Diversity In The Toy Aisle Mattel, the company behind the ubiquitous Barbie doll, has launched the So In Style line, which features dolls of color. Other designers are also creating dolls that reflect diverse backgrounds. But are ethnic dolls in demand? And who will they appeal to? A group of moms discuss the new wave of diverse dolls. Joining the conversation: Stacey McBride-Irby, who designed the So In Style dolls; Dr. Daniela Wiggins, the creator of the Prodigyrls; and Sarah Maizes, founder of the parenting blog Mommylite.
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Diversity In The Toy Aisle

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Diversity In The Toy Aisle

Diversity In The Toy Aisle

Diversity In The Toy Aisle

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Mattel, the company behind the ubiquitous Barbie doll, has launched the So In Style line, which features dolls of color. Other designers are also creating dolls that reflect diverse backgrounds. But are ethnic dolls in demand? And who will they appeal to? A group of moms discuss the new wave of diverse dolls. Joining the conversation: Stacey McBride-Irby, who designed the So In Style dolls; Dr. Daniela Wiggins, the creator of the Prodigyrls; and Sarah Maizes, founder of the parenting blog Mommylite.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we are making much ado about dolls. Now, if you dragged yourself out there to take part in those legendary after-Thanksgiving-Day sales, bless you. If you got a good deal on a hot item like Zhu Zhu Pets or Bakugan, bless you even more. But, of course, dolls are a perennial favorite.

Just about every little girl or parent of a little girl can conjure up an image of a special little friend that she or her daughter took everywhere, but for some parents, that choice of a doll is fraught with feeling. Does the doll represent a simple fantasy friend or some unattainable or even undesirable ideal?

This year, though, the decision might be a little easier for parents seeking a choice. From a doll fashioned after the star of Disney's new movie, "The Princess and the Frog," to Mattel's new So In Style line to new dolls being presented by smaller boutique manufacturers, new dolls have appeared this year offering diverse choices.

We wanted to hear more, so we called Stacey McBride-Irby. She is the designer behind Mattel's So In Style line. And Dr. Daniela Wiggins: She is a medical doctor. She's an anesthesiologist, and she's the creator of a new doll line called Prodigyrls. And we're also joined by Sarah Maizes. She's an author and founder of the parenting blog Mommy Lite. She's also a former executive at Mattel. And so we're happy to have all of you with us. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. STACEY McBRIDE-IRBY (Designer): Great to be here.

Dr. DANIELA WIGGINS (Creator, Prodigyrls): Thank you for having me.

Ms. SARAH MAIZES (Founder, Mommy Lite): Thank you.

MARTIN: Stacey, I'm going to start with you because we first met you at this year's Barbie convention. Barbie celebrated her 50th this year, but she apparently doesn't lie about her age. So why should we?

Ms. McBRIDE-IRBY: She doesn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you introduced this new line of So In Style dolls, which I know got a lot of attention in the industry. These So In Style dolls are not the first African-American dolls presented by Barbie, right? For example, there was a Julia doll. We know that, you know, Barbie had a friend.

Ms. McBRIDE-IRBY: Yeah, Christie.

MARTIN: Christie. But what's distinctive about this line?

Ms. McBRIDE-IRBY: What's distinctive about this line is that the dolls were created with me focusing on my daughter, watching her play with dolls, and I wanted to give her dolls that represented her and women in my community. And I just wanted the dolls to look like her and be cute and give her more options.

MARTIN: And one thing I think it's fair to point out is that Christie is basically built on the traditional Barbie model, but she's darker-skinned. One of the things you were trying to do with these dolls is give them different features. Would that be accurate to say, more ethnic features?

Ms. McBRIDE-IRBY: Yes, I wanted to give them - yes, authentic features. The dolls have fuller lips, a fuller nose, broader cheekbones, and some of the dolls even have long hair and then even curly hair, too.

MARTIN: And each one has a little sister. Tell me about the little sister idea.

