Hello, doll face;
The demand for more "ethnic," or nonwhite, dolls reflects changes in
demographics - and attitudes.
BY: Kristin Tillotson; Staff Writer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) February 2, 2002, Saturday
Lia doesn't look as if she could launch a cottage industry. She's cute and
cuddly, all right, but she's only a doll.
Except to the Hmong girls at the Portage for Youth, an after-school
program in St. Paul's Dayton's Bluff neighborhood. They're wild about Lia,
"She looks like us," said 12-year-old Gao Yee Thao.
"She's not hard, like Barbie," said Palily Lee, 13. "She can't break.
But she might rip."
"Her face isn't scary," said Mai Yia Vang, 12.
Lia, a soft, pig-tailed, 28-inch doll named after Yee's sister, was
something new for the girls in two ways: First, she looks Asian, with slightly
upturned eyes and straight, black hair. Second, the girls were used to seeing
only collectible show dolls in their homes, "because play dolls for children are
not a part of traditional Hmong culture," said the Portage's founder and
director, Raeann Ruth.
Lia, created by Ruth's sister-in-law, Alona Ruth, is now being made to
order under the name Portage Pals and sold online at http://www.theportage.org.
Hand-sewn by home-based immigrants, who receive one-third of each doll's price,
Lia dolls will soon be joined by others with Latino and black features.
So-called "ethnic" dolls _ which can be seen as a biased term, as it
implies that light-skinned, light-haired dolls are the universal
standard-bearers _ aren't new, but they are becoming a stronger presence on the
toy market. And the primary motivation seems to be shifting from political
correctness to kid demand.
Although nonwhites make up only 10.6 percent of Minnesota's population,
according to the 2000 Census, blacks, Asians and Hispanics (who can be any race)
have all increased in number by more than 100 percent since 1990. Many of them
are children who want toys that fit their views of themselves and their
Hundreds of Target stores nationwide, including nine of 41 in the Twin
Cities area, have broadened their selection of ethnic dolls over the past two
years, said spokesman Doug Kline. He added that, according to the discount
chain's buyers, "sales are mostly driven by the child's choice, not the
Toys 'R' Us reports similar expansions: "Demand for ethnic dolls has
increased a lot everywhere, including Minnesota," said spokeswoman Carol Fuller.
"And vendors have finally started to fall in line. And those who already had
ethnic dolls are now offering more variety."
More than a dye job
A decade ago, most "ethnic" dolls were simply white dolls dyed dark,
"what I call the Crayola brown look," said Barbara Wilson, founder of the
Washington, D.C.-based Sugarfoots line of handmade dolls that come in three
shades. Now, some manufacturers are using separate facial molds with varying
hair textures, and are creating more dolls with dark hair and medium skin tones
with which girls of Latin, American Indian, Middle Eastern or multiracial
backgrounds can identify. Groovy Girls' "Kendra," for example, has medium-toned
skin and dark hair, with which many children of Latino, Indian or Middle Eastern
descent can identify as being "like me."
Even Barbie, the fair despot queen of dolldom, is making more than a
token space at the table for brunettes with flesh tones representing skin that
is naturally _ not Malibu _ dark. (The hair is still straight, however.)
Debbie Haag, marketing director for Mattel's Barbie division, said that
in some parts of the country and in certain price ranges, sales of non-blond
Barbies, as well as her "ethnic" friends, now reach 75 percent of those for the
top-selling blond, blue-eyed originals. Mattel also has launched a Spanish Web
site, http://www.barbielatina.com, and Spanish Teacher Barbie, who speaks
phrases in both Spanish and English and comes with a language instruction book.
Ethnic boy dolls lacking
For all the advances made in doll diversity, gaps still exist _
particularly for boys. Ethnic male dolls and action figures remain far behind
those for girls in variety and availability, although last year Hasbro released
its first Hispanic G.I. Joe.
Even ethnic dolls created with good intentions can backfire in the
stereotypical impressions they give. The popular American Girls line, which
features well-made, realistic dolls that each come with their own story from a
different time period, includes one black doll, Addy, whose family escapes from
slavery during the Civil War. Josefina, a doll who could be either Latina or
Indian, lives in 1824 New Mexico and is dressed in beautiful traditional
clothing as she watches "the Americano traders arrive from the East." The
history lessons may be accurate, but they could be perceived as carrying a
patina of tokenism, and reinforcing limiting racial and ethnic roles.
Ghetto Kids, a line of dolls developed last year by a Chicago
entrepreneur, also have stories attached _ of abuse, neglect and addiction. With
such names as East L.A. Lupe and Confederate Tammy, the dolls come with their
own garbage cans and hard-luck bios. So far, they have not sold well and have
drawn criticism from parents, kids and even the rabble-rousing ABC talk show
Perhaps the most telling indicator of cultural change that runs deeper
than profit-and-loss charts is that girls themselves, not just their parents,
are making dolls with dark hair and skin a first choice. The position of blond,
blue-eyed dolls as being the most attractive and having the highest status in
children's eyes is no longer an across-the-board truism.
"Kids tend to look at colors of outfits more than colors of skin," said
Sugarfoots' Wilson. "They'll pick up a doll because she's wearing a purple
dress, not because she looks like she belongs to a certain race."
Fuller of Toys 'R' Us agrees: "Another trend is that more white children
want a mix of different-colored dolls," she said. "If they're beautiful, girls
want them, no matter the race."
For now, the girls at the Portage have eyes only for Lia, whose numbers
are sure to grow: Program director Ruth reports that, in addition to the several
dozen orders currently in production for Lia, more than 40 requests for a Latina
version are on the books.
Could Lia ever be friends with Barbie?
"Maybe, but she's different," said Palily Lee. "Barbie's more girly. If
she breaks a nail, she screams. Lia can hang out with whoever she wants to, even
"And she has tons of friends," added Gao Yee Thao.
If growth in the ethnic-doll market continues as expected, she'll have
plenty of company on the toy shelves, as well.
Kristin Tillotson is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to buy ethnic dolls
- Asian doll Lia, handmade in St. Paul, can be ordered online, $29.95
plus $5 shipping, at http://www.theportage.com, or call 651-772-8674.
- Kayla ($19 and up), from Mattel, is the latest in the top-selling
Barbie line to represent a variety of ethnicities or multiracial backgrounds.
Available at toy sellers including Target and online at http://www.barbie.com.
- Beanbag-bodied Lucie ($15.99) and Zelie, a similar black-featured doll
from Corolle's Mini Calin line, are available at Toys 'R' Us or at
- Sugarfoots traditional handmade dolls; 15-inch doll, $39.95; 25-inch
doll, $49.95, come in cocoa (shown), ginger and cinnamon shades. Available at
- Candy ($380), a lifelike collectible doll, is made by Zapf, which also
features a line of play dolls in the $60 range. Available through the specialty
shop Kmitsch Girls (214 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-430-1827) or at