All Dolled Up

Once upon a time, there was the innocuous Sindy, advertised simply as “the dolly you love to dress”.

I never really liked dolls – books were always more my thing – but if I had to have one, I wanted one that was not Caucasian. Ironically, my aunt brought me a Native American doll with a beaded leather dress – from Australia.

Think back to your first “grown-up” set of crayons. Not the six-pack of breakable ones that left bits of wax all over the paper (and your clothes and the floor)… but the sizeable box with twenty or more lovely, thick plasticised sticks that left bright, shiny marks on the paper. The more expensive ones even had the name of their colour written along the side of the wrapping.

The brown, of course, was called brown – just as the black, pink, yellow and white had their eponymous names. Yet, the “special” sets had an extra colour called “flesh”, and children who had them guarded them jealously and rarely lent them to peers. This “flesh” colour was never tawny or yellowish but the peachy colour of “Continental European” (read Caucasian) skin…. that of Sindy.

Sindy’s rival was Barbie, the doll with the impossible figure and umpteen re-incarnations, billed as “every little girl’s dream”. You know; the one who had as many careers as people have hot dinners – but only one wishy-washy boyfriend, who always played second fiddle.

In order to board the multi-ethnic, urban fashion dolls train, Barbie’s makers Mattel have relatively recently introduced a slew of ‘multi-racial friends’ for her – with names such as Teresa, Kayla, Miko, Dana, Becky, Nikki, Nia, Kira (sold as Marina in Europe), and Lea.

Most people would know about the court case recently won by Mattel, in which the protestations of Carter Bryant (the person who said he came up with the concept of Bratz while he was on an eight-month hiatus from Mattel in 1998) cut no ice with the jury. Bratz, the trashy, big-lipped dolls, were a hit… and his (ex) employers argued the fact that his time was theirs.

Not content with that, this company is now marketing a new slew of dolls in order to gain yet another slice of audience. And – what’s more – the advertising spiel includes the words “Flava Dolls are about celebrating a cultural phenomenon”, as if there had never ever before been a range of multi-ethnic backgrounds, distinctive non-Caucasian physiogamies, and clothes.

But the adage “all’s fair in love and war” extends to commerce – in this case, the line of dolls that do not have exaggerated figures (like Barbie) or features (like Bratz), or come from the land of Faeries (like Winx) – but are down-to-earth, believable and “lifelike”…. because each face, and the height of each figure, is different “just as exists with real people”. They have “attitude” (because they are poseable!), as well as bare midriffs.

There is only one snag, however. These six dolls belong to the hip-hop sub-culture. As such, they sport “rub-on decals”… which means, in layman’s language, that the owners of these dolls can use the “tattoos” on themselves, and have names like Happy D, Kiyoni Brown, P. Bo, Tika, and two boys, Liam and Tre, whose baggy jeans fasten way below their waist-line.

I smell a fad. A phony approach built on dolls that appear to have been created as collectors’ items or for their Bling value – to be bought by teens – rather than the actual children and ’tweens for whom they have been purportedly produced.

Look at it this way. Barbie has a slew of vehicles, clothes, accessories, furniture, as well as pets and their abodes. Flavas ‘tell you’ “Pull my street stand from the box, so I have a spot to hang out” – and this street stand becomes a graffiti-covered wall where these kids presumably spend their days.

A child who aspires to this kind of life is not even beginning to use his potential, let alone aspiring to achieve his goals.

Girls can always opt for the wholesome-looking historically oriented, American Girls, or similar ones sold locally. These dolls come in various combinations of hair and eye colours and skin tones, and this means that every girl could probably find one “like her”. They have prosaic names like Samantha (1904); Molly (1944); Kirsten (1854); Felicity (1774); Josefina (1824), and so forth. Each girl has a historical background, and period clothes.

Gone are the days when one just got “a doll” – the ramifications behind each choice made today could be more far-reaching than one could ever imagine.


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