Toys of color
January 30, 2014 3:37 AM   Subscribe

So this post and all of its links sent me on a huge links chain, and I'm disturbed that I never really thought about it that much. Except it's highly likely that my future kid is going to need this consideration and now I feel overwhelmed.

I'm blond-haired, hazel-eyed white. My we're-practically-engaged-but-for-some-current-life-details boyfriend is half black, half mix of Native American and unknown. Any kid we have is going to look pretty different from what my entire extended family is used to (seriously, it's all white + white = white all across the board).

(...just, you know, humor me for a minute here. I'm not engaged, married, or pregnant, but I don't think I'm untoward in wanting to thresh some of this out -now-.)

So, I believe in strong body image and good examples of that. And just because I never really played with dolls doesn't mean my girl or boy won't. And I don't want her/his eventual jumble of toys and whatever else to be 1-sided.

But I'm annoyed now that all I can think of is to:
1. Buy several different dolls of the similar-to-Barbie variety, as shown in the tumblr provided in the comments, in multiple skin tones/depths, visit a toy aisle/eBay and strip 80% white Barbie/GI Joe of their occupational clothes (Wonder Woman, doctor, glam girl, Superman, etc) and have those dolls wear what are normally depicted on their paler counterparts.

2. ??? Provide varied media. Not that I'm oblivious to Dora the Explorer and Disney's Tiana, but I'm annoyed that that is....literally all I can think of. Yes, it's not quite on my radar because I don't have kids, or am in social circles of people with kids, but it's still disturbing.

Not to mention many of these seem dolls seem expensive as hell and/or just for shelving, rather than eventually getting their heads popped off and all their hair tangled and cut. Well, that and they seem so difficult to find (I keep running across the same brands, which are, again, expensive). And while the body size has the most accessory and clothing options, all of those skinny Barbies with oval faces are making me feel ill.

So....maybe I'm asking for part brain storm as to other things I can do to promote good body image, part "where does one buy this stuff anyway?" advice. Because the last thing I want is to not to start, especially now that I have some mental focus on the subject.

(If it matters by the way, my boyfriend and I, a woman, are both geeky/nerdy types, with tattoos. He paints his nails and has worn eyeliner plenty of times; I'm more about comfortable clothes and less makeup. We both like SciFi and fantasy and gaming, but even having any kid of mine grow into that with its mainly white or white-washed cast has been bothering me long before I ever saw the MeFi post.)
posted by DisreputableDog to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Check out my question about children's books.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:18 AM on January 30, 2014

Mod note: A couple comments deleted. Telling the OP they don't need to think about this now, or that they are overthinking it isn't really helping to answer the question.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:19 AM on January 30, 2014

If you expect to be in Japan while raising your still-quite-hypothetical kids, it might complicate things somewhat, but at least in the U.S. if you have access to Amazon and Ebay it shouldn't be that difficult to put together a collection of racially diverse dolls reflecting the same fairly narrow range of occupations available for white fashion dolls. You can also buy outfits individually.

In children's media, there are a lot of shows that are quietly "racially diverse" rather than making that the main focus (a la Dora the Explorer): the main characters of current PBS Kids shows Superwhy and Word Girl are racially ambiguous, Sid the Science Kid is biracial, and that pioneer of racially diverse casting Sesame Street is still going strong; on Nick Jr. you've got shows like Little Bill (based on Bill Cosby's children's books), Pocoyo (Latino), Go Diego Go, Yo Gabba Gabba (main human character is African American), Ni Hao Kai Lan (Chinese American). And that's just a sampling. Children's television is arguably the most racially diverse landscape in broadcasting.
posted by drlith at 5:28 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Barbie is a special case, because the things that make Barbie problematic are also the things that make Barbie appealing. You can have a Barbie with darker skin, but a Barbie with reasonable proportions or textured hair is probably not going to seem like a Barbie, since the weird-ass body shape and the long, silky hair are kind of what define the stupid toy. I don't know of a good fix for that, other than to steer your kid away from Barbies and try to provide lots of other toys. My mom had a no Barbies rule and I survived, so that's an option.

