As long as children have played, there have been dolls. They’ve been made from corn husks and animal bones, soapstone and wood, leather and wax. And then, in 1959, from 11 inches of plastic molded into not-humanly-possible female curves. Six decades post-Barbie, there are Glitter Girls, L.O.L. Surprises, dozens of Disney Princesses, and over-accessorized teens from at least two rival high schools (Monster and Rainbow).
There’s also a cottage industry of YouTube creators who devote hours to unboxing them all. I recently spent 45 minutes watching a grown woman unwrap three Rainbow High Slumber Party dolls and describe everything from their foil-finished cartons to the nail polish on their rubbery little hands. I snapped out of my trance as she was caressing a pink-haired doll named Brianna Dulce, whose hoodie pockets were unfortunately sewn shut. “To be honest, she’s a doll, so we shouldn’t expect that much more anyway,” the woman concluded cheerfully.
But we do expect much more from dolls. So much more. They’re cultural touchstones that loom large in the memories of adults, and part of the swirling vortex of media that shapes future generations. “They’re also a projection of what we want to see in our society,” says sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, Ph.D., a professor at San Jose State University who researches gender inequality and toys. And at least since the 18th century, when the mass production of dolls began in France and Germany, they’ve been lightning rods, often blamed for perpetuating narrow beauty standards that negatively impact young girls just as they’re beginning to wrap their heads around what it means to be beautiful and wanted and seen.
“Dolls play a big part in the conversation about belonging,” says Diana Leon-Boys, Ph.D., a communication professor at the University of South Florida who focuses on girlhood and Latinx studies. “If you have a child who doesn’t see themselves through the dolls they play with, it’s harder for them to get a fully rounded sense of ‘Who am I in the grand scheme of things in this nation? How do others see me? Do they see me?'”
Until very recently, that sense of belonging was limited to slim, white, able-bodied, cisgender girls. In 1986, the first three American Girl dolls were born, part of a new line that was supposed to be all about education and empowerment, with each doll sharing a story of the part she played in American history. They were all white. Seven years later, when the first Black American Girl, Addy, came out, she was a nine-year-old trying to escape enslavement.
Courtesy of brand
Since then, American Girl has introduced four other Black American Girls — including one whose wealthy family contributed to the pre-Civil War culture of New Orleans and another whose story takes place in Detroit during the Civil Rights Movement. There is an Indigenous American Girl and one who is Jewish. You can get an American Girl with a hearing aid, or a prosthetic limb. In December, the company announced its 2022 American Girl of the Year: Corinne Tan, a Chinese-American girl growing up in Aspen, Colorado, whose story addresses anti-Asian racism and the dynamics of blended families.
Mattel, the company that owns Barbie and American Girl (which it bought in 1998), reports that its second most popular Barbie in 2020 came with a wheelchair. Royal Bee, a popular L.O.L. Surprise! doll who stars in a spin-off video series, has a golden Afro. And late last year, Barbie Fashionistas Doll #135, whose brown skin is scattered with the characteristic lighter patches of the skin condition vitiligo, was a best-seller on Amazon.
“These days, no matter who you are, you can probably find a [doll] that looks like you,” says Juli Lennett, a vice president in the toy division at market research company the NPD Group. The marketplace is certainly vast: For the 12 months ending October 2021, more than 65 million fashion dolls were sold in the United States, most of them marketed to girls ages four to nine (last year, that was about 11.8 million kids). “There’s a spectrum of dolls [available now], and it really aligns more with who we are as a country and as a globe,” says Lennett.
You can trace some of that change to 2001, when toymaker MGA Entertainment launched Bratz, a line of big-eyed, fashion-obsessed dolls that come in a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. “One of the things I hear a lot from my students who are young women of color is that they played with Bratz dolls,” says Dr. Sweet, the sociology professor. “A lot of them were growing up in the 2000s when Bratz were one of the few toys that had representations of race and ethnicity that they could relate with.”
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Bratz, MGA Entertainment brought back its original dolls. And the Bratz genes are very much on display in the company’s wildly popular L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, whose faces — like the faces of many other trendy dolls, including Monster High and My Little Pony’s Equestria Girls — have big, upturned eyes, tiny noses, and pouty lips. Picture Kendall Jenner passed through a few too many Snap filters.