Ms. McBRIDE-IRBY: Yes. I wanted to make sure that these dolls had a positive message, as well. The big sisters are teenagers, and after school, they mentor their little sisters, and they give them inspiring things. As far as Grace and her little sister Courtney, they love cheerleading and science. Kara and Kianna, they love math and music. And Janessa and her sister Trichelle love art and journalism.

MARTIN: I had nothing to do with it. I'm just letting you know. I wasn't special pleading in there. I had nothing to do with it. Stacey, right? That was your idea. It wasn't me. I wasn't lobbying you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McBRIDE-IRBY: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Dr. Wiggins, I think that, you know, you're an anesthesiologist, as I mentioned, and some people might think, you know, you are busy enough. So - and you're a mom. What is it that made you want to create dolls, of all things?

Dr. WIGGINS: Like Stacey, I was inspired by my children. I have a nine-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, and I had never purchased a doll for my daughter. My daughter is - has chocolate-brown skin. She wears her hair in shoulder-length locks. She's into sports. She's a musician, and I'd never seen anything that resembled her or that I thought would inspire her. And so something that I thought about for years and I finally said, you know, instead of sitting around and complaining about it, I'd get out there and research the market and see what we could come up with, and Prodigyrls was born.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit about your dolls. They each have a back story like Stacey's. They each have their own story.

Dr. WIGGINS: They do. They do. And it's not necessarily about a profession. Nicole happens to be passionate about medicine and Janelle wants to be a chef when she grows up. But what we want to teach girls is that if you have a passion and you follow your passion, that the possibilities are endless. And each doll tells a story about what she's passionate about.

MARTIN: I'm still trying to get over the fact that you never purchased a doll for your daughter before you started making them. Did she ask for them?

Dr. WIGGINS: She received them as birthday gifts, so she's certainly had dolls, and I let her keep them. You know, she was...

MARTIN: But was part the ethnic issue the fact that you just didn't feel that they resembled her closely enough?

Dr. WIGGINS: They didn't at all, and they were either fashion dolls that were inappropriately dressed or they were wore makeup and their hair didn't look at all like hers, and I just really wanted her to have images that she could identify with.

MARTIN: Sarah, did you - now, I know you used to work for Mattel. As we said, you created entertainment for Barbie animated movies and you are also...

Ms. MAIZES: I did.

MARTIN: ...the mom of three. I think two girls, right?

Ms. MAIZES: Yes, two girls.

MARTIN: And a boy.

Ms. MAIZES: One boy.

MARTIN: And this - the doll decision is complicated for you. I just want to mention for people who can't see you (unintelligible) you are not African-American, but...

Ms. MAIZES: I am not. I'm...

MARTIN: But African-American's aren't the only people who have issues with some of the dolls that are available on the market.

Ms. MAIZES: Absolutely not. No. It's very funny because I'm Jewish and I know that is not an ethnicity technically. But I was recently having this conversation with a friend. We were talking about the new American Girl doll, because the doll that they just released, her name is Rebecca Rubin and she's Jewish.

And her whole back story is that she's Jewish, and I am such a huge fan of anything that has a history and teaching our girls something more about themselves. But I'm not going to buy a doll because she comes with her own shtetl. It's sort of the common joke - Yiddish humor - is that you've lived the shtetl when you lived in Eastern Europe, your family was there. It's your little village.

MARTIN: Little village.

Ms. MAIZES: You know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAIZES: ...pay $500 to get the shtetl that she comes in from Eastern Europe. I've never had a problem buying dolls for my daughter. In fact, I bought dolls for my daughter before she was even born. I was a huge Barbie fan. I...

MARTIN: Even though they didn't look like you?

Ms. MAIZES: Even though they didn't look like me, and it's - one of the things that I've learned is I'm very tapped into sort of this inner child in myself. Maybe because I didn't have enough dolls growing up. But when I was playing with Barbies, I didn't gravitate towards one that had brown hair any more than I gravitated towards one with blonde, because it was always something that I was using to project my hopes and dreams on, to pretend that I was in college or I was living on my own or I was throwing a huge party, and those were play patterns that were very comfortable for me.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the moms and we're talking about dolls.