Not that I'm oblivious to Dora the Explorer and Disney's Tiana, but I'm annoyed that that is....literally all I can think of.
How plugged in to children's media are you, though? I basically just experience it through my nephews and my friends' kids, and I can think of Doc McStuffins and Jake and the Neverland Pirates. My sense is that those (awful, awful) Nickelodeon shows tend to be pretty diverse. If you're feeling brave, take a look at Nickelodeon's homepage: there's Sanjay and Craig, Haunted Hathaways, and Every Witch Way, all of which feature main characters who are people of color or diverse ensemble casts. I actually think kids' media is a little less awful on diversity than grown-up media is, although a lot of kids' media is fairly awful in other ways. Mostly, it's just awful, but I guess it's not meant to appeal to me!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:34 AM on January 30, 2014

The dolls on that Tumblr link are specialist dolls for collectors and you are correct that they are not meant to have their heads popped off and hair cut. There are actual black Barbie dolls in various skin tones at standard Barbie prices. Bratz, Groovy Girls and American Girl all make dolls of colour, too. You can supply these dolls with an almost endless parade of outfits. (Hint: you can get Barbie into Ken's clothes, too, like if you want board shorts in way better colours.)

For younger kids, there is a much wider selection of diverse baby dolls than there used to be. Same for TV shows. Even better for books.

In other words, this is a fairly mainstream problem and while it may not get a lot of visibility in mainstream media, it sure as shit is addressed in mainstream consumer outlets these days. This is good news for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:21 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

We're a big fan of Waldorf dolls and they come in a wide variety of skin tones. As for more commercial dolls I've noticed that there are a lot of Barbie's of color now, pretty much any style of Barbie they have also comes in several races (ex. Doctor barbie comes in Asian, African, Caucasian and Native American.) We have an 18 month old and while she's most interested in her stuffed dragon right now she has both African and Caucasian dolls to play with that we were gifted with that came from our local toy store.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 6:29 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Groovy Girls. They come in quite a range of skin tones; there isn't just Medium Brown Groovy Girl and her friend Pale Peach Groovy Girl. And they make boys!

They are slightly easy to find on their own in thrift stores, and they are well made so it's rare to find a used one in bad condition. If you are the type to hoard with theoretical future children in mind (it's okay; I did it with children's literature) I would suggest keeping an eye out in thrifts. Their clothes are nicely made and there are some good accessories for them.
posted by kmennie at 6:58 AM on January 30, 2014

My daughter (child of two hetero parents in a largely hetero extended family) was given a doll when she was two. This little doll had every trapping of being female you could imagine: rosy cheeks, bow-tie lips, pink PJs, pink bows, you name it. My daughter named it Steve. Kids have a way of determining their world in surprising ways.

I don't mean to suggest that your quest is unimportant — I think it is. But my point is that sometimes you find that your kids will handle these things on their own. And I like the suggestion from julie-of-the-jungle about Waldorf dolls, as those are specifically designed to encourage, even require, the child's imagination to determine what the doll's characteristics actually are, rather than relying on Mattel to fill in the blanks. (And good thing, because Mattel does an awful job with that, as you're seeing.)

And without specifically promoting American Girl dolls, which I personally have some political issues with (can you say Out Of Control Consumerism??!) I think that addressing your concerns are, to a large extent, one of their main points. Although I can't be sure, because I've generally avoided them (and all other dolls, to be honest -- we're a stuffed animal-dominated family (did I just say that? crazy)).
posted by Capri at 7:10 AM on January 30, 2014

They're not cheap, but you can buy hand-made Waldorf or other cloth dolls from Etsy in many skin and hair combinations. I believe some sellers will customize hair/skin/eyes/clothes for you.
posted by Safiya at 8:06 AM on January 30, 2014

My son's daycare has sets of dolls that look a bit like this (that looks expensive but it's for the whole set of 8). The kids seem to assign the genders more-or-less at random. They also have puppets like this.

Playmobil does a pretty good job of having gender-flexible figurines as long as you do a sufficiently good job of not assuming that the shaggy-haired knight is male. In the sets we've bought that come with people, there's usually at least one figurine of color. (the blind bags seem to be more likely to traffic in cheap stereotypes but they also have explicitly mix-and-match bodies, and they're cheap and fun). Every kid that comes to our house likes playing with the Playmobil stuff; it's well-made and lends itself well to a variety of play scenarios.

Kids shows with main characters of color that some of the kids as my son's preschool are into: Doc McStuffins, Dora, Diego, Handy Manny, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Yo Gabba Gabba, Ni Hao Kai-Lan. In the US these characters are all branded out the wazoo. If you don't have kids you won't have seen much of it, but it's definitely out there. I've been pleasantly surprised by what is actually on the shelves at my locally owned toy stores. It's not perfect, but there's quite a bit of variety.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:39 AM on January 30, 2014

You could also try incorporating anthropomorphic toys and media such as animals, monsters, and ...techstyle(? I'm thinking like the lego people or some robot future being type things that can't be human race identified). When I worked with kids, they intermingled these types of doll or action figure toys seemlessly with humanoid ones because...well because kids have imaginations and stuff.

