Race in Toyland: A nonwhite doll crosses over


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Jade Goss, age 2, looks as if she just stepped out of the wildly popular "Doc McStuffins" cartoon.

"She has the Doc McStuffins sheets. She has the Doc McStuffins doll. She has the Doc McStuffins purse. She has Doc McStuffins clothes," said Jade's mother, Melissa Woods, of Lynwood, Calif.

"I think what attracts her is, 'Hey, I look like her, and she looks like me,' " Ms. Woods said of the character, an African-American child who acts as a doctor to her stuffed animals.

With about $500 million in sales last year, Doc McStuffins merchandise seems to be setting a record as the best-selling toy line based on an African-American character, industry experts say.

Its blockbuster success reflects, in part, the country's changing consumer demographics, experts say, with more children from minority backgrounds providing an expanding, less segregated marketplace for shoppers and toymakers.

But what also differentiates Doc -- and Dora the Explorer, an exceptionally popular Latina character whose toy line has sold $12 billion worth of merchandise over the years, Nickelodeon executives say -- is her crossover appeal.

"The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that's really big for them," said Chris Nee, the creator of Doc McStuffins. "And I think a lot of other kids don't see her color, and that's wonderful, as well."

Nancy Kanter, general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, which developed "Doc McStuffins" -- and who suggested the character be African-American in the first place -- said Doc's wide-ranging fan base could be gleaned from a spreadsheet.

"If you look at the numbers on the toy sales, it's pretty obvious that this isn't just African-American families buying these toys," Ms. Kanter said. "It's the broadest demographics possible."

Industry experts say that children still tend to gravitate toward toys and characters that look like them, with parents clamoring for more nonwhite dolls and protesting in online petitions when a company such as American Girl drops a black and an Asian doll, as it did in May.

"Right now there are more multicultural children being born under the age of 5," said Lisa Williams, chief executive of World of EPI, the company behind Positively Perfect Dolls, a line of multicultural dolls sold at Walmart stores around the country. "They are no longer the minority; they are actually the majority of children. The demand is there."

Recent census data supports Ms. Williams' point of the growing marketplace for nonwhite dolls and characters: Last year, roughly half of all infants in the United States were minorities, and minority children younger than 18 are expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites of the same ages by 2018.

These days, any toy whose sales reach several hundred million dollars, as Doc's have, is considered significant, given the toy industry's estimated $22 billion business nationwide. In the past, none of the toys based on Tiana, a recent black Disney princess; Little Bill, a television series starring an African-American boy; or even Michael Jackson in the 1980s have enjoyed such a prosperous shelf life as Doc's, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.

Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago whose research has focused on children, race and identity, said children from all backgrounds derive meaningful lessons from their toys.

"Children's play is serious business," Ms. Spencer said. "They are getting ideas about who they are from these objects. There are messages about one's confidence, one's sense of self in terms of what I look like and being powerful."

At the same time, she notes children of different races or ethnicities do view some toys differently.

"When little white girls embrace Doc McStuffins, for them Doc McStuffins is a girl, and Doc McStuffins is powerful," Ms. Spencer said. "For a little black girl, it may be all of those things, but also that she's black."

Mothers appreciate the character's lifelike features.

"She has real coarse and pretty curly hair," Kataya Smith said of her 5-year-old daughter, Kaydrian. "The Caucasian dolls' hair is easy to manage, and I don't want her to feel that that's the way you need to look to be pretty. I want her to know: This is a pretty baby doll, and she has hair like me."

Ms. Williams' line of Positively Perfect Dolls offers a variety of hair textures and skin tones, "from vanilla creme to pecan to mocha," she said, adding that the facial features include "full lips, noses and deep eyes" that better resemble children of nonwhite backgrounds. She added two Latina dolls, Aleyna and Camila, this year.

Despite the newfound success of a few nonwhite dolls, a decision in May by American Girl to discontinue two dolls provoked an outcry among some parents. Frustrated parents protested on the company's Facebook page, contending that the action was a step backward.

A spokeswoman for American Girl said those two dolls were part of a line of "friend" dolls, designed as companions to another character, that the company is moving away from. She also pointed to several other dolls of color, including Addy and some Bitty Baby dolls.

But the flap highlighted continuing gaps in toyland, with parents of Asian children and toy analysts saying that Asian dolls may be the scarcest of all.



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