Growing up, my parents didn’t buy be Barbie dolls or Bratz or Polly Pockets (I only got to play with these dolls when I went to friends’ houses!). Instead, I played with Groovy Girls. I had a doll named Sesilia with a closet that had pictures of girls of various skin tones on the front and inside. I never thought about issues with dolls and diversity. And I never thought about why I had these dolls until later when my parents told me that they purposefully didn’t want me to have a Barbie because they didn’t agree with the body and beauty messages it sent.
In fact, some might argue that Groovy Girls were launched as an alternative to Barbie: a soft doll collection created in 1998 by Manhattan toys that “encourage[s] girls to celebrate self-identity, friendship and diversity” (“Groovy Girls”). They are thought of as wholesome and diverse seeing as they come “in various skin tones with ethnically appropriate hair” (Gil). (This “ethnic” hair is made out of yarn, so I’m not quite sure how realistic you can really claim it is).
But while consumers may like Groovy Girls better than other dolls, they still have many issues with them. One mom described how “it was hard to say what the brown ones represented racially because they were so light-skinned and had loose, wavy hair. Were they Black? Latina? Becky-with-a-tan?” (Giraud). And this is an issue with all dolls. Even when Barbie tried to diversify and include a black doll with black features, people still complained that “they’re not black enough” and that they “should have more natural black hairstyles, such as afros or braids” (“New black Barbies get mixed reviews”). And while the company has had Groovy Girls with darker skin in the collection, they apparently don’t sell well. This same mom describes how, “after complaining to the store manager, [she] learned that the Groovy Girls of color were no longer made because they hadn’t been big sellers for the company” (Giraud).
So, is having a few black dolls, many of which really aren’t that dark, really enough for the Groovy Girls brand to claim that they celebrate diversity? Ultimately, I find this similar to what Margaret Hunter calls, an “illusion of inclusion,” where “by including a few light-skinned, Anglo-looking women of color, cosmetics companies appear to be inclusive of people of color, without disrupting their message that white bodies are beautiful” (Hunter). The dolls all have exactly the same features, except for slight variations in the color of their skin – whose to know what race they really are.
As a black doll enthusiast explains in a Bitch media article, “You couldn’t look at the doll and classify it as a true representation of a black person…it was just a brown counterpart of the white doll” (Hix). There are some companies like Shindana Toy Company
that are “dedicated to making ethnically correct black dolls (like the ones pictured here), but “since the 1990’s, options for parents who want to buy their children black dolls have been woefully slim” (Hix). And as Giraud points out as well, “why are all the super fun specialty dolls my girls want most — the mermaids, fairies, the rock stars — always white?” Groovy Girls may have helped me grow up with healthier ideas about bodies, but the collection still has work to do if they’re really trying to be as diverse as they claim.
Gil, Eliana, and Athena A. Drewes, eds. Cultural issues in play therapy. Guilford Publications, 2015.
Giraud, Melissa. “Why Are All the White Dolls Sitting Together on the Target Shelf?: Supporting kids to push back against racial injustice” Blog post. Embrace Race. A Medium Corporation. 5 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 May 2017.
“Groovy Girls.” Manhattan Toy. Manhattan Toy, n.d. Web. 20 May 2017.
Hix, Lisa. “Why Black Dolls Matter.” Bitch Media. Bitch Media, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 May 2017.
Hunter, Margaret L. “Buying racial capital: Skin-bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a globalized world.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 4.4 (2011): 142-164.