sticker book that I couldn’t help but buy. As I picked up the book off the shelf, I was reminded of my childhood spent coloring in rainbow puppies and unicorns, and of my desire to obtain all of the colorful folders and notebooks featuring the brightly colored animals. When I got the sticker book home and looked through it more closely, however, I noticed something that I did not remember from my childhood: a new set of female human characters, in addition to the animal characters with which I was once obsessed. Wanting to know more about these new characters, I got online and looked up the Lisa Frank website. There, I discovered a few interesting things: a set of character descriptions for both the animal and human characters, as well as a page of articles ranging from the company’s creative process to body image, directed at the girls who are looking at the website. In a few places, the text and articles on the website is at odds with the idealized images that the company has created, but for the most part, the character descriptions are rather flat and stereotypical, and convey a generally limited view of femininity and the capabilities of young women.

In this paper, I am going to analyze some of the characters featured on the website in terms of how the images promote stereotypical ideas about girls and women, how the accompanying textual descriptions interact with those images, and the implications of directing these types of images at young girls through an internet website. I am also going to consider the other textual articles found on the Lisa Frank website in trying to figure out what message the company might be trying to convey through these various means.

Meet Glamour Girl. As her description states, Glamour Girl spends most of her time focused on her appearance, and “won’t leave her apartment with one hair out of place.” All of her likes and hobbies are directed toward her appearance, and her hopes and dreams are to be a super model. This character is the most stereotypically feminine one I could find on the website, and the image matches up quite well with the description. She wears bright makeup, a pink boa, and shoes that would be far too tall for any real 7-11 year old to walk around in; she also has a tiny body, especially in proportion to her head. This character epitomizes the hyper-feminine quality of the “gang” in general; her aspirations are based on her looks rather than inner qualities, and are rather short-term goals. In both appearance and description, Glamour Girl is the stereotypical woman – but she is meant to be seen by pre-teen girls. Other characters, such as Cassie, RockStar, and Lisa, have similarly stereotypical, shallow, short-term, and unrealistic aspirations, such as “to be a star,” “to achieve super stardom and make the Lisa Frank hall of fame,” and “to fill the world with rainbows and happiness.” Many of these goals are unrealistic quite simply because they are situated in a world that does not actually exist, but also because they are things that the majority of girls do not actually achieve, although many might wish that they could and strive to obtain that kind of idealized appearance.

Here we have Valerie. Immediately upon clicking to view Valerie’s description, I realized that she was intended to represent the token “plus-size” character on the website. Although she does not actually appear to be overweight (she seems to be of average weight to me), she is the only character who has a clothing size listed in her description, which clearly implies that her size is a significant aspect of her character in some way. Unlike Glamour Girl, who seems rather self-absorbed, Valerie is focused on helping others, as you can see by reading about her hobbies. In a sense, this description fits into the stereotypical image of a girl who is overweight but has a great personality; it is also interesting to note that, while many of the thinner characters have aspirations that are contingent on their good looks, Valerie’s description says nothing about how she feels about her appearance. Her focus is on helping animals, rather than on achieving any kind of notoriety herself. Rather than showing off her looks, she works behind the scenes for the sake of others. One thing that I noticed is that although Valerie appears to weigh more than most of the other characters, she is the only one who is listed as a vegetarian. In looking at the food preferences of other characters, I have to admit that I am somewhat puzzled by the idea that the vegetarian character is defined by her larger (but not actually large) size, while another character, Star, is perfectly skinny and enjoys pizza with extra cheese. Many of the other stereotypically thin characters are listed as enjoying candy and other unhealthy foods, though one would not guess it by looking at their pictures.

Almost all of the characters on the Lisa Frank website are Caucasian, but Mara is the one character with darker skin (presumably intended to be African American). In the same way that Valerie seems to represent the token plus-size character, Mara seems to represent the token character that adds an element of diversity to the group. Her casting as being “mysterious” and a “gypsy at heart” calls to mind a stereotypical image of the “exotic other” and fear of difference. She is one of the few characters who is overtly described as defying the norms and having a unique artistic sense, and who has a more expansive worldview (she enjoys traveling, as opposed to showing off her appearance). She is not, however, portrayed as being very down-to-earth.

Speaking of characters who are not very down-to-earth, this is Angel. She represents the ideal of the perfectly sweet, innocent, idealistic girl who, like Valerie, is focused on others rather than herself. It is interesting to note the dichotomy that is being set up: in general, the girls who fit the stereotypically ideal appearance are focused on their appearance and have aspirations related to their looks, and some others are focused on helping other people through volunteering without necessarily receiving any glory or recognition. Either the girls want to be recognized for their looks or want to give benevolently without any recognition at all. What about other kinds of dreams and goals based on other aspects of their personalities and abilities? What about school and academics? What about scientific inquiry? What about writing a novel? What about careers? Somehow, being the sherriff of Rainbow Ranch (which is CowGirl’s goal) does not seem to be a particularly realistic or lucrative job option.

