"It's black, like me.": Black dolls and politics
January 29, 2014 5:30 AM   Subscribe

Every so often, ethnic dolls make the news, like this recent piece on Nigeria's Taofick Okoya who started his own line of Nigerian dolls after giving up his search in frustration. Okoya sells between 6,000 and 9,000 of his "Queens of Africa" and "Naija Princesses" a month, and reckons he has 10-15 percent of a small but fast-growing market. But the history of dolls outside of 'mainstream culture' exemplified by blonde blue eyed Barbie has been rife with prejudice and stereotypes. As the African middle classes emerge, is this an opportunity that gives rise to domestic toy industries?
posted by infini (19 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
It's kind of weird to think of Barbie as "mainstream culture" when there's east Asia. They very definitely create their own dolls and toys reflecting the appearance of the people who live there. All two billion of them.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:33 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This American Life had a great story about black baby dolls at FAO Schwartz.
posted by gauche at 5:45 AM on January 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Previously. I'm still coveting Barbie's Louboutins.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:47 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

sonic meat machine, I think i tripped over my own ethnicity with that oversight ;p Barbie is horrendously mainstream culture among the affluent in India, Singapore, Malaysia etc
posted by infini at 5:48 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

If anyone wants to look at pictures of awesome dolls of color, the Dolls of Color tumblr is cool.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:00 AM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

In answer to your question:

Sort of. There is a market for dolls that reflect the new African middle class, yes. But:

Nigeria is not Africa. In the next 15 years Nigeria specifically is poised to become the leading economy in Africa through weight of population, and some predictions have it as a top 20 global economy. Not all trends that Nigeria can support will automatically flow out to the rest of Africa.

Nigeria is not Africa (II). It goes without saying that what a Tunisian, Sudanese, and Nigerian child see as a representative doll will not necessarily be the same thing.

The African middle class has nearly doubled in size in the past 10 years. But it is relatively small.

Africa has poor manufacturing capabilities. The new domestic toy industry is likely to be Made in China.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:09 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This American Life had a great story about black baby dolls at FAO Schwartz.

Wow, that was great!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:17 AM on January 29, 2014

I have a tiny little collection of rag dolls (not fashion dolls) from around the world, dolls made with leftover scraps of fabric, usually wearing local clothes, that old ladies would make for their granddaughters. They're getting harder to find, but anywhere there's an open-air market you can usually still find some hand-made ragdoll type dolls. (I like local textiles, and women's art forms, and rag dolls are really inexpensive; getting "local textiles" for real can be super-expensive.) I have an Inuit doll wearing a quilted coat with a fur-lined hood (rabbit, maybe?), a Quechua doll wearing a traditional skirt, a couple Carribean dolls in local costume, one with a stylish head wrap, a doll from Tunisia with a stylish-but-modest headscarf.

But one thing that's pretty universal about rag dolls is that they all have skin the color of undyed cotton muslin. :) I think I have one who's a dark brown, but they're mostly constructed of scraps so the dolls themselves are mostly kind-of an oatmeal color of the least expensive cotton cloth, and then wearing beautiful clothes of leftover scraps of fancy fabrics and lace trim and beads and so on. It's sort-of interesting to see what features and clothes are thought necessary for creating local Barbie-type fashion dolls (as opposed to the rag dolls I have, who are generally "local" by wearing what adult women in that area wear).

I have one doll from the South Pacific who is made of a coconut and I love her best of all. Because she is a coconut.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:40 AM on January 29, 2014 [19 favorites]

Barbie is horrendously mainstream culture among the affluent in India, Singapore, Malaysia etc

Yes, but Licca-chan or Momoko are BIG in Japan, and there are collectors of Blythes and Pullips all around the world.

(Blythe was first made in the USA by Kenner, but had a revival in Japan in the late 90s. Nowadays she's made by Takara)
posted by sukeban at 7:11 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Look, it works like this:
Every market saturates, be it Dolls, Toys, iPod, Android, PC, Laptop, Mac, TVs, DVDs - whatever... at some point, TVs reach a 95%+ penetration in the US, and there are no more people to purchase them. iPads, might clock in at 35% (I don't remember), wheras the whole tablet category might go up to 48%, with a portion of households being exclusively MS or Android and a portion being multi-brand homes. Point being, it becomes hard to push above that point. The return on advertising decreases. The expansion of another product line stops a steady and normal falloff of customers. Innovation becomes a combination of clever repackaging and accessorizing. Customers flop from brand to brand and the goal is to create something that people want to enjoy.