I love the Madagascar movies and Rio, Ice Age, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Lion King etc. Sesame Street is classic, great, and has a diverse human cast alongside the Muppets (which are also great). Pee Wee's Playhouse (my personal favorite show as a kid) also has a strange range of anthropomorphic things and a diverse human cast.

While not human looking, such toys and media can be imbued with various personalities and the underlying effect could be a child more inclined to look past race in humans before judging.

Also, exposure to real people helps, like a diverse playgroup or preschool or just walking around / playing in the park and seeing different kinds of people.

With enough toy and media variety of any type, the Barbie standard will eventually out itself as wierd with healthy parental guidance. I think you mainly want to avoid making the kids play area a franchise of 1 thing (whether its Princess, Barbie, Wrestlemania, etc).
posted by WeekendJen at 8:47 AM on January 30, 2014

We have this Basket of Babies, which is nice and simple.
posted by judith at 9:16 AM on January 30, 2014

I have a mixed bunch of sons, the oldest is similar to your boyfriend in background, the others are blonde/blue-eyed/pale. They all had dolls of various colors, the absolute favorites when they were very young were handmade cloth dolls made by a friend with varying body/hair/eyes colors and clothing. Start with some of those, even if you cannot sew you can make something pretty easily.
posted by mareli at 10:20 AM on January 30, 2014

As much as you may try to be diverse in what you provide, sometimes kids just want what they want, and it is often completely different from their own look. In my fair white, blonde hair, blue eyed family, my one niece only wanted black baby dolls and Barbie's. She would never play with anything but black ones.

My own daughter had an overindulgent grandmother who bought the girls American Girl dolls. She did not like the blonde blue eyed one chosen for her. She wanted the Native American doll. Her favorite Groovy Girl doll was the Hispanic one. And to be honest, her favorite things to play with were her dinosaurs and trains.

Luckily it is so much easier to find variety in toys today than 20 years ago, but don't be surprised by what they chose to like after you go to a lot of trouble trying to provide them with a bunch of different ones.
posted by maxg94 at 10:35 AM on January 30, 2014

An old high school friend/current Facebook friend has biracial daughters who are right in the Disney Princesses/Barbie age group. From Facebook posts and photos, they seem to do a variety of things about this:

1. She works to instill feminism and good body image type stuff in them, separately from the toys she buys them. She facilitates them playing with toys the way THEY want to play with them, and asking for the toys that THEY want.

2. Toys seem to come from all over the toy store and from other sources (they have a lot of geeky/comic/anime/video game inspired toys that probably came from comic shops and cons and the like rather than Toys R Us). Not all of their doll-esque toys are human, let alone any particular race.

3. They have dolls from all over the racial and ethnic spectrum. Her daughters don't seem to prefer dolls who are race X or race Y. They play with all of it. Everything just gets added to the stockpile.
posted by Sara C. at 11:16 AM on January 30, 2014

Heart 4 Heart dolls are pretty wonderfully diverse play-quality dolls.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:58 PM on January 30, 2014

The Fisher Price Little People toys and associated books include a mix of ethnicities. Also, there is this Duplo set which I now kind of want to buy.
posted by freezer cake at 9:22 PM on January 30, 2014

You may be asking questions about how to help your child straddle the different cultures that s/he will encounter given the difference in physical appearance. I raised 4 kids who came from pretty much the same sort of mixing. Too make things more interesting two of these girls were as light as me and two were as dark as their father....the toy thing was very interesting. And the internet was not available but the one thing I learned was that playing it by ear and watching what my kids responded to was very helpful. (None of them were Barbie fans.) The book comments are great. Happy thinking about the future.
posted by OhSusannah at 3:01 AM on January 31, 2014

Hey, guess what? They still make Cabbage Patch Kids! And whatever you or I may think of Cabbage Patch Kids, their Facebook is about half filled* by photos of kids of all colours, ages and genders who are just delighted that they have a doll who looks like them. You seriously could do worse for $70.

*The other half is populated by slightly disturbing adults with their many, many Cabbage Patch Kids, and at least one baby who was dressed as a Cabbage Patch Kid for Halloween, resulting in the CREEPIEST THING EVER.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:39 PM on February 15, 2014

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