Living Licensed: Consuming Characters in Girls’ Popular Culture
This Strawberry Shortcake is thinner again, and she poses suggestively with shoulders lifted and toes pointed, as if she were modeling a fashion collection. Her hair—now more magenta than red—is long and luscious, and her signature freckles have nearly disappeared.
Today, children influence over $600 billion a year in spending, and it is overwhelmingly on licensed products with corporate creators. The stories imparted to children are controlled and mass-manufactured. As a child’s life becomes increasingly defined by popular licensed characters, it becomes increasingly important for the critic to examine the implications of these plastic personalities, and broker change.
Strawberry Shortcake is imperfect, but adored. Introduced as both a toy and television special in 1980, the character is slightly chubby with a penchant for sweets, too-big feet, freckles, curly-red hair and a bonnet-and-bloomers costume reminiscent of a past era. Even unconventional, she’s a hit — a character that was, and still is, enormously popular among girls.
The original Strawberry Shortcake was different. The doll’s scent was the new and noticeable attribute when she launched. A permanent bouquet of strawberry was embedded into the molded plastic and synthetic hair of Strawberry Shortcake and her 32 friends, each themed with their own sweet dessert. But the doll also signified a change in the kind of characters that little girls were playing with. Before Shortcake, there was Barbie, a dainty-footed and unattainable image of perfection. “U.S. designers of dolls have always glorified light skin, blond hair, blue eyes, tiny noses, and thin lips,” says author Ellen Seiter in Sold Separately. But Strawberry Shortcake was a massively popular non-blond, blue-eyed character who did not clutch to traditional ideals of beauty, but maneuvered subtly away from them.
In retrospect, the 1980 Strawberry Shortcake looks dated. Her graphic style isn’t slick or smoothly rendered. The character was hand-illustrated by Muriel Fahrion, a staff-artist at American Greetings who created more than 6,500 original works for greeting cards, among them Shortcake and her cat, Custard. But Strawberry Shortcake is dated. According to Fahrion, she was given instruction by art director Rex Connors to “reinvent the rag doll,” based on the likeness of the early-century Raggedy Ann character. The result is a girl with an unusual style completely disparate from the fashion-forward Barbie. Ninteenth-century frock, pantaloons, white-frilled apron, striped stockings, mittened hands, sensible shoes and short, red hair are all trademarks of the classic Raggedy Ann.
Shortcake also participated in the beginning of strong female characters represented in media, girls who are pursuing, rather than being pursued. “Strawberry Shortcake [and others] are not token female members of a male gang; and they are not drawn in the sexualized caricature of adult women, repeated since Betty Boop,” says author Marsha Kinder. And while Walt Disney gives starring roles to women, the stories position them as helpless, selfless, and dependant on a rescuer. Deviation from this format often signifies villainy—overtly sexual and confident women are frequently the “bad guys.” Strawberry Shortcake is as self-assured as she is sweet. She is also the first television show aimed specifically at girls. Male characters had always been preferred in the media, the assumption being that girls would watch boys’ programming but not the other way around. Even in toys there was a lack of creativity, with Barbie and realistic-looking baby dolls the norm. This is perhaps because toy and television executives were mostly male. But Marsha Kinder also speculates that girl-centric media that inaugurated with Shortcake is a product of 1970s feminist attitudes.
In the beginning, Strawberry Shortcake lived on greeting cards. But she was forcibly extracted from her two-dimensional paper world, and thrust into the role of cultural blockbuster. There is no name for the unprecedented magnitude of this character launch. Writing about the 1980s and products of that time, critic Tom Englehardt calls this “the Strawberry Shortcake Strategy.” He says, “for the first time on such a massive scale, a ‘character’ has been born free of its specific structure in a myth, fairy-tale, story or even cartoon.” Even Bernard Loomis, president of Kenner Parker Products and who is credited with her fame, found few, but bold words to articulate his intentions.
“Mark the date and time,” he said. “We’re going to make history.”