We're visiting with Stacey McBride-Irby and Daniela Wiggins. They are both designers of new lines of diverse dolls, and Sarah Maizes, who's a blogger who blogs at the site Mommylite.

Dr. Wiggins, could you just for people may not be aware how fraught the doll decision is and why it's such a big deal for parents of some different ethnic backgrounds. I think many people who are familiar with, you know, the civil rights movement will be familiar with the famous doll experiment...

Dr. WIGGINS: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...that was part of the Brown v. Board of Ed Supreme Court case where a little black girl chose, consistently chose...

Dr. WIGGINS: The white doll.

MARTIN: ...white dolls, saying those were the nice dolls and those were the dolls they liked. So could you just talk a little bit about from a psychological standpoint why you think it's such a big deal, particularly for parents of certain backgrounds.

Dr. WIGGINS: Exactly. I mean based on that study that was done where the young black girls consistently chose the white doll - and that was repeated recently within the past 10 years, and we found again that young black girls were picking the white doll. And it really is important to have images in our lives that reflect us and that inspire us. And I think that what doll companies have done in the past is they have created a brown doll.

They take the same white doll, the same old - paint it brown and offer that doll to us. And I don't think much attention has been given to our features, to the characteristics that make us unique, to our interests, and so we've kind of just traditionally been overlooked, and the cool doll, the fancy doll, the chic doll has often been the white doll, and I think these experiments that they've done have shown that, that even our children, even African-American girls gravitate towards the white doll. And I don't think we've taken the time to create dolls for them that speak to them that they're attracted to, that will inspire them. I think it just hasn't been done yet.

MARTIN: Stacey, was that part of your pitch in presenting your idea for So In Style to Barbie and to Mattel? I mean was that part of your argument about why this needed to be? And I also want to mention for people who don't know, and we'll have more about background on our site, is that...

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Okay.

MARTIN: ...you actually have a very interesting back story yourself, that you kind of worked for a pioneering African-American designer at Barbie.

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Right.

MARTIN: Which is part of the way you got into the industry, which is its own interesting story. But was that one of the arguments you made in wanting to create So In Style?

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Yes, it was, because I got a lot of flack from some of my colleagues saying that you work at Mattel, great, but why don't you guys design any black dolls? And I'm like, well, we do. But they didn't see a difference in the skin color or the mold. So that was my argument with Mattel. They believed in my dream. They wanted to create diversity within Mattel's brand - Barbie -and I just wanted to offer great dolls for African-American girls. I wanted to fill the void in the marketplace with my dolls.

MARTIN: There are those, and there has been some criticism on the blogosphere, I don't know if you're familiar with it, that suggests that some people still don't love your dolls. They feel that the jewelry's a little mature, some of the clothing they feel is a little bit more mature than they would like to see, even though you give your dolls a back story where they're interested in, you know, music and art and journalism and things like that.

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean have you heard that and how do you feel about that?

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: I've heard a little bit of it. I just try to let people know that these dolls did come from a positive place. I've had moms and dads who've been thanking me for these dolls, giving their little girls options. I know you touched on a little bit of my back story, but as a little girl Barbie inspired me to become a designer, and that's the story that I want little girls to have. Like just playing with a doll is not just playing with a doll. It's encouraging your dreams for the future.

MARTIN: What about the hair though? Talk to me about the hair. I mean hair, as we know, is a sensitive issue among African-Americans. And the other criticism has been that the dolls have straight hair and there are no dreads, there's no Afros. One of the little girls has afro puffs...

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Right.

MARTIN: ...which are cute.

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Well, with my experience with designing dolls for over 12 years, we have a research department and a lot of girls, these dolls, So In Style dolls are made for girls three to six-year-old, and little girls get frustrated when they can't comb the hair, so I did offer straight hair but I also offered the authentic curly afro puffs for little Keyana.

But these are dolls that little girls are going to play with. My daughter was playing last night, wetting and combing the hair. She didn't cut it yet, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: ...so I know how...

MARTIN: She can't - and Sarah, I'm going ask you about the hair question, because it's not as though - there are a lot of white women who struggle with hair issues too, and I have been told by many Jewish women that they don't necessarily feel that their hair types, some of the hair types that Jewish women have, are valued by kind of the culture and that that's been a source of pain for some women that I know who are of different backgrounds.

