Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Black Mama’s Interactive Guide to Shopping for Dolls for Christmas: The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie


In December, a Black Mama's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of celebrating Christmas. What will have the kids dancing with joy in the living room on Christmas morning and reassure Mama that she is affirming their wonderfulness and instilling good values? And eschewing rampant consumerism? And minimizing Santa? And not forgetting Jesus?

I make my list and check it twice:

_xx__Make sure girls know that Christmas is more about giving than getting.

_xx__Make sure girls know that Mommy and Daddy's hard-earned money buy their gifts (with one magical exception from Santa, per child).

_xx__Be joyful.

_xx__Dust off the collection of crèches and arrange festively.

_xx__Cuddle up with girls on the couch to read picture books about the Virgin Birth. Try (and fail) to avoid answering, "Didn't Joseph have a penis?"

_____Search for dolls which are not voluptuous and strip-club-ready, and which do not promote a blonde, blue-eyed standard of beauty.

This last item always stumps me whenever I shop for dolls, which is not often. My daughters, ages 3 and 8, are not big fans of dolls. They play with dolls, but they also play with dirty laundry, crumpled tinfoil balls, and empty Kleenex boxes. Still, old habits die hard. I enjoyed a special bond with my own dolls as a kid, and I imagine my girls having the same. I spent hours and hours managing my dolls' educations and social lives, not to mention their ever-changing hairstyles. Dolls were my friends as well as a microcosm of the world I struggled to navigate as a bookish only child.

My doll collection included battery-powered babies who crawled, cooed when you fed them and snored quietly in their sleep, and busty Barbies, in two flavors, black and white. The black Barbies were just white girls dipped in chocolate, and the white ones inspired me and countless other black girls to wrap white towels around our heads, longing for flowing blonde locks and fair skin. We gravitated toward the white Barbies because our adoration of Farrah Fawcett's character on Charlie's Angels tipped the scales in their favor, and against ours. "Jill Munroe" embodied all that was beautiful and desirable, all that we were not, in the Gospel according to TV. Today, I choose books, magazines, DVDs, and toys for my girls that spread the good news that blondes really don't have more fun, that black kids are cute, smart, and have adventures too.

With that in mind, I have surveyed the current doll landscape, and created the following interactive guide for Black Mamas, or any Mama who faces the doll dilemma:

The Good...

1. I "heart" The Only Hearts Club product line. This collection of dolls, clothing, accessories, and books features "real dolls for real girls," soft and poseable, wearing age-appropriate clothing. Taylor, age 8, already owns two of these. Both are currently missing their shoes, and one got a haircut from Peyton that is truly ahead of its time. But at least they aren't collecting dust like so many stuffed animals we own.

2. "Funky, awesome, totally fabulous!" That may well be, but what's with the freakishly chunky feet on the Groovy Girls? Fortunately, that's the worst I can say about this line of over 140 brightly- and fashionably-dressed dolls that are "all about individualism, diversity, friendship and learning."

3. A black mother I know wanted a baby doll that looked like her daughter--light-skinned, with kinky, reddish hair and blue eyes. Mattel hasn't quite jumped on the "shades of black" bandwagon, so she had a doll made at Just send a photo of your child, specify skin tone, eye color, hair color, texture, and length, and special details such as freckles and birthmarks, and for about $150, your child's own personal Mini-Me will arrive in 3-4 weeks. I like the MyTwinn concept in theory. In practice, it's a bit too Stepford for my taste.

The Bad...

The Bratz aren't the only scantily-clad line of dolls on the market, but they appear to be the most heavily marketed, heavily made up and well-known among the pre-teen girl set. Each time I clicked a link on the official Bratz homepage, a sparkling mauve note asked me to "Please takes time to look this good." With fear and trembling, I clicked on "Bratz Babyz" and "Bratz Kidz." These turned out to be more appropriately dressed than the regular Bratz, but still coquettish about the eyes and apparently done up by Joan Crawford's former make-up artist. I have successfully indoctrinated Taylor against the Bratz: "They are showing off their bodies because they think they don't have anything else going for them." Atta, girl!

I do give the Bratz reluctant multi-culti points. With skin tones ranging from pale to deep mocha, the product line is at least a better reflection of the real-world than say the current Administration's Cabinet and the Supreme Court. But such a broad offering exists primarily to boost sales, not because the Bratz parent company, MGA Entertainment, cares about girls' self-esteem. If they did, visitors leaving the Bratz site would not read: "Until next time. Take Care. Keep It Real. And above all else BE BEAUTIFUL!"

I'm as big a fan of beauty as the next Mama. Just not above all else.

The Barbie...

Oh, where to begin.

From the Google listing, I choose: "Barbie Model of the Moment Collection & Best Models" . This site features "Pretty Young Thing" Marisa, Nichelle the "Urban Hipster" and models representing Milan, South Beach,, Shopping. There seems to be something different about these dolls, besides the even-more-blank-than-usual stare. I'm not 100% sure, so I ask a Mama-friend who confirms it: These dolls are thinner than the already-anatomically-impossible regular Barbies. The site text even boasts: "With a statuesque new [ModelMuse] body sculpt articulating the elongated stance of a true model, these exquisite beauties encapsulate the modern spirit of style."

In the real-world, true models call this ModelMuse "anorexia."

...and finally, This Year's Winners! has designed the Harriet Tubman "Moses of Her People" Doll Set and the Bessie Coleman "Soaring Over Prejudice and Chauvinism" Doll Set. Each doll is dressed in a period outfit and comes with a biography. The Tubman Set comes with a pouch that the child can carry, the kind of pouch Tubman used to carry food, water, and supplies on the Underground Railroad. The Coleman Set comes with a blank "Pilot's Log" journal for the child, similar to Coleman's when she became the first black woman to receive a pilot's license and the first woman to receive an international pilot's license in 1921, after she learned French to enroll in flight school in France because the American ones refused to train her.

By defying death to emancipate slaves, and blazing a trail through the sky, respectively, Harriet Tubman and Bessie Coleman are the ultimate action figures. They might not immediately conjure up the most playful images, but if my Cher Barbie could scale tall buildings with her retractable hair back in the day, then why can't Harriet Tubman and Bessie Coleman do the Cha Cha Slide? At the risk of being guilty of conspicuous consumption, I almost ordered these in bulk to give to every little girl I know, random girls I might meet on the playground, and any child who might forget how to soar.

But alas, for my girls I only bought two, one of each. This Black Mama's bank account is not as thoughtful and socially concerned as she is. 'Tis the season to be conscious...and practical.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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Oh cool! Thanks for doing the research. I'm probably too late for Christmas this year but I'll keep them in mind for the future. I'm hoping my daughter can add some of these to her Indian sari Barbie (brought back from India, but I believe they sell them in duty-free shops too..yes, some Barbies have redeeming value).
Hi, Valerie! Thanks for stopping by and for the head's up on the Indian sari Barbie...who knew???
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