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.”
Still, her daughter Noni says that Grace, her doll from the new Mattel line, is her favorite “because she looks like me. She has black hair and has a ponytail.”
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.
Like Mattel, Walt Disney Co. met with a number of black advisers while making its first animated movie featuring a black heroine, “The Princess and the Frog,” which opens widely next week. Based on their feedback, the heroine’s name was changed to Tiana from Maddy, which was thought to be too close to mammy, and her job went from a maid to a waitress, according to Dee Dee Jackson, national president of Mocha Moms, a support group for women of color that Disney consulted for input on the film. “Her skin hue is darker, her hair is in Afro puffs as a young child, and her features are full but not exaggerated,” Ms. Jackson says.
“During development it is common for us to make changes, and ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is no exception,” said Disney spokeswoman Heidi Trotta.
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.
Doll designer Stacey McBride-Irby says she sought to fill the black-doll void when she dreamed up So In Style dolls for Mattel two years ago. Ms. McBride-Irby says she wanted to give her 6-year-old daughter a wider choice of “dolls that looked like her.”
Ms. McBride-Irby devoted about two years creating three teenaged dolls—Grace, Trichelle and Kara—who have skin tones ranging from chocolate to caramel. They are paired with smaller, younger-looking dolls they are supposed to advise and help; the toy packaging says: “Mentoring … It’s So in Style.” Also written prominently on the back of the box are the dolls’ interests, which include science, cheerleading, art, journalism, math and music.
“I didn’t want the dolls to just be about fashion and friendship,” Ms. McBride-Irby says. “I wanted to them have a positive message.”
She also wanted them to be fun. She loved playing with Barbie’s long hair as a child, she says, and Mattel’s extensive research repeatedly shows that young girls want their dolls to have long hair they can brush and style. The So in Style dolls also have a hair-styling kit to curl and straighten the hair.
The black women recruited by Mattel to give input during the dolls’ production had extensive discussions with the company about giving at least some of the dolls varied and representative hairstyles, says Ms. Johnson, the mother of a 14-year-old girl. Mattel’s concession was to make one doll’s hair wavy and give one of the little sisters short puffy pigtails.
While Ms. Johnson would like to see even more representative hairstyles, she still thinks they’re “fabulous. I can show my little girl that you don’t have to have a pointed nose to be beautiful.”
Loanne Hizo Ostlie says she also likes the dolls, but thinks Mattel did black girls a disservice by not giving them a more varied, representative look. For more than 10 years, she has been customizing dolls, specializing in creating black dolls from Kelly dolls, Barbie’s little sister, and selling them on the Internet.
In the past, she also customized Barbies, but the field got increasingly crowded, she says. Now, she’s turned to the So In Style little-sister dolls, painting their eyes brown and giving them “dreadlocks, Afros, cornrows and kinks.”
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.”
Ms. Irby-McBride says she was a little surprised by the negative comments about the dolls. “Three dolls can’t represent the whole African-American community,” she says.
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.”