So far, I have mainly focused on the new human characters. However, it is also interesting to think about the descriptions that are given to the animal characters. The Dancing Dolphins, who have been around in the world of Lisa Frank sine my childhood, are described as three sisters who “love to dance and play.” What I find intriguing is the description of Aqua, the oldest dolphin sister. She is said to be a bookworm, with hobbies of reading and collecting seashells. She is one of the few female characters who has intellectual interests as opposed to merely superficial ones based on appearance. Could this, perhaps, be because she is not human? As an animal, she does not have to worry so much about her appearance. Even more interesting than her hobbies are her long term goals: “to go to college and to be a marine biologist and to win a nobel prize.” She is the only female character who has high intellectual aspirations, and yet she has so many that they seem to be almost unrealistic. Or, well, they would seem unrealistic even if she were a human, but Aqua is actually a dolphin and would not be able to do any of these things in reality anyway. Why is it that the one female character who is given any intellect is not one that young girls would immediately identify with? If I were a girl who just picked up the sticker book, which does not contain any of these textual descriptions, I would not immediately think to myself that I want to be smart like the dolphin. I would be more likely to see the girls and how thin and pretty they are and want to look more like them. I would infer their personalities from their way of dressing, whereas there is really no way to do that with the dolphins – they all look the same, and do not have accessories like the human characters do. In a sense, reading these descriptions, the dolphins seem to have more complex personalities and relationships than do the human girls.

The animal characters are not entirely immune from gender stereotypes, however. The Cheerleader Bears are also characters that have been around for a while, but they have as stereotypical personalities as the new human characters. As can be expected of cheerleaders, they are described as outgoing an energetic, and have crushes on the same male character. Admittedly, it is mentioned that they are “into studying and getting good grades,” but this seems to feed into a particular image of the extremely involved, sporty, athletic character. Their appearance is quite stereotypical of a cheerleader, though they seem to be exempted from the low-weight requirement, perhaps since they are bears rather than human girls. Their entire personalities, however, revolve around their occupations as cheerleaders and the success of the (presumably male) team for which they cheer. Their long term goals are not goals for them at all – they are goals for the team to win the world championship. They do not even seem to have unique personal qualities; as cheerleaders, they are all grouped together as having the same personalities, goals, hobbies, and preferences. Oh, and their likes and dislikes are also entirely focused on the success of the team they cheer for. What are the Cheerleader Bears going to do after they graduate from The Beary Cool School? What comes next, after the team wins the world championship? Do they have personal or career goals? What does this say to young girls looking at these images/descriptions who are also cheerleaders?

Overall, these images and descriptions represent very conventional, clichéd ideas of how one is expected to perform femininity, as well as the opportunities that girls have as a result of their appearance. Rather than promoting an empowered sense of self-possession, the characters seem to promote an image of girls who are either focused on themselves and their appearance, or who are primarily defined by their desire to give in quiet ways. At this point, I am wondering what kind of effect these images and descriptions have on the self-image and self-conception of the girls who might be looking at the characters and/or the website. Do they try to relate with the characters based primarily on the images, or based on the text? It seems as though the young women are most likely drawn to the website after they have already encountered products that feature these characters, so how do these character descriptions affect the way they view the characters, especially in relation to themselves?

When I was into Lisa Frank as a child, I would make up the stories and personalities of the characters in my head. I did not think about this overtly; I suppose I just did it automatically. I realized this when I took a look at the Ballerina Bunnies and felt a sense of anger at seeing their personalities reduced to such simplistic, stereotypical terms. In my head, I had always interpreted them as being on the shy side. In the popular image of the three of them dancing, I had made up a story in my head about how they had been practicing for their routine for months, and felt nervous about their performance, but in this moment, are shining in the spotlight despite their shyness. I sense that this story is related to my own personality and how I saw myself as a child, but that is an analysis that I will save for my Livejournal. The point is that I was able to infer all of this based on the images, on how the characters’ personalities were portrayed through the drawings rather than being explicitly told to me. I was able to combine the images with my own thoughts and experiences to make them significant to me. When I read the descriptions of the original characters on the website, I felt like a sense of autonomy had been taken from me – I no longer had the freedom to create my own stories for the characters, or to imagine them in any way but how they are described on the website.

