Toy (un)like me

Like many toddlers, Monkey is obsessed in love with the show Daniel Tiger. He has several of the plush character dolls from the show, and his favorite right now is Miss Elaina. He likes to hold her while he watches, take her places, etc. In public, we have been getting some sideways glances from people who – I presume – are wondering why my fair-skinned little boy has a doll that looks like a little black girl in a pink dress.

I don’t know how much of that is gender-based and how much is racial. Regardless, these sideways looks have got me thinking about the way the toy industry underrepresents minorities from every group, and also about parental comfort with buying toys that have minority characteristics different from their own.

If you’re interested in disability rights, you may have heard of the Toy Like Me campaign. I’ve been following this campaign for a while, and as the mother of a child with an anatomical difference, I absolutely agree that it’s important for children with disabilities and/or anatomical differences (as well as those who are non-white) to see their bodies and experiences reflected in toys, books, and other media. What I would hate to see, though, is more disabled dolls that are custom-order/specialty items only – continuing their segregation from the mainstream able-bodied dolls. (I have a similar complaint with television shows that bring on a disabled character only for the purpose of talking about disability.) And this is what will happen if we merely campaign for children to have toys that are “like them.”

I grew up with the historical American Girl dolls, before the custom Truly Me line existed. I used to spend hours looking at the catalog (which was roughly the size of a phone book). When my parents were finally able to afford one, I wanted Josefina. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that Josefina was Hispanic and I wasn’t, or that I should pick a doll that looked like me. I loved Josefina’s straight black hair and the little gold rings in her ears (my mom wouldn’t let me pierce mine). I brought her along to old missions and Spanish colonial museums so she would feel at home.

I also had a doll who was a white brunette of German descent, like me. She had PTSD. She’d grown up in an orphanage during the war, then was homeless for a while before moving to the Alps, where she met a friendly goat-herd. She’d also been involved in rescuing Jews, although I’m not sure how she managed that while in the orphanage.

Then there was my little doll whose legs were damaged. I made her a wheelchair and wrote a miniature diary for her about the experience of losing her ability to walk and being disabled. Her younger brother later had to have his legs amputated; fortunately, he was very athletic and got around just fine with his arms.

When I was growing up, I didn’t feel a compulsion for all my toys and dolls to be like me – to reflect my whiteness or my able-bodied-ness or the fact that I had living parents, etc. I was interested in other people’s experiences.

In saying this, I don’t mean to criticize children for wanting dolls that are like them. A friend of mine whose son has a G-tube puts old G-buttons on all his stuffed animals, which I think is awesome. On the other hand, there will always be children like my son whose physical differences are rare and/or not easily adapted to a doll, even a custom made one. They may not be able to have a toy exactly like them, but they can still benefit from seeing the variety of human differences reflected and celebrated in toys and media. In fact, all children can benefit from that – and that’s my point.

Although I appeared to be a typical middle class white girl growing up, I was in fact dealing with early childhood trauma and extensive psychiatric illness in my family. I think that’s why I gravitated towards dolls and stories about people who were different, who had characteristics that mainstream society deemed undesirable, as I sensed that my own experience and background and personality were deemed undesirable. For me, I guess, it was less important that a toy or character have my exact characteristics, and more important that it share my experience of difference, discrimination and isolation. That made it relatable and meaningful, but also gave me an opportunity to practice imaginative empathy.

But what about the children from privileged backgrounds who haven’t experienced trauma or discrimination? Will they spontaneously seek out toys and characters from less privileged backgrounds? Will they be exposed to and interested in the diversity of human appearance and experience? Will their parents buy dolls of other races, or disabled dolls, or dolls that display intersectionality? Should they?

Parents are unlikely to buy an Asian doll with hair loss for their non-Asian child who has hair if they find such a doll in the store; for certain they will not go out of their way to custom order such a doll. If a parent did buy that doll for their child, the child would get strange looks in public and people would probably think there was something psychologically wrong with the parent. And yet, it is possible to conceive of a society in which that doll would be just as desirable and accepted as an able-bodied white doll; in which no one would question the motivations of the able-bodied white child hugging that doll, or of the parent who bought it.

Companies like Mattel will claim that the market for black dolls with limb differences or Latina dolls with port wine stains isn’t large enough to justify making them. Ultimately, though, the problem isn’t that the population with such characteristics is small. The problem is parents’ unwillingness to buy dolls with minority characteristics that their own children don’t have; and even if more parents wanted to do that, I believe that society discourages it.

It would help a lot if popular shows like Daniel Tiger would give more time to visibly disabled characters like Chrissie and actually make a Chrissie doll – that would not only be great for children who wear leg braces, but would make it easy for parents whose children don’t have leg braces to buy them a doll that does without being self-conscious about it, as I was able to buy Miss Elaina for my son without a second thought. That would be a start.

I understand that some parents (both those who belong to minority groups, and those who don’t) have concerns about cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and/or dolls being used as objects of ridicule. I think the answer to this concern is to make sure that the dolls are not segregated but integrated into the mainstream. They should not be specialty items intended to be used as teachable moments. And toy companies, if you are going to make these toys, market them to all children, not just to those with disabilities.

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