In the middle of the Barbie aisle at a Wal-Mart in suburban Toronto, my five-year-old niece and I were engaged in a quiet battle of wills. Along with a fear of elevator doors and mild hypochondria, we apparently also share a stubborn streak, and no one else was around to temper it.
I had promised her a toy to reward her for accompanying me while running really boring errands. As her eyes scanned the incredibly pink aisle, they stopped at the doll with long blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a neon minidress on her waif-like body. She picked it up and looked at me, her big brown eyes brimming with hope.
I pointed to another doll, with a deep brown skin tone. “What about this one!? Isn’t she sooo pretty?” I gushed.
She wasn’t buying it. The packaging wasn’t as pretty, she didn’t have the same clip-in extensions blondie offered and she was just wearing a swimsuit, which was a little weird. Being a mature adult, I upped the ante: I told her I would buy her the brown doll and the official Barbie convertible. Nah, she said.
Why was I so hell-bent on buying her a brown doll — and with such blinding determination that I was inadvertently recreating a rap video with a swimsuit-clad brown-skinned woman riding in a convertible? (In the end, I bought her a puzzle and somehow felt like the worst auntie in the world.)
After thinking about it (for six months now), I realize it’s not as straightforward as “brown girls should have brown dolls.” This doll held possibilities. I don’t think I ever saw a brown Barbie as child. And I certainly never saw one that looked anything like me. Having one would have been just plain fun.
A few weeks ago, Mattel introduced Barbies that might actually look like some of the little girls that play with them — they come in four different sizes, including petite, curvy and tall, are available with seven skin tones and 24 hairstyles. Finally.
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Just as my dad was quick to point out a politician or brilliant scientist of South Asian descent to me while I was growing up, kids should also see themselves in everyday objects. Dolls in particular have potential to reflect kids (and their friends) in a way no other toys can. As problematic as Barbie is, it’s hard to deny she’s been the reigning alpha female for decades in a little girl’s toy collection.
“Toys, after all — the objects we invite into children’s lives to entertain them and also to shape them — reflect society’s highest aspirations for itself,” writes Megan Garber at The Atlantic.
Would owning a doll that looked like me have made a difference in my life in any way? I’m not sure. While my Barbies didn’t make me yearn for blue eyes or blonde hair, they probably reinforced notions from my own culture that these features made you special, beautiful. But I absolutely loved my Barbies, and just like how I could never find a tacky magnet with my name on it at Zellers, Barbie was one more thing I didn’t expect to find any piece of myself in. I would give mine “normal” names like “Becky.” It didn’t occur to me she could have a name like mine. She didn’t look like me.
The new Mattel Barbies have made it possible for kids to find a doll that looks like them, one they can instinctually relate to. They have also provided an opportunity to normalize diversity. While I believe my niece should have dolls that look like her, she should also have dolls that look different from her.
On a 2014 segment on race and dolls on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, the host asks: “If you could love and nurture baby dolls of different races, might that begin to break down some of those implicit biases?”
“Precisely,” answered her guest, Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School.
Just as brown kids like me played white characters in our Barbie productions, white kids can create a cast as diverse as a Shonda Rhimes’ show. Kids like my niece should feel like they can name their dolls whatever they want — Pooja or Zaiba or Yuki — and that that’s all normal.
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Even without Mattel’s new additions, kids today have more choice. There’s Dora, Doc McStuffins and a million expensive ways to customize your own dolls. My sister went as far to drop more than $100 to customize an American Girl doll that would reflect some of her daughter’s features. As a three-year-old, my niece named the doll Zahra and loved it for a whole five minutes. But as she grew up and Disney princess culture took over her life, she drifted more towards Elsa and less towards Tiana.
This preference made me panic, reminding me of the Kenneth and Mamie Clark “doll test” from the 1940s, which showed all the heartbreaking ways black children preferred white dolls to black dolls. I realize I don’t live in 1940s segregated America but notions of white beauty have crept into my life from all directions — not just from North American culture but coming from a post-colonial nation like Pakistan where millions of dollars are spent each year on lightening creams like Fair and Lovely (yes, this is the actual name of the top-selling lightening cream). All these things manifested in that ill-fated shopping trip, when I tried to bully her into choosing a doll for the “right” reasons.
My real fear is that my niece will have a hard time loving her skin, no matter how much her family reinforces how beautiful it is. It’s the anxiety I feel when she tells me,“I’m browner than you.” But maybe it’s just a simple observation. She states it plainly — all the subtext comes from me. Maybe her Dora and Doc dolls already have her loving the skin she’s in. Maybe she wanted the blonde Barbie because of her cool neon-coloured hair extensions and not because she thought pale skin was prettier. Maybe we’ve made more progress than I think we have. Man, I hope so.