Groovy Girls: Better than Barbie?

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.

Wardrobe Closet

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

Baby Nancy Dolls

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.


2 thoughts on “Groovy Girls: Better than Barbie?

Add yours

  1. Thanks for your article, Mara! Some thoughts:
    As a child, I had an obsession with Build-a-Bear. For my birthday, my aunt bought me a American girl doll. I returned it a few days later, and with the money I received I went to BABW and bought Strawberry, my pink bear that has never left my side since I was eight years old. I think about BABW in the same light as doll companies, and I think about the video we watched, “Babies Buying Babies.” The concept is the same — adoption and nurturing — but with stuffed animals. I always found it a little creepy to have a hard plastic doll staring at me all the time, and I especially found it weird (even as a little kid) to be caring for a “baby” when I was barely even a kid! One of the strangest things to me is the push for little girls to start nurturing and taking care of dolls and animals. Basically, a baby learning how to care for a baby. I wonder about BABW and its message in this sense. While I realize how this article is about race and dolls, I think it is important to also think about there is such a huge PUSH for dolls in the first place. I think it’s interesting to expand on the fact that girls are supposed to want to take care of dolls (or stuffed animals) and the “ownership” girls are supposed to take when they buy a doll or stuffed animal. There are lines that must be recited when one buys a BAB or an American doll. I am also very interested in the fact that Groovy Girls are stuffed and not plastic. Could it be because plastic dolls mimic an actual female body and this is a way to hold off a child’s perception of female bodies?


  2. I also had Groovy Girls when I was a kid – my mom refused to buy me Barbies, Barbie books, or anything related to the business. I worked in a toy store a few years ago and really appreciated Groovy Girls because they seemed more interesting and less like a traditional portrayal of femininity – they wore fun, colorful, clashing outfits, had streaks of color in their wavy hair, and were, you know, groovy! (Clearly, the marketing worked on me.) And I agree with kmiles16’s comment above that their soft bodies make them seem much less sexualized than Barbies or other traditional dolls, which adds to their appeal. Nonetheless, they are so decidedly not racially diverse or accurate – they all have the same wavy hair, regardless of race, and don’t have particularly dark “skin” colors either. And I’m not surprised that the dolls of color weren’t particularly good sellers, as we never seemed to bother keeping many in stock at the toy store I worked at either. I’m also wondering about the “grooviness” of Groovy Girls and their outfits – I don’t feel qualified to evaluate them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their attempt to replicate a certain style of “cool,” especially with regards to the streaks of colorful hair, could be read by someone more informed than me as an appropriation of Black aesthetics.


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