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Toys that reflect racial diversity hailed as ‘about time'

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By Julie Muhlstein, Herald Columnist
Published:
Walk down the Barbie aisle in any well-stocked toy department. You'll see that the iconic plastic blonde has lots of company.
Among dolls on the crowded shelves are a 50th Anniversary Barbie, the supermodel Heidi Klum Barbie, even a new Bella Swan as Barbie from the “Twilight” movies — and yes, there's a matching vampire Edward Cullen as Ken.
This year, there are new kids in Barbie town.
Mattel's new So In Style black dolls, part of the Barbie line, made news when they were introduced in September.
The Grace, Kara and Trichelle dolls aren't the toymaker's first try at adding black toys to the Barbie niche. They are the first with what the Associated Press said were “fuller lips, a wider nose and more pronounced cheekbones.”
The dolls have their critics.
On Oct. 25, The Boston Globe published a piece by Francie Latour, who took issue with the line's emphasis on straight hair, not a natural attribute of most black women and girls. The So In Style hairstyling set lets kids straighten the dolls' tresses.
I can't disagree with Latour's criticism, but the toy and fashion industries rarely reflect anyone's reality. Some versions of the hot-selling Totally Hair Barbie had hair so long it reached the doll's toes.
Little girls, no matter their race, like fussing with hair. We'll never see a Maya Angelou Barbie — nor will we see a Rachel Maddow Barbie. And Barbie's figure? It's still an impossible female form.
The fact that kids can go into toy stores and see at least some of the diversity they see in life is progress.
Long overdue, the new black dolls are worlds ahead of “colored Francie,” a Mattel creation from the mid-1960s. That doll had darker skin but the same facial features as Barbie's white friend, also named Francie.
Marvetta Toler is a Marysville mother and secretary of the Snohomish County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With a daughter who's now 23 and an 18-year-old son, Toler said it was a challenge in the past to find African-American versions of Holiday Barbie, a doll her daughter collects. They've been available for the past decade or so.
Toler agreed that it's way past time for toys to reflect society's diversity. She's happy, too, that a new animated movie, “The Princess and the Frog,” will be Disney's first to feature a black princess. Disney's Princess Tiana doll is already available.
“For kids to see heroines like that is really great,” Toler said.
Toler, 41, said that as a girl in Denver, Colo., she saw no dolls that looked like her. “My mom and my grandmother, those are the ladies I looked up to — strong black women,” she said. When her family moved to Marysville about 13 years ago, Toler said her daughter struggled as one of only a few African-American students at school.
Today, she said, black children have only to look at President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, to see what can be achieved. “It has a very positive impact on young children,” Toler said. “And her daughters are first in her life,” Toler said of the first lady. “That's a great role model.”
JJ Frank, who heads YMCA of Snohomish County's Minority Achievers Program, said “it's about time” for diversity in toys and children's entertainment. “I'm really glad to see Disney and Barbie dolls putting out images reflective of the changing America,” said Frank, who is also involved in the community's annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
Frank, 38, recently spotted the new dolls while shopping with his 3-year-old daughter at a Toys R Us store. He also has a 6-year-old son. “From a business perspective, I think society is realizing if we market to the changing America, the bottom line is going to be better,” he said.
Frank noted the success of Dora the Explorer and Diego toys and TV programs for preschoolers, which include English and Spanish content.
Toys and entertainment matter, but Toler said they aren't kids' most important influences.
“It's how your children are raised in your home,” she said. “Instilling heritage and culture starts with parents.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » Minority groups

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