In addition to the character descriptions, there are other bits of reading material for young girls on the Lisa Frank website. In the “Activities” section, one can learn about how aromas affect your mood, about how to create new fashions for Lisa Frank dolls, about how to bake a couple of healthy snacks, about how to have healthier, shinier hair in a natural way, and how to adorn one’s jeans. Under a section titled “Read,” one can read articles about the process of how a character concept becomes an official design, a story about a girl’s experience at summer camp, an article about the significance of roses, one about beach slang, and finally, one about self-image. This last article is the most striking, simply because the message it sends seems to be so at odds with the messages sent by the images of the characters. The article cites the statistic that “over 81% of ten-year-olds from around the U.S. have already dieted because they thought they were too fat,” and points out that “many of today’s fashion and glamour magazines make young girls feel like they should be a size zero, which is something less than 5% of grown women will be.” This is certainly something that young girls should know, since it is true that magazines make it seem as though being thin is absolutely essential. However, this idea seems to be very much the opposite of what the images of the characters are saying. The majority of the characters have tiny waists and fit our society’s ideals of beauty, and the only one whose size is mentioned would probably not actually be considered overweight at all. Doesn’t this promote the idea that being a size 12 in girls if you are 4 foot 9 is somehow different? By calling attention to this difference, the company is essentially confirming that being smaller than this is the norm. Their size does not need to be listed because it is unremarkable – on this website, they are the majority, even though this article states that very little of the population will actually grow to look this way.

In promoting a positive self-image, this article encourages girls to exercise, eat healthy, try new things, and diversify. This last suggestion, to diversify, is perhaps the most striking one of all. The description of this point is as follows: “Make friends with people of all shapes and sizes and all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. This takes the pressure off being perfect. You learn to judge others-and yourself-by the beauty that lies within their hearts and souls and not by the size of the clothes that they wear or their hair color or the color of their skin. We are all girls and we are all beautiful!” While this message seems positive, it is also at odds, in a sense, with the one sent by the array of characters featured. Although the girls are given some unique personality traits, they are mostly very similar. In terms of being of all shapes and sizes, there is really only one human character that has a less-than-ideal body type, and there is only one character that is obviously of a different ethnic background. Additionally, it might be worth noting that none of the animal characters seem to have any relation or interaction with the human characters. Even though the animals are given human features and personalities, they are not integrated with the new population of female sprites. Why is there such a dissonance between the themes of this article and the implicit messages sent by the characters themselves?

One possibility that comes to my mind is that the company has had to change and adapt to the current market for girls of this age. If you look at other products that are marketed toward girls of this age, such as Bratz dolls and the newly revamped version of Dora the Explorer, it is not hard to see that a trend is forming. While these beauty ideals were once directed more at teenage and young adult women, the companies are aiming even younger. This may be a result of how lucrative the diet industry and industries for various appearance-improving products have become, and now those companies are seeking to gain an even greater base of customers. By including the token “overweight” and “ethnically diverse” characters, Lisa Frank might be trying to mask that their target audience is Caucasian girls of a particular age, but it is still pretty obvious that most of the characters fall into that category. Further, by including articles like the one I pointed out, Lisa Frank is able to say that they are not promoting unhealthy or unobtainable ideals; clearly, they are overtly speaking out against them. Obviously, I am not convinced.

I find it rather troubling that this website advertises itself as a space for girls – more specifically, as “the site girls LOVE!” – when it is sending such mixed messages to the girls who might be looking at it, and when it is actually being directed at a specific contingent of young girls. I realize that there are other, more positive online spaces for girls of this age, such as and Girls, Inc., but quite honestly, I am having a hard time finding others that are not tied to fashion magazines that I haven’t already heard of. If I, with my rather well-honed Googling skills, cannot come up with websites for girls that aren’t focused on appearances and other superficial things, how would a younger girl who is not specifically searching for something more positive come across one? Lisa Frank is bright, readily available, and immediately attractive to customers. They find products (such as my sticker book) and seek out more – and find a space such as the Lisa Frank website. Although it is not entirely negative, it is not much better than a teen magazine full of airbrushed photos that runs stories on the shocking prevalence of eating disorders; both are full of contradictions. There is a need on the part of these companies to satisfy those of the industry who fund the existence of these companies in the first place, but there is also a push to promote more positive ideals and images for the consumers.

What is the result? A website that promotes stereotypes and idealized ways of being feminine on the surface, while trying to masquerade as a website that encourages girls to develop positive self-image. The Internet has become a hub of information and interactivity for people of all ages and genders, but it is full of the same messages, positive and negative, that our society constantly sends to its members. The Lisa Frank website may be advertised as the site that girls love, but is it a site that truly encourages girls to love themselves, regardless of their appearance, ethnic background, or ability to fit society’s beauty ideals?