In fact, there's a Web site called Naturallycurly.com where the author is a Jewish woman - a white Jewish woman - and she's talked about the whole hair issue. So what about you? Has hair been an issue for you with dolls?

Ms. MAIZES: Hair has not been an issue for me with dolls. It's been an issue for me. You're talking to a woman who had her hair Brazilian straightened because I too like to comb my hair. But when I buy a doll, that is a major play pattern for my girls and they want to be able to comb the hair, braid the hair. Having something that is authentic to the difficult hair that they have is not something that they want in the doll.

And you know, this actually raises - I hope it's okay if I take this in this direction, and we talk a lot about having dolls that we as parents want to buy or that our children are inspired to buy, and I say this...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAIZES: ...having been in children's entertainment from a 360 view of children's books and toys, and it's about building the models and I don't feel like until the past few years we've had the media and the television shows, and obviously with Obama's in the White House, where we are seeing models, everyone - black, white, Jewish, whatever their ethnicity is - we are seeing models that we are aspiring to in an incredibly positive, glamorous light.

And I think that the dolls that Mattel is coming out with now, anything like that is a way of showing those dolls in a positive exciting light, basically introducing to the girls a play pattern. These girls are cool, they're fun. Not just because they're black or they have long hair or - it's not about what the doll looks like. It's about the personality you can infuse that doll with.

MARTIN: So Sarah, what dolls would you like to see?

Ms. MAIZES: I have to say that I have been, and I don't even mean this as plug, I love what's going on at American Girl dolls, as a mother. There are so many different options. And I love that I can actually go into the store with my daughter and I can buy accessories like a violin or a flute and they're fun to play with but they also send the message that even cool girls play instruments or could go to band camp or be in the orchestra. And it seems a very comfortable dovetailing of dolls and sending a right message. I feel like they have a pretty good formula over there.

MARTIN: Okay, Stacey?

Ms. MAIZES: And I'm happy when I'm shopping there.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. MAIZES: Except for´┐Ż

MARTIN: And they have we have a nice breakfast too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you go to the store. Stacey?

Ms. MAIZES: It's great.

MARTIN: Stacey, and of course you've already fulfilled a big dream that you had, which is to bring a doll line into fruition. Is there any other dream that you have? Is their any additional kind of doll that you'd like to bring forward?

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: I'd love to see the So In Style line grow, and we are currently designing for 2011, and we have great licensed product where the dolls will be wearing Rocawear for spring 2010. So I just want the dolls to grow and have, create dolls that fulfill little girls' dreams.

MARTIN: Okay. But again, I think it taps into this other question. Everybody doesn't want their girls wearing Rocawear. Do you know what I'm saying? I know it's a subjective issue, but what about that?

Do you feel that you represent the full range of aspirations that people have for their girls?

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: I don't necessarily think that a line of dolls will fulfill the world of dreams for little girls, but I know that it did for me, and it's just creating options for little girls.

MARTIN: And Dr. Wiggins, what about you? What other dolls would you like to see?

Dr. WIGGINS: The two that I am most excited about are, that are coming up in the spring, one is - her name is Sienna and she's passionate about soccer and she was inspired from by daughter, and she locks, so we're excited to have her come to the market this spring. And the other was inspired by my son, who has this strong sense of justice and right and wrong, and she aspires to be a Supreme Court justice. Her name is Joy and she'll be available this spring as well.

MARTIN: Dr. Daniela Wiggins is a medical doctor. She is the creator of a new doll line called Prodigyrls. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. And Stacey McBride-Irby is the designer behind Mattel's So In Style line. Sarah Maizes is an author and founder of the parenting blog Mommylite. They were both kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

If you want to learn about each our guests, we'll have links on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, go to programs and click on TELL ME MORE.

Ladies, moms, thank you all so much.

Ms. MCBRIDE-IRVY: Thank you.

Dr. WIGGINS: Thank you so much.

Ms. MAIZES: Thank you.

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