Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ex Unus, Plures or Generic Ethnic Fashion Dolls

Behold! Spin Master's Liv Daniela doing a Dance of Heads. Why is Daniela juggling the heads of her peers, Sophie (pale blonde) and Hayden (golden blond)? How better to illustrate that Daniela, Sophie, and Hayden all have the SAME head sculpt? (Liv dolls Alexis and Katie share that face sculpt, too.) The only difference is their complexion, hair color, and eye color. One head, many dolls: Ex Unus, Plures. Out of One, Many.

Yawn. Oh that is a novel discovery, D7ana. No one else ever noticed that. Smile.

Okay, most toy manufacturers use a default doll mold. Why do companies use a default head? It is cheaper. Better ONE doll face than NO doll face. New companies especially may not be able to afford multiple face sculpts. They change race and/or ethnicity by changing the plastic color. White to tan represents "White" dolls. A range of light tan to darkest brown or black "make" the doll "Black." Pink to medium brown "make" the doll "Hispanic," while ivory to golden brown "make" the doll "Asian." Sometimes reddish-brown is used for "Native American" dolls. Know the code, know the race or ethnicity of the doll, right?

Well .... Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes just changing the complexion, is not enough to "represent" a race or ethnicity. First, the complexion ranges mentioned do overlap. So is the brown Chic Boutique doll Black or Hispanic? And if the brown doll is Black, does that make the tan doll Hispanic or Asian? Or even suntanned White? Categorizing race or ethnicity by complexion is difficult. 

Second, is this color coding universally known? I thought sure, if not overtly then subconsciously: everybody knows that the darkest doll is the Black one while the brighter tan doll is the Hispanic doll. But recently, two other doll enthusiasts have stated that they had not realized that Alexis was meant to be the Black doll in the Liv line-up or that Daniela was meant to be Hispanic. (If I had not read the dolls' back stories, I would not have known the intended ethnicity of those dolls either.) So another problem with "color-coded" generic ethnic dolls is that ethnic identity depends on comparison to all the dolls in the set. Alone, a generic ethnic doll can lose her ethnicity - and let's say "her" because the greatest range in race and in ethnicity appears in female dolls. Alone, a generic ethnic doll becomes a generic doll of ambiguous ethnicity.

Does racial and ethnic identity matter in dolls? Does the doll buying public care? No and yes. I can tolerate the ONE head default sometimes. There might exist a person who resembles a generic ethnic doll. Stress the word might. Some companies are creative enough to use colored plastics and paint to create visual variation. Blind doll collector-enthusiasts would not be swayed by such a ploy. They would see the same figure over and over.
Given my druthers, I would choose multiple head sculpts to portray different races in my dolls. Fortunately, there are many manufacturers of playscale dolls and action figures offering their vision of races and ethnicities. And who is to say that the generic ethnic doll has no place in a mix of varied dolls?

Why am I discussing generic ethnic dolls now? Well, I am looking forward to the Fall release of the Prettie Girlz dolls by Stacey McBride-Irby. They all share the same face sculpt, but I wonder - can they be described as "generic ethnic" dolls too? Let me know what you think.


Roville said...

Does racial and ethnic identity matter in dolls? Yes, of course it does. Little girls want pretty dolls but they also want to see a reflection of themselves in their pretty doll. Thankfully, designers are getting better at producing playline dolls with diverse eyes, noses and mouths and not just a white doll with tinted skin tone.

Now, if we could just convince Stacey McBride-Irby to give those fall Prettie Girls better articulation. :D

limbe dolls said...

Thanks for the update on the Prettie Girls. I had saved my money to buy them last fall when they were supposed to be released and was really disappointed when they didn't appear.

Vanessa said...

Great thought provoking article. I never thought of Daniela as the Hispanic doll. But what I see as an individual doesn't matter. It only matters what the person buying it sees. I think that is the only positive about racial ambiguity. There are so many different racial mixes that we don't even consider. Take for instance BB 2.5 Target doll of color. I don't know what race she was intended to be. She is very ambiguous. I made her Brazilian. But I imagine there are many little girls of color that can relate to her. Halle Berry's daughter has that skin tone and that wavy hair. Even with the Stardolls, people initially were referring to the second doll of color (yellow shirt) as Black. I never once thought they intended that to be a Black doll. I think she is the Hispanic doll. But again it doesn't matter what I see. Producing a ton of different doll face molds is not really economically feasible in a lot of cases. Opening a business and keeping it in operation is not easy. I'm sure Prettie Girls have run into their fair share of problems. I really hope they make it to market.

Black Doll Enthusiast said...

I agree with Vanessa -- companies are focused on producing dolls for the lowest possible cost.

I do not mind (in most cases) that the dolls share the same sculpt when more than one ethnicity is represented, although individuality IS nice. I just want fair representation and specifically something that appeals to my doll-collecting preference. I NEED a doll with tan-to-brown skin tone to represent me. With that said, many companies will create a "tan" doll without labeling it a specific ethnicity. This is an effort to appease consumers who can identify with that color spectrum -- light-skinned AAs, Hispanics, and biracial people.

RE: The Prettie Girls, thanks for letting us/me know that the fall of this year is the latest proposed release date. Initially, it was fall of last year, then February of this year. Like Vanessa, I hope they make it to market sometime THIS year; and if not, I hope I do not have trouble getting my paid-in-full money for both versions of Sophia refunded.


Marta said...

