Toy manufacturers and retailers are often held responsible for a lack of cultural diversity reflected in the doll aisle. While these companies are now providing consumers with more multi-cultural options than ever before, companies are still under immense pressure to create culturally diverse dolls that do not promote racial stereotypes.
NBC’s Saturday Night Live showed a parody ad on last week’s Christmas episode, depicting the struggles manufacturers face when attempting to create multi-cultural dolls without being offensive. Her name? Asian American Doll. She comes with plain clothes, an empty dollhouse, and a pull string that kids can simply throw away, since the manufacturer “couldn’t settle on anything for her to say.” The child in the ad says, “I’m going to add an Oriental rug,” to which the commentator responds “your funeral.” After many focus groups, the commentator explains that they did find two accessories to include with Asian American doll: a puppy and a chef’s hat. However, one of the little girls in the ad asks, “Is that so she can eat the puppy or something, because she’s Asian?” Fail.
The parody promotes the idea that it’s virtually impossible for manufacturers to remain completely inoffensive, despite all efforts. However, the doll aisle is a rapidly changing landscape, and while it may not be perfect, it is heading in a good direction.
Many companies are cranking out more and more diverse dolls—and this includes dolls that are mixed race, like Our Generation’s Kaylee, who comes with an outfit but doesn’t have much of a back-story.
While some companies are so careful about racial stereotypes they leave out details, accessories, and features that other dolls may have, other companies work to incorporate cultural diversity into the dolls as much as possible. Global Girl, a new company dedicated to creating multi-cultural dolls that have lots of background, has no fear when it comes to making the doll’s accessories, back-story, and physical appearance match her racial background. For example, Tatiana is from Russia and has green eyes, blonde hair, and a white fur hat and coat. Tatiana’s storybook explains that she is a top junior figure skater who loves her home city of Moscow and learns important lessons about competition.
Similarly, American Girl’s line of 18-inch dolls represents multiple ethnicities, including Kaya, a Native American doll that features long dark brown pigtail braids, a faux-deerskin dress, and moccasins. Each doll in this line has an extensive backstory relevant to her respective culture, as well as tons of accessories that reflect the doll’s heritage. In Kaya’s case, she loves the earth and her loyal mare named Steps High. Her accessories (sold separately) include a “Pow-Wow” set of hair accessories and a teepee and bedroll.
While some manufacturers are making strides, some of the biggest names in dolls are still struggling with sensitivity when it comes to race and play. Mattel’s Barbie, the No. 1 doll for girls for decades, introduced an African American doll in 1968. Her name was Christie, and she was marketed as Barbie’s friend. With dark skin, and a curly crop of hair, Christie had a look all her own—but there was one major flaw with the marketing initiatives. Barbie is the girl who can do anything—but who is Christie? Just her friend? Not anymore. Christie was retired in 2005, and since then, African American Barbie dolls have a new name: Barbie.
While some may see this change as a way to de-personalize the African American doll, it could also be a positive change, showing girls that Barbie can truly be anything and anyone— and just because she’s African American doesn’t mean she needs a different name or a different personality. This fall, Mattel launched Barbie Entrepreneur. She rocks a high, voluptuous pony tale and comes with a smartphone, a tablet, a brief case, and a pink wristlet—and she’s available in Caucasian, Hispanic, African American or Asian American. And while the name difference is clear when shopping online, all kids see on her box is Barbie.
Earlier this month, CNBC reported that three retailers were pricing white Barbie dolls differently than black Barbie dolls. Wal-Mart, for example, was selling the Caucasian Barbie I Can Be Ice Skater Doll for $9.88, while the African American version of the same doll was $11.87. Toys “R” Us was selling the Caucasian doll for $14.99 while the African American one was $10.99. There were similar price inconsistencies with other Barbie dolls at Target as well. The retailers unanimously stated the price discrepancies were a mistake and have since rectified the issues. While this could have been an oversight on part of the retailers, it understandably sparked some outrage in consumers.
Toys are a huge part of American culture and entertainment today, with the toy industry weighing in at a whopping $22 billion a year. While the doll aisle may not be a perfect reflection of American culture, manufacturers are taking steps in the right direction and are listening to what consumers are after. The online marketplace will continue to allow more and more options for consumers to choose from, and as SNL showed, it may be impossible to make everyone perfectly happy, but at least things are looking up.