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, Minn. They're wild about Lia, because:
"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 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.
Hundreds of Target stores nationwide 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 parents'."
Toys 'R' Us reports similar expansions: "Demand for ethnic dolls has increased a lot everywhere," 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."
A decade ago, most "ethnic" dolls were simply white dolls dyed dark, "what I call the Crayola brown look," said Barbara Wilson, founder of Sugarfoots, based in Washington, D.C., which carries a 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 www.barbielatina.com, and Spanish Teacher Barbie, who speaks phrases in both Spanish and English and comes with a language instruction book.
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 "Politically Incorrect."
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 boys."
"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.