For centuries, dolls have helped children develop their socioemotional skills by teaching them how to empathize with others. Last year, dolls raked in nearly $2.7 billion in sales, making them one of the toy industry’s biggest items.
However, not all of today’s dolls offer emotionally healthy experiences for children. Increasingly, parents are speaking out against how mainstream toys send children negative messages about such issues as gender, body image and race.
The last few years have seen several sexy head-to-toe makeovers of popular children’s characters. Dora the Explorer, once hailed by parents everywhere for her stereotype-bashing, was transformed from a cute toddler to a Barbie-in-training. Strawberry Shortcake used to be most recognizable for her frumpy hat and green stockings, but now she sports pink locks and long lashes. Even gender-neutral trolls have been reincarnated as hip and sexy Trollz, rivaling Bratz, the Winx Club and Monster High for the title of “sexiest dolls on the block.” The list of sexualized, feminized toys goes on: Holly Hobby, Legos, My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Rainbow Bright. Even the Care Bears are now more pretty and feminine than they are fun and fluffy.
When it comes to their effects on children, particularly young girls, these sexualized makeovers aren’t all fun and games. “When we give a child a doll, what we’re saying to that child is ‘This is what people look like, this is what women look like, this is what you might aspire to,’” says Susan Linn, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC). With dolls getting prettier and skinnier than ever, it comes as no surprise that, by age 3, girls begin to equate thinness with beauty and popularity. By age 5, they express dissatisfaction with their weight, and by age 9 many experience the onset of eating disorders.
In addition to sending unhealthy messages about body and beauty ideals, today’s mainstream dolls continue to offer a limited range of racial diversity. “Part of what is lacking and is hard for children of color is not seeing themselves [reflected] in toys or in popular culture,” says Linn. Study after study underscores the importance of cultural representation, yet options for parents who want to buy their children black dolls remain sparse. And when mainstream ethnic dolls do exist, they’re often made from the same mold as their mainstream, white counterparts. This move reinforces racist messages that whiteness is the ideal, or that black women are beautiful only insofar as they look like white women.
The problems don’t stop there. Linn notes that in today’s media-saturated climate, the best-selling dolls are increasingly based upon characters from popular movies and TV shows. From Disney Princesses to Angry Birds, these commercialized toy lines do more than sucker parents into making further purchases—their already-established characters and storylines also impede the emotional and cognitive benefits of imaginative play. “The best toys,” says Linn, “are ones that children can transform into something,” not ones that come with prepackaged plots.
Fortunately, parents are pushing back against the commercialization, gendering and whitewashing of toys. Earlier this year, a New York mother petitioned Mattel to include more racially diverse doll products. This spring, parents successfully protested Disney’s feminine makeover of Merida from Brave, a character who had previously been lauded for her rare lack of sexualization. This summer, the grassroots group Let Toys Be Toys succeeded in petitioning UK retailers to stop separating toys into “boys” and “girls” sections, inspiring Ms. magazine to launch a similar petition in the U.S.
In addition to protesting and petitioning, Linn underscores that parents can weed out unhealthy children’s products by posing a few key questions before making purchases. First, parents can think about the play value of the product, such as Can it be used in more than one way? and Does it encourage or discourage creative play?
In the meantime, here are some resources to help parents locate child-empowering doll and toy options amid the commercialized and sexualized likes of Barbie and Bratz.
Put Down That Barbie! 2012 Holiday Gift Guide
An interview with Jenn Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News (WIMN), on empowering gift ideas for toddlers through adolescents.
A Mighty Girl
A Mighty Girl features hundreds of toys, including books, movies and music, aimed at helping foster confidence and empowerment in young girls. Go! Go! Sports Girls and Eeboo’s Poet & Astronomer Paper Dolls are just two examples of toys that present girls as leaders, heroes and adventurers, rather than fashionistas or damsels in distress.
Recognizing the critical emotional benefits of cultural representation, 4KidsLikeMe.com offers nonviolent, multicultural toys aimed at helping foster children’s self-esteem. Its philosophy is simple: Children of color need positive images that look like them.
Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood’s (CCFC) Annual TOADY Awards
CCFC’s Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children (TOADY) awards help parents identify the toy industry’s worst offenders when it come to commercialized, sexualized and unhealthy products that impede creative play. The 2013 TOADY Awards will be announced by late November.
Renee Davidson is a feminist writer and activist living in DC. Her work has been published by Salon, Bitch, PolicyMic, Fem2pt0 and more. Follow her at @reneetheorizes.