Monday, November 23, 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouse

I read with interest and annoyance the following article in the Wall Street Journal by Megan Cox Gurdon:

It asks, "Do Our Dolls Have to Look Like Us?" and answers--big surprise from the WSJ--"Naaah." The author's point is that adults try to politicize dolls (not black enough, hair too straight, etc), whereas kids just want to play with them; therefore it is ridiculous that the toy companies are jumping through such hoops to bring diverse dolls to market. What's amazing is that the author cites two seminal studies demonstrating the negative effects on children of color when given only white dolls, but she still arrives at the same conclusion: What a pain! Why bother!? And the best, a line that said something to the effect of: "my one black friend growing up loved her Skipper and Barbie dolls!" Of course it's not a problem then, because you know ONE BLACK PERSON who had fun with Barbie! That must mean that ALL black people are just like your friend, being as how she's representative of an entire group of people by virtue of her blackness. Gimme a break.

Listen, I get what she's saying up to a point. Adults can get wiggy about stuff that goes over the heads of kids. But to then extrapolate that to conclude that dolls don't really have to look like a kid because--hey--the author's white kid just loooooves her Kaya Native American doll (whom the author calls an "American Indian")! So if white kids love dolls who happen to be of another race, why can't kids of other races just get on board with white dolls, huh? Well, they can. They've been doing it for hundreds of years. Hundreds of years up until only the past, say, five to eight years, if we're discussing widely-available mass-produced dolls. Readers will recall my quest--in Washington DC--to find a doll for Bambina that was even slightly more colored than alabaster, and this in 2005 in a major city. It was not an easy task. No, Ms. Cox Gurdon, it's not that people of color can't get on board with white dolls; that's been done. It's that, as the white parent of a white child, you will never walk into a store and ponder why NOT ONE doll in the entire building even remotely resembles your child. And again, you will ask, "Well, why does it matter?" And, again, as the white parent of a white child, you will not understand my answer when I say, "Because I have seen my daughter's face when met with a doll that Looks Like Her. I have seen the spark of recognition. I have seen the pride. I have seen the excitement that this perfect mirror image of herself has been placed in her grasp."

Of course she has white dolls she plays with. Of course she has black dolls she plays with. She likes them all. But when she was given the chance to get an American Girl doll, her first choice was Ivy Ling, the Chinese-American doll who is friends with white, blond Julie in 1974 San Francisco. She loves the Julie and Ivy stories and has her hopes set on a Julie doll as well, but when given the choice, she chose Ivy first. When she plays with and talks to Ivy, I can hear how the doll is a reflection of Bambina: "Oh, Ivy, you celebrate Chinese New Year just like we do; and since you don't celebrate Christmas in the books except with Julie's family, I think you celebrate Hanukkah like me. Welcome to our family!" And then Ivy becomes a doll to be dressed and undressed, taken places, and handled just as her other dolls of various racial origins are handled. But those tiny moments, those fleeting moments, when I hear my child speak alone with her Chinese doll, I get it. I get it in a way Ms. Cox Gurdon cannot get it.

We all want to see ourselves reflected in the important things of our world; it is a human need, as old as time. Western Christendom depicted Jesus as white with blue eyes. Completely unlikely and almost impossible for someone of that time and that place to look remotely white, but there he is: your Aryan Jesus of Nazareth, for the ages. I for one am glad that the toy industry is no longer telling kids of color that they don't exist, that they don't merit a line of production. You can slam marketing and product-pushing all you want. What I'm talking about is the fact that American Girl and Disney are acknowledging that their customer base EXISTS, that there is something powerful about imaginative play, especially when it acknowledges the personhood of the girl playing. That ALL girls of ALL races benefit when given a diversity of options and stories to imagine and build upon.

ps--This entire post leaves out my parental concern, at least vis a vis American Girl, that their Asian dolls are all light-skinned. Baby steps, I say. Baby steps.

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