Dolls Politics: Painful, Familiar Reflections of Reality

I’ve been thinking a lot about dolls this week. 57 years after its creation, Mattel finally announced an expanded line of Barbies honoring the shapes and colors of real women. St. Louisans are buzzing with excitement about the new American Girl Doll of the Year, who is from St. Louis. And modern day re-creations of the famous doll experiment are circulating through my news feed, drumming up waves of horror and heartbreak.

It’s been almost 70 years since the first famous doll experiments. The one in which most children, regardless of color, preferred the white baby doll. And the one in which most children, regardless of color, assigned negative characteristics to the black baby doll.

Modern day re-creations of this experiment show little change in the psyche of children. Heartbreakingly, children point to the black doll when they are asked: “which is the bad child?” “which is the ugly child?” “which is the mean child?”. And without hesitation they point to the white doll when asked: “which is the pretty child?” “which is the nice child?” “which is the good child?” A more informal re-creation of this sentiment can be seen in a video that went viral over the holidays, in which a white parent is taunting her white children who have just been given black babies as gifts. In response, the children cry and toss the babies on the floor, proclaiming that they don’t like them.

These videos are horrifying. And the reality that they reflect is even more so. They tell us that we are raising another generation of white children who are disconnected from and disparaging of black children. Another generation of white children who don’t see the possibility of a black child’s goodness, and beauty, and generosity. Another generation of white children who, as the Christmas video depicts, don’t see black babies as deserving of their love and care. And another generation of black children who are internalizing the racism that surrounds and assails them daily. Horrible.

It’s easy as a white parent to gasp and then “tsk tsk” in my mind at other parents who are clearly giving the wrong message to their children about people and race. Even though I am not surprised by these results, I still cycle through the predictable “good white mom” inner-monologue complete with the predictable shock (“How can this be?!”), the predictable denial (“You wouldn’t hear that coming out of my kids’ mouth!”), and the predictable reach for exceptionalism (“That’s why we have so many dolls of different races! Brava for me.”).

But when I push beyond that (defensive self-interest) I see all the obvious linkages to what we already know to be true. For example, children as young as 3 make distinctions based on race and start to prefer and ascribe positive attributes to their own racial group. By age 7, children can accurately reflect social status bias and will make choices or judgments based on who they perceive as having more power or privilege. And by the same age, white children demonstrate that they believe blacks experience less pain than whites. (More findings and citations.)

Coupled with the news about Mattel and the new story of Lea Clark, American Girl of 2016, the linkages seem more than obvious. What we celebrate and what we don’t reflects and perpetuates our ugly truths…to the detriment of us all.

It’s taken 57 years to really shift the Barbie landscape. And while I am glad that there is a healthier array of dolls offered now, I can’t think about all the damage that has already been done. Studies have well documented the impact of Barbie on body image from a weight and shape perspective; how much is that damage amplified when you consider her commentary on skin color, hair texture, and feature shape? She’s been the plastic narrow standard of beauty and femininity for 50 years, oppressing us all for decades. So it’s complicated to celebrate her way overdue expansion that’s designed, by the way, to coexist next to (and not replace) the original.

And about Lea Clark, St. Louis’ most famous new resident...yes, it’s nice to see St. Louis mentioned. As a second-tier city, we are always excited to be noticed and included. Yet, how is it that the fleet of dolls designed to be representative of “America” is so overwhelmingly white, pushing the Pantone color wheel only a smidge in each direction? When I look at this picture of the last 9 American Girl “Girls of the Year”, I can’t help but think “are we even trying?” Calls for more diverse American Girl dolls are longstanding. Addy, introduced 23 years ago, is the only black character doll (Be Forever collection) and is a former slave, reinforcing just one important but narrow permutation of history. So what does this mostly white line up mean? What messages should any girl conclude? What are we purposefully teaching our children both explicitly and implicitly? Perhaps, as Amy Hunter, director of Racial Equity at the St. Louis YWCA, suggests "Black people were slaves and white girls are adeventurous pioneers, creative, and wonderful." Painful. 

american girl dolls of the year.jpg


The truth is that representation matters, not just for kids and people of color, who deserve to see and hear themselves in the exciting and creative characters that populate modern childhood… but it matters for white kids too. Yes, in a perfect world free of racism and with ample and harmonious racial integration, stories and dolls wouldn’t have to carry a disproportionate amount of weight. They wouldn’t be so instrumental in creating the narrative we are giving our children. People who look different from you would be humanized through your interactions with your friends and neighbors and mixed-race family. But we don’t live in that world yet. In our world, racism thrives, segregation pervades, and representation still demands ceaseless justification. So in our world we must realize that the books, dolls, and toys that fill your child’s life disproportionately impact the narrative they receive. And so do your messages about these stories, dolls, characters and toys.

In 1950, the Supreme Court used Clark’s original research with the doll studies to rule against school segregation, concluding “To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” But it should be noted that Dr. Kenneth Clark was “dismayed that the court failed to cite two other conclusions he had reached: that racism was an inherently American institution, and that school segregation inhibited the development of white children, too.” (cited from Brown at 60 report)

If we don’t present our white children with a reality where black dolls are loved and cherished, and stories with awesome characters of color doing wonderful, funny, delightful, creative things (like this, this, this, this, and this)…then they very well may continue to live in a world without such possibilities. And if they do, we shouldn’t be surprised when they reflect our grim reality back to us.

**** More Links:

1947 Doll Study Report

2010 CNN Recreation of the Doll Study Report

Excerpt of CNN Video results