Hello from Spain: I congratulate you for this reflection. I totally agree with yourideas. Always the same mold of the wrists. The business owners make small changes. I suppose it's a problem of cost savings. Keep in touch.

D7ana said...

Hi and thanks Roville, LimbeDolls, Vanessa, DBG, and Marta!

I agree that ethnic dolls are important so that all children can feel represented.

And yes, doll manufacturers can create variations with a single head sculpt. Individual ethnic face sculpts can be delightful - think of the Mixis - but they are likely expensive. Sigh. But even using a default face sculpt, a skilled manufacturer can provide effective variations.

Ultimately, though, the race or ethnicity of a doll will be set by the person who owns the doll. So while the tan "twofers" can be a "cheat," they allow the owner to decide.

I hope that the Prettie Girls do get manufactured this Fall. When they were delayed last year, I asked for and received promptly my deposit for the Casual Sophia. I am not sure how their articulation will be - I hope they will at least match Mattel Fashionista standard or Liv standard - Liv with WRIST articulation, lol. Have my fingers crossed for that.

Muff said...

It was February 2011 when I first saw a SIS doll. I wasn't a collector, I wasn't interested in fashion dolls, in fact, I was just passing by on my way to the camping section when I saw Trichelle out the corner of my eye. I stopped in my tracks and rolled back to see if I saw what I thought I saw. A black doll with NATURAL hair had black features. I was astounded on so many levels.

Almost 2 decades since I had seen a Barbie doll and I was amazed that a line like SIS even existed.

When I was a kid, there was not a single black doll in our house. They were all white babies and Barbies. I actually was never into Barbies, white or otherwise. I really coveted my sister's Ms. Beasly doll though. All the black Barbies I saw as a kid looked like a white Barbie dipped in chocolate. There was no color range, no ethnic features and they just didn't look right.

Maybe these things are not 'SO' important to kids today since the races are more mingled and mixed. But, to an adult who didn't see these options as a child, they matter to me. They are important to me and I'm glad for even the attempt at diversity, limited though it may be.

Having said that though, the Prettie Girlz line looks just as generic as Liv dolls. The face paint on SIS is very well done. They actually look like different dolls. But just like Liv's, Prettie Girlz look like the same doll with different hair color and a slight skin tone difference.

D7ana said...

Hi, Muff!

One of the weirder things about the SiS line is that Mattel has provided "natural" hair for other series. So it would not have been a stretch for them to use some of those hair materials on some of the SiS line dolls. Sigh. I just don't understand why they did not. Maybe those materials would have caused added expense - either for the labor or for the materials themselves?

I remember the little Ms. Beasley - the Tutti-sized Buffy's doll. That one was cute. I didn't care for the bigger one though. Shrug.

There is a doll line called Mixis by YNU Group. They have the most striking faces - Rosa and Houda have higher bridged noses than most fashion dolls.

I am population greedy: I'd like to have all types of figures.

I am glad that you point out that the Prettie Girlz line could also fall in the generic doll list because they have one face mold.

I like Sophia, Alexa, Dahlia, and Kimani from the Prettie Girlz line. A comparison for me is Mattel dolls with the Asha face mold: I like at least four of them.

Black Doll Enthusiast said...

RE: Prettie Girls; I am glad your deposit was refunded.

This past February, I asked for a refund for the FULL amount that I paid for the two Sophias. I have NOT received the refund as of this date and my last email to the company has not been answered. I have not pursued the matter any further, but I suppose I need to. I don't have $100 and something dollars to lose.


D7ana said...

Oh, yes, I only pre-ordered the casual Sophia. I would like to see her and the others produced. I'll cross my fingers for that and that you get your refund, DBG.

Ms. Leo said...

I too notice the same face being used for every doll in the Liv,Star Doll and now it seems the Prettie Girls! It seems to me that Mattel has no excuse for this! They have a supply of different headsculpts to put everyother doll company to shame! They can do all those different headsculpts for Basic but they couldn't do it for SIS or the Prettie Girls? That was what I liked about the Asha dolls is the different faces. They could have picked 3 or 4 and gave them differt complexions and flipped the script and gave those same sculpts totally different complexions the next year!
Wouldn't that be something!

The poor kids all have the same headsculpt with no thought of give an ethinic kid it's own face. Poor Steven has never gone pass a chocolate brown! What is that about? I would love to see a Steven Chandra's (the missing!) complexion. Is there such thing as a male too dark to sell?

Anyway, I glad I got a chance to comment of this post. I read it a while ago but didn't get a chance to comment!

Another great post!

D7ana said...

Yikes, sorry I missed following up on this comment, Ms. Leo!

I agree with you about it being a pity that the SiS dolls all have the SAME head mold. Boo, hiss on that. Sure. Mattel can work variety. I totally need to cut back on certain head molds that I have in abundance ;-)

And I LOVED that the Shani dolls had DIFFERENT face sculpts. And DIFFERENT complexions, too. Sigh. Pity the SiS dolls did not have unique face sculpts for each character. Then again, the bad economy might have played a part in that development. Maybe Mattel did not feel confident enough to produce new AA faces at this time.

(And yes, I ^know* AA dolls get bought, but I'm guessing why they did NOT provide face sculpt variation for this series.)

Would be nice to see an AA Steven in a darker complexion. You are inspiring an idea about two Stevens I have.

I am glad that you enjoyed this post. I had fun writing it.