In 1954, the famous "Doll Test" in which black children were asked to choose between a black doll and a white doll, was used as an argument against desegregation. Now, there's a doll for every girl...and every narcissist. And yet:
Kenneth Clark's famous study was dispiriting: almost every child preferred the white doll. In
2006, filmmaker Kiri Davis re-created the experiment, and 15 of her 21 young subjects chose the Caucasian baby doll. While, as we all know, children "have to be carefully taught," this is clearly ingrained early - and dies hard. On the View yesterday, Elisabeth Hasselbeck remarked on the looks her daughter got when she carried a Tiana doll from The Princess and the Frog on the street (although I personally might have been looking at the celebrity, but that's just me. And she says she was wearing a hat.)
Yet, what makes the whole thing even more depressing is that on the surface, there have never been so many doll "choices": a piece in today's Wall Street Journal points to the trend in doll-girl matching and, amongst toy companies, "an intensifying concern with matching the characteristics of the figurine with those of its owner."
There are, of course, several different issues at play here. On the one hand, we've got standards of beauty - kids need to see more varietals than Barbie, and know that all kinds of appearance and coloring are equally valid - that one is not always the heroine while the others are the chorus, the satellite, the token friend. In a word, we need diversity of dolls to become commonplace, taken for granted.
And then there are the different forms of play: some children like to "parent" their dolls; just yesterday I saw a little girl assiduously mothering her baby doll while her mother tended to a real-life infant sibling. In these cases, you don't need a shrink to tell you that the play is helpful for transitioning, for working out issues, and for learning positive behaviors. And you don't need to be a sociologist to know that for a little kid, your baby most often looks like you. (Although Brangelina may be putting paid to this notion for any child whose mother has a Star subscription.)
Of course, for most kids, it's not about that particularly. Like Hasselbeck's daughter, most young children just want dolls as friends or characters. As the Journal put it,
More commonly, children have enjoyed dolls not for narcissistic satisfaction but for their imaginative potential as hand-held adventurers that can be moved about and made to talk or fly. A corncob doll works as well for those purposes as a custom-made mini-me.
Which is what makes the whole "model-of-myself" trend kind of strange. There is a difference between wanting to see a wide spectrum of dolls, to know that you're represented as a valid human being, to own a toy you identify with (hopefully unthinkingly) and needing your doll to be a replica of you, the child. One is all about imagination; the other is about the opposite.
For children who wish to see their own faces reflected back at them, the toy industry has never before strained so assiduously to please. American Girl, the Mattel-owned company that sells 18-inch dolls with realistic hair and moveable limbs (including a line of historical dolls), offers an array of mannequins that can be configured with Godlike genetic specificity: For $95 to $109, parents can purchase a playmate that mirrors their daughter's hair (blond, red, auburn, caramel, brown, dark brown, brown-black or black-brown), eyes (blue, hazel, green or brown), skin (light, medium or dark), and even attributes such as freckles, bangs, curls and pierced ears.
While they may be contemporaneous phenomena, companies producing a wide range of ethnicities and features, being able to find a doll with glasses or one with a wheelchair, seems to me a very different thing from the mini-idols that every company from Madame Alexander to Bratz is now producing. I feel like the two get conflated, but they're different. I remarked on this phenomenon when Strawberry Shortcake got her infamous makeover: why, I wondered then, do toy companies think a child can't relate to a doll who isn't exactly like herself? I speak purely as a passionate doll-lover, but it seems to me a real lack of understanding of the toy's appeal. Would I have wanted such a thing? Well, for one thing, I never saw a sallow Blythe doll with matted hair (the only approximation that would have come close), but I don't think so. Sure, it would be fun to see yourself mirrored on Christmas morning, and I imagine there's a satisfaction to acquiring each accessory, making the doll's hobbies and wardrobe mirror one's own, but doesn't that get old, fast? That's not a doll that looks like you in the general sense; it's a model of you.