Dermatologist Neelam Vashi, M.D., the founding director of the Boston University Center for Ethnic Skin, researches the ways media affects our perceptions of beauty. She says those faces have two characteristics humans tend to find beautiful: homogeneous skin tone (the dolls are plastic, after all) and extreme markers of sexual dimorphism, like full lips. The cartoonish visage may seem beyond the realm of what actual humans look like, but Dr. Vashi says even distorted faces can subconsciously affect what we think is beautiful. She points to a study from 2009, in which researchers skewed the faces of storybook characters, squishing and stretching them: “They found that after the kids saw the distortions, their perception of what was beautiful became slightly skewed to that distortion.”
This is probably a good time to note that diversity isn’t something to be celebrated if it repackages negative cultural tropes or comes hand in hand with exaggerated, even exoticized, facial features. “It fuels not only gender stereotypes but racial stereotypes and the intersection of them in ways that are incredibly problematic,” says Dr. Sweet. Like all the experts I spoke with, she’s careful to point out that dolls are just one piece of a much larger package of cultural messages that kids are absorbing. But still, she believes, it’s troublesome to celebrate a facial aesthetic that is unattainable in the same way Barbie’s physique is unattainable.
Everybody has heard the lore about that physique: If Barbie were scaled up to human size, she’d only have room for half a liver and she’d walk on all fours because her feet are too small to support her upper body. Well, back in 2016, Barbie got a bit of a makeover and now comes in multiple shapes, including “petite” and “curvy.” Commendable, for sure, but there’s a ways to go. “There are studies circulating, done to scale, that found ‘curvy’ Barbie’s waist would be 24 inches,” says Dr. Leon-Boys. And you don’t need an academic paper to tell you the bodies of many other fashion dolls are unattainable. Stretch Hasbro’s Disney Princess dolls to human proportions and they’d have thigh gaps you could pass a soda bottle through.
Barbie Fashionistas Doll 166
Barbie Fashionistas Doll #166
closeup of Rainbow High doll Georgia Bloom
Rainbow High doll Georgia Blooms orange curls
Whether or not that’s truly harmful to children, however, is still very much up for debate. Last year, researchers in England found that girls who played with ultrathin dolls (they used Barbie and Monster High figurines in the small study) were more likely to idealize thinner bodies. But Dr. Sweet says for every study like that one, there’s another showing how children can resist cultural messages embedded in dolls. “Nevertheless, even if a child is able to do that, it bleeds into a much larger package of messages about gender and beauty, about what women and girls are like and should be like,” she says. “‘This is beauty,’ ‘This is what a body should look like’ — those messages persist.”
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One message that seems especially hard to change has to do with gender. “The doll landscape is overly gendered,” says Toni Sturdivant, Ph.D., an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University-Commerce, who researches race and gender issues in early childhood.
Dr. Sweet agrees. She’s analyzed toy catalogs going back to 1905, and tracked the changes. “In the beginning of the 20th century, I was surprised to find remarkably little gender happening in toys,” she says. The marketing of dolls was gender ambiguous. In the 1970s, doll gendering was more implicit than it is today. But as women made strides toward equality and society seemed to become less sexist…the gender divide in toys exploded. “Boys’ toys are taken for granted to be gender-neutral, but femininity is very segregated out for girls, and representations of femininity are still relegated largely to the world of girls’ toys,” says Dr. Sweet. In 2022, the doll landscape is awash in pink and purple, princess imagery, and the trappings of traditionally feminine glamour. Just look at the Rainbow High and Monster High girls, with their Rapunzelian hair and full-face beat.
And why do we even call those dolls “girls”? Creatable World, a line from Mattel, asks that very question. Launched in 2019, the dolls have short hair and non-gendered bodies. They’re sold with a range of accessories, including wigs, hats, pants, and skirts. It’s up to the child to decide how the doll should look and whether they want to project a gender on it. “I was so excited when they came out,” says Dr. Leon-Boys, who adds that, unfortunately, she’s found it hard to find them in stores. A Mattel spokesperson says they are “hitting pause” on growing the line at this time. The company won’t share sales data, but in the Instagram game of popularity, Creatable World has 13,200 followers compared with Barbie’s 2.2 million.