With an emerging market you don't have that problem. You start fresh. Every product is a new , every customer is experiencing your product for the first time. As long as you can get your products into that country for a reasonable tariff and you can use your product to simultaneously raise the standard of living and extract wealth from the populace - its a worthwhile expansion. The growth becomes legitimate. Then the goal becomes to figure out based on that products performance what other products you can inject into that market to continue to expand your presence. This is how this works. This is how international companies make money.

...Like a virus, consuming something completely and extracting as much as they can from their host.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:22 AM on January 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'll stick to the posts then and just stay out of the threads overthinking every single phrase, clause and word choice in an fpp
posted by infini at 7:53 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have much to add except My American Girl, where you can make your own black girl doll, but it can't have natural black hair.
posted by cashman at 8:10 AM on January 29, 2014

Infini, Don't let my pedantry get you down. Excellent post. I went after your domestic toy industry line because, while I think it is a great line - the capatalistic imperalism that is western culture pretty much means that if the opportunity for domestic markets emerges, then external companies will sweep in there and extract as much cash from the people as they can... Capitalism is just this side of P.T. Barnum.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:14 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Interesting to read all these articles and note that even the manufacturers that are making ethnic dolls for people within their culture, there seems to be some odd agreement that to make the dolls "too ethnic" (hair in one example, body size and facial features in another) might be too big a leap and so they are starting with dolls that are more Barbie-like and working their way out.
posted by jessamyn at 8:15 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dies for injection moulding plastic are expensive. Given he's selling only in the thousands and handmaking those costumes, he seems to have just invested in facial features and then coloured the rest of some standard body parts.

nanukthedog, liked your insight actually, didn't think of it that way in particular though I've seen it happen regularly of course.
posted by infini at 8:31 AM on January 29, 2014

This is a great post.

This American Life had a great story about black baby dolls at FAO Schwartz.

This is worth its own. fleshed-out FPP as well.

Back in middle America in the 80s, I was a collector of (and enjoyed playing with) Strawberry Shortcake dolls--the one it took awhile to get a hold of was Orange Blossom, and she was hard to find in the burbs (the kind of 'burbs with a low-single-digit percentage of Blacks and Latinos).

I remember my mother (we are white; she is uneducated and overtly, Minnesota-nice racist) probing me on why I wanted her for my collection, and I was baffled as to why she would ask (I didn't have that one yet, none of my friends had her either, and she and her butterfly friend smelled really great, based on the scratch and sniff version!).

She wouldn't come right out and say it--overt racists are often polite about it, like saying, "people don't marry people of other races because it's too hard to understand each other"--so I got, "But that doll is for the....Southern...girls." (Because "Southern" was my mother's euphemism for Black, seeing as she was from the upper Midwest.)* I did finally get an Orange Blossom doll for Christmas. All of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls have essentially the same Kewpie doll face, but to Hasbro's credit, she had short curly hair, and a later doll (once I had outgrown dolls) had long Black hair.

The (less pressing, to be sure) flip side of, "Well, yeah, it's super important for there to be dolls representing all ethnicities out there, so kids can play and coddle with a doll that looks like them" is, "Yeah, it's super important for there to be dolls representing all ethnicities out there, so kids in 97% white suburbs can play and coddle with a doll that does NOT look like them--but might look like people on Sesame Street--without it ever becoming a Big Fucking Deal." (Dora the Explorer is awesome just for this reason--and as a brown kid surrounded by blondes, I would have loved a brown doll/cartoon hero myself.)

*We will save the story of what happened when my brother asked for his own Strawberry Shortcake doll (so he could play with us too) for another time.
posted by blue suede stockings at 9:31 AM on January 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

All two billion of them.

Do they have a flag?
posted by disconnect at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

'children didn't like larger dolls'
children have small hands, and, i remember as a child being revolted by adults' small heads on their enormous bodies
posted by maiamaia at 1:44 PM on January 29, 2014

I don't have much to add except My American Girl, where you can make your own black girl doll, but it can't have natural black hair.

That's not true. 58 has tightly coiled curls. Also, though most of their dolls of color have straightened hair, its textured realistically to hold black hair style and braids. There are race problems with AG, but its better in some respects than other mainstream doll lines.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:01 PM on January 29, 2014

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