When my now teenage daughter was very little, she had a collection of Barbies. In addition to the standard issue blondes (she had at least a dozen), there were dolls with dark hair and several with dark skin. She paired these "mommies" with Kelly doll "sweeties." And she did so with seemingly no sense that the race of the mother had to match the race of the child. So white Barbies had black babies, and black Barbies had white babies. It was one big global village, and I loved how color blind she was.
Oh, and she had maybe three Ken dolls too. (Suffice it to say, the "daddies" must have been very busy in a polygamous Big Love kind of way. Fortunately, we never really had to have a conversation about that. The whole Barbie/Ken/Kelly phase was over long before my daughter began to understand any of the ... shall we say ... mechanics.)
Soon after the Mattel dolls were retired to a set of colorful canvas drawers, we headed into American Girl territory. On our frequent visits to New York, we made pilgrimages to Fifth Avenue's American Girl Place. There, we browsed through five floors of clever if overpriced merchandise. We saw The American Girl Revue and ate at the American Girl Cafe. One winter, her doll even got a custom coif at the American Girl Hair Salon. (You can't make this stuff up.) Typically, we left with three new outfits: the one my mother liked, the one I liked, and the one my daughter herself liked.
As a marketer, I was invariably awed by American Girl's brilliant strategy and flawless execution. Their customer service was top notch and flowed seamlessly into incremental sales. During one visit, my daughter was looking for a particular character's dog (the dolls all have back stories, complete with truckloads of merchandise) and she was sad to learn that it was sold out. The sales associate acknowledged her disappointment and smoothly explained that each of the characters has a dog and why didn't they look at some of the others. My daughter trotted off happily with him and, sure enough, we went home with a dog. (And a goat too, if my memory serves.)
Still, despite all the conspicuous consumption, I always recognized a couple of redeeming features where American Girl was involved. First, all of the historic dolls as well as the American Girls of Today, had companion books. We enjoyed reading each series, based on historic events, educational and surprisingly well-written: turn of the century Samantha, colonial Felicity, escaped slave Addy, southwestern Josephina. And, second, there was a real focus on inclusion. In addition to gymnastics outfits, riding habits and ball gowns, you could buy wheelchairs, crutches and guide dogs. This was a refreshing change from Barbie's usual pink perfection and ... um ... pie-in-the-sky proportions.
This week, a good friend (and fellow teenage girl's mom) sent me a story about a new doll named Lammily. Lammily is being billed as the "normal Barbie," a doll that better approximates a real body — complete with optional scars, acne and cellulite.
(Between you and me, I don't need a doll with cellulite, thank you very much. I have my own.)
Anyway, this "realistic doll" is the creation of artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm. When he posed the question "What if fashion dolls were made using standard human body proportions?" the response was swift and enthusiastic. Using online crowdsourcing, he attracted more than 13,000 backers and presold more than 19,000 dolls. The first edition doll (a caucasian brunette, shorter and more athletic-looking than Barbie) is available now. The company plans to introduce different ethnic characters and body types soon.
In the past, when Mattel has been pressured to alter their flagship amazon to better represent an actual human female, they've resisted, citing sales pressure. The implication is that the public wants those idealized features, those perpetually high-heeled feet. It was refreshing, then, to see a video of second-graders react to the new doll. I doubt Barbie will ever go away (or even gain five pounds), but it's nice to see an alternative that appears to have a real shot at success.
I wish Lammily had arrived ten years ago. My daughter gave away most of her Barbies, and even the American Girls now live in a forgotten playroom cubby under the eaves. We've moved on to horses and concerts and high school. There's no reason for me to buy one for her now.
Then again ... I do have a young niece.
And Christmas is coming.
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