Shortcake in the Baking
This red-headed sweetie, created by Muriel Fahrion at American Greetings was a “promotional,” ambiguous artwork not associated with any season that could be produced in-between major holidays. Fahrion was just one of over 300 graphic artists churning out designs for the company. The directive to base Shortcake on Raggedy Ann was Fahrion’s only instruction; she was sole governor of the saccharine universe. “I just got lost in the world of Shortcake and all the characters,” says Fahrion. “I didn’t have a committee telling me what to draw and how to draw. I just made them up. I just did what was fun.”
For toymaker Loomis, Shortcake was the realization of an idea that had already been germinating for some time. In 1976, Kenner Parker Products was making toys for the Star Wars movie franchise, and having reaped great profits, Loomis wanted to manufacture the bounty again. But this time, he wasn’t content to tag along on the success of a feature film. He was determined to skip the filmmaking and make his own history. By 1978, Loomis was shopping for characters, and he suspected that American Greetings might have what he needed.
Summoned to meet with Loomis was Tom Wilson, the creative vice president of American Greetings. To the meeting, he brought a portfolio of characters that had been used in the previous year’s card line. One-by-one characters were presented and one-by-one rejected, until Strawberry Shortcake made her appearance. This was the girl Loomis wanted. This young lady, imperfect and antiquated, was to be plucked from obscurity and positioned on an international stage. This girl was going to be famous.
“It all came out at once,” Fahrion says. “It was everything, in one big launch. Can you imagine?” On March 28th, 1980, the first of only six Strawberry Shortcake animated specials aired, coinciding with a bombardment of consumer products at retail. Toys were the lynchpin, but there was also apparel, books, décor, gifts, sporting-goods and housewares. She was everywhere. She was big. And she was perfectly orchestrated.
The Problem with Pink
It was during the 1980s, under Strawberry Shortcake’s term, that pink began to really become recognized as a color for girls. It was a marketing strategy; divide the children’s market in half, and make parents buy clothing and toys for two— girl and boy. But by segmenting, marketers succeeded also in highlighting and broadening gender differences. Possibilities began to exist within narrow ranges of color.
“Pink for girls and blue for boys. It’s just ‘natural,’ we’ve been told,” says Leslie Feinberg, author of Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. But Feinberg evokes a time when this was not true, dispelling popular notions about instinctive preferences. Before the 20th century, children were not color coded at all. Babies wore white or unbleached cloth out of practicality, and both boys and girls wore gender-neutral dresses. At the turn of the century, girls were wearing blue, invoking the color of the Virgin Mary’s attire. Boys wore pink, a shade of red, an intense color symbolizing strength. “Simplistic and rigid gender codes are neither eternal nor natural,” says Feinberg.
Color assignment is a social concept, and adhering to constructed norms implies a gender citizenship. But belonging to only one color narrows the choices that girls have. Of all the colors in the spectrum, it is pink that little girls reach for. It’s not the best color, it’s just the one they’ve been taught to like. The problem with pink is that girlhood has become monochromatic.
Appealing to the nostalgic sensitivities of the original audience, who at this point are likely to have young girls of their own, the original Strawberry Shortcake was redesigned and reintroduced in 2002. This Shortcake has a slimmer figure and smaller feet, wears jeans, a red sweatshirt and a striped shirt. With a slicker illustration style and up-to-date attire, she looks nothing like a reinvented rag doll. Artist Muriel Fahrion sees little resemblance to her original sweet creation. “It’s just a totally different property,” she says. “It’s well done. I appreciate the new design, but it’s not mine. It’s a different Shortcake for a different generation.”
The property was re-launched yet again in 2009, when Shortcake received a “fruit-forward” makeover, meaning less emphasis on sugary desserts and more on healthy fruits. Considering the increasing criticism that connects character marketing to the consumption of fast foods and unhealthy snacks, this seems an appropriate evolution. This time the green-and-white stockings have returned, although the character’s ethos continues to move even farther from the original. This Strawberry Shortcake is thinner again, and she poses suggestively with shoulders lifted and toes pointed, as if she were modeling a fashion collection. Her hair—now more magenta than red—is long and luscious, and her signature freckles have nearly disappeared. With large doe eyes, this thin, couture-conscious Strawberry Shortcake regresses back to a singular reliance on appearance. Sadly, what made the original character different is now gone.