Malia, Sasha, and the Power of Dolls

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve seen a lot around the newspapers and the blogosphere about the Malia and Sasha dolls. Most of the conversation seems to be about the commodification of these two very real girls (which is disgusting, but not the least bit surprising) or about Michelle Obama’s objections to having her daughters used in this way (which of course we agree with).

However, there’s also more going on.

Dolls have a very important role in history. They have been role models, such as perfect Victorian dolls. They have been or represented magical beings, such as the “poppets” that played such a role in the Salem witch trials and other witch-hunts. Some of the sense of dolls as carrying some kind of evil magical energy persists in America today in Christian sects that don’t permit their children to play with dolls, or in the popular (deeply distorted from the original) concept of the voodoo doll. They have represented mysteries, such as the matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, in which children explore how smaller and smaller things can be contained in one large thing. They have been devices to teach girls how to be culturally acceptable women, including everything from dolls that represent babies to Barbie and her friends. They have been language-teaching devices. They have been representations of exotic ethnicities or races, such as the doll in the perfectly wrapped sari.

In American race relations, dolls also fill a complex role. There have been black dolls for a long time, and they are far more often purchased by black parents than by white parents (or by white parents of black children). These days, there are dolls representing other races as well, also generally purchased for kids of the doll’s race. Nonetheless, in Kiri Davis’s film “A Girl Like Me,” we see a sequence of black children choosing between a black doll and a white doll, and the majority of them choosing the white doll because she’s “nicer” or “prettier.”

Debbie has a white friend who bought her children black baby dolls, and then had a terrifying moment with a white state trooper in the American south, in roughly 1993 or so, because the mother knew that if the trooper saw her daughter’s black baby doll, he’d know a little too much about the family’s politics, and be in a position to use that against them.

Placing the Malia and Sasha dolls into the history of dolls and the history of race relations does not take away the issues of commodification or depersonalization of the real Malia Obama and Sasha Obama. And it certainly doesn’t mean that using dolls as a gateway to get children to want and buy more things is acceptable. Nonetheless, these dolls are not offensive looking. And they do represent black dolls that all kinds of people will want to own–and that bit of doll magic can also be a good thing.

3 thoughts on “Malia, Sasha, and the Power of Dolls

  1. Wow. This gave me a lot to think about…

    I’m white. One of my first dolls was a little black boy Cabbage Patch doll. I still have him, actually. He’s been one of my all-time favorite toys. Patton was the name he came with, and I dressed him in army chamo and put him to work rescuing my other toys from dangerous molten lava and shadow-monsters (my arch-nemeses as a child).

    It only ever occurred to me to think about any potential implications of that a few years ago, when I was having a conversation with my mother about my lack of being a fashion-loving girly-girl while holding Patton, and she said, “you were harder than your sisters in a lot of ways. Like that doll. All the other little white girls picked out little white girl dollies, and you picked out a black boy.” I hadn’t recalled that I picked Patton. I thought mom had bought him for me because he was cute, and wearing blue overalls, and she knew blue was my favorite. It also never occurred to me that she might have feelings about my childhood dolly (knowing my mother, the fact that it was a boy doll was probably a far greater transgression than the fact that the doll was black… would I EVER wear makeup? sob).

    I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear of black girls picking out white dolls (because of my own history in that area), but I AM surprised to hear it’s because they are perceived as nicer or prettier… that’s so sad I can’t even wrap my mind around it… I’m also surprised that it’s common… as my mother’s anecdote illustrates, my first instinct would have been to guess that most little girls pick the doll that looks like them.

    So now that I know I have consistently been wrong about absolutely everything related to doll selection, and that I’m totally abnormal and possibly twisted in the head, I’m going to go stew over all of this in my mind for a while.

    I’m not even sure how to feel about all of this. Thank you for this article!

    (also, president-daughter-dolls… that’s kind of stalker-creepy… I wish people would leave presidential kids the hell alone)

  2. Shannon, I’m a huge fan of This American Life and will go look for that episode when I have a chance.

    SugarLeigh, if you get a chance, check out Kiri Davis’s film from the link. Thanks for sharing your story, and I’m glad we gave you something to think about.But I don’t think you have been “consistently wrong about everything”; I think you’re right about a lot.

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