Are Mattel’s New Dolls Black Enough?

Ann Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2009

With so few black dolls on toy-store shelves, many black parents had high hopes when toy powerhouse Mattel Inc. released So in Style, its first line of black dolls with wider noses, fuller lips, sharper cheekbones and a variety of skin shades.

Now, despite the company’s efforts to solicit input from a group of high-profile black women, including Cookie Johnson, wife of former basketball star Magic Johnson, some parents are saying the dolls aren’t black enough. They complain that five of the six dolls feature fine-textured, waist-length hair; half of them have blue or green eyes.

Moreover, all have the freakishly skinny body of a Barbie (something that irks some white parents as well).

“I thought it was unfortunate that once again we’re given a doll with hair that is so unlike the vast majority of black women,” says Cheryl Nelson-Grimes, the mother of a 7-year-old girl and a resident of Queens, N.Y. “I feel very strongly that I want my daughter to love herself for who she is and not believe that using a hot comb or straightening her hair is the only way to be beautiful.”

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The criticism over Mattel’s new black fashion dolls underscores how difficult it is for large commercial companies to please a widely diverse black community with a single image or two depicting young African-Americans.

“If they had given the dolls short, kinky hair or an Afro, people might have complained that it was too Afro-centric,” says Nicole Coles, a 40-year-old mother from Temecula, Calif. “We’re so hard and picky.”

Mattel nonetheless has taken the comments to heart and plans to expand the line in the fall of 2010 to include a doll with more of an Afro hairstyle.

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This isn’t Mattel’s first foray into creating black dolls. The El Segundo, Calif.-based toy maker first introduced a black doll in 1967, when it painted Barbie’s cousin Francie brown. Two years later, Barbie got a black friend named Christie. A black Barbie came along in 1980, but her features were almost identical to those of her white counterpart.

The expensive line of American Girl dolls, also owned by Mattel, features a black doll named Addy Walker, a runaway slave whose story is set during the Civil War. But with a price tag of $95, it is out of reach for a lot of families.

Other toy lines, including the popular Polly Pocket miniatures, also made by Mattel, include only a few black dolls. “Polly Pocket only has one or two brown dolls, and my daughters fight over them,” says Mary Broussard-Harmon, a mother of three girls from Corona, Calif.

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J. Lorand Matory, chairman of the Department of African and African American studies at Duke University, says that there is a history of self-hatred in the African diaspora that stems from the value attached to European hair, features and skin color. “Mattel didn’t send the message, but they are reinforcing it,” he says.

“These dolls are a much better representation than what has been in the marketplace,” says Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni. “But we hear the argument.”

Stephanie Archer thinks the criticism is much ado about nothing. A chapter vice president of Mocha Moms, Ms. Archer took her daughter Sydney, age 6, to a tea party in Manhattan, where Mattel unveiled the new dolls in late September.

“Mattel did a good job getting the facial features right,” she says. “The dolls are beautiful, and the event made our daughters feel beautiful, too.

“Sydney’s hair is curly, rather than kinky,” adds Ms. Archer, who lives in Queens. “She knows her hair texture is different than the dolls’, and that’s OK. We have to give our kids more credit.”

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In addition to more Afro-centric dolls, Mattel will be coming out with a black male So in Style doll named Darren. That will please Claire Jefferson-Glipa, a Corona, Calif., mother of a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old son.

“If you think finding black dolls for girls is hard,” she says, “try finding black action figures or super heroes.”

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