One of the few items on the Christmas list of Emily Noreen’s 4-year-old daughter is a doll she can call her own.
“I want her to have something preferably that looks like her, which is hard because their father is African-American and I’m white,” said Noreen, a 35-year-old Minneapolis resident. “There’s not a whole lot in her complexion.”
So she was heartened to find more than one option in the Our Generation line, a less-expensive alternative to American Girl, while perusing the toy aisles of Target. After some deliberation, she picked out a doll named Nahla, whose skin color is a bit darker than her daughter’s but whose curly hair was pretty close.
As consumers finish up their holiday shopping in the coming weeks, they will find a markedly more diverse selection of dolls to choose from at big-box stores.
In addition to Nahla, Target now carries more than 20 racially diverse dolls in the Our Generation line with names such as Valencia, Suyin and Anaya and who have a wide range of skin tones, hair textures and eye colors. Target recently doubled its number of multicultural dolls so they now make up a third of all characters in its Our Generation lineup. The selection varies by store, but the full range is available online.
The Our Generation brand, carried exclusively at Target at mass retail in addition to specialty stores, has become one of Target’s bestselling toy brands. The Minneapolis-based company has tripled the shelf space for the dolls in about 20 stores this holiday season and plans to roll out a bigger display in more stores next year.
The appetite for the brand, said Mark Tritton, Target’s chief merchandising officer, is a testament to the diversity of the retailer’s customer base.
“It reflects the multicultural nature of our guest,” he said. “Letting a girl find herself in a doll is really important.”
In the past, parents often had to search out web-based start-ups or boutique toy stores for such products. Meanwhile, mainstream retailers often carried a token handful of diverse options among a sea of white dolls, many of them with blond hair and blue eyes. But as major corporations are recognizing the huge consumer appetite for more, the variety on the shelves has started to explode.
Richard Barry, chief merchandising officer for Toys ‘R’ Us, said the changes in the toy aisles are happening as toymakers and retailers alike are finally listening to customers’ demands for more diversity.
“We hear from customers,” he said. “We get applauded on the things we have, but they are also very keen to tell us the things we don’t or the things they would like us to have. We feed that back to our manufacturing partners.”
The need for more multicultural options was one of the insights Toys ‘R’ Us took to heart when developing its own private-label line of dolls called Journey Girls. First launched in 2010 with four dolls, it has now expanded to seven dolls of all shades.
While a spokeswoman said the blond-haired, blue-eyed doll is the most popular, Barry said the racially diverse offerings across many brands have been selling well, giving manufacturers more confidence to do even more. You can see it, he said, in the success of Hasbro’s Baby Alive dolls.
“A key driver of the success of that brand this year has been diversity and ethnicities,” he said. “Hasbro has always had the blue-eyed, blond-haired Baby Alive doll. In adding other ethnicities, they’ve seen demand for that line significantly increase. It’s definitely working.”
Toys ‘R’ Us also recently started carrying American Girl’s Truly Me collection in select stores — which includes dozens of dolls of all shades, eye colors and hairstyles, including one without hair and that come with accessories such as crutches, diabetes kits and wheelchairs.
American Girl added another black character to its lineup of historical dolls this summer, a girl who grows up in civil rights-era Detroit.
Earlier this year, Wal-Mart also expanded the range of skin colors and hairstyles in its My Life As and My Sweet Love doll collections, including even adding an 18-inch boy doll, a first for a mass retailer, said spokeswoman Danit Marquardt.
There also are two new Disney princesses this year, joining Elsa and Ariel. Products featuring Elena of Avalor, who is Latina, and Moana, a Hawaiian heroine, are a common site on shelves this holiday.
Barbie, who set an unrealistic standard of beauty for generations of little girls, received a major makeover earlier this year. Mattel, which had seen sales of its flagship brand faltering for years, hoped to make Barbie more relevant with a new Fashionistas line with dolls that come in with seven different skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. She was also finally given more realistic body proportions and comes in three sizes — curvy, petite and tall. The changes have helped Barbie get her groove back with sales on the rise this year.
“It’s doing extremely well,” said Jim Silver, editor of toy review site TTPM. “It’s one — if not the — hottest segment of Barbie.”
He added that it’s meaningful that Mattel has refrained from labeling the new Barbies, but instead has given them a range of skin tones and eye colors — just as people often don’t label baseball superstar Derek Jeter, who is biracial.
“As this country is forged in more mixed marriages and more different ethnic background getting married, you can’t label anymore,” he said. “Everybody looks different.”
Anthonia Akitunde, editor-in-chief of Mater Mea, a website focused on women of color, remembers her excitement when American Girl introduced Addy Walker in 1990s, the brand’s first black character. Even though she couldn’t afford one, it was still a special moment for her.
“I was excited to see someone with brown skin,” she said. “She had a gap [in her teeth] and I had a gap. There was something comforting in seeing a doll who on the surface level looks like me.”
These days, she sees her Facebook newsfeed light up whenever there are new launches of other racially diverse dolls. She recalled the buzz for example about Naturally Perfect Dolls, which are primarily sold online and celebrate kinky and curly hair as an alternative to black dolls with straight hair.
Still, she hears about fights in the toys aisles when daughters want a white doll while the mothers insist on getting a black doll.
“If all she’s seeing is Elsa and this long braid, it’s hard to counter that messaging,” Akitunde said.
Stacey McBride-Irby has begun to see a cultural shift. She grew up playing with white Barbies, which inspired her to go to work at Mattel. She worked there for 15 years, designing a line of So In Style Barbies in 2009 with four different skin tones and fuller noses and lips compared to the previous black Barbies who were basically identical to the white versions.
She left Mattel several years ago to start her own diverse line called Prettie Girls! dolls, which come with a South Asian, East Asian, Hispanic, African, African-American and white character. Wal-Mart has started carrying it. In fact, she said, it was the nation’s largest retailer that approached her at a toy fair.
“Consumers have been voicing their opinion, and fortunately the retailers and manufacturers are finally listening,” she said. “And consumers are finally purchasing the dolls they’re crying out for.”
It’s a reflection, too, that the notion of beauty is much broader today, a message that is hitting home as more diverse models and actresses become more common.
“It’s not just a mom telling a little girl that black is beautiful, but they can see it on the TV or in a magazine,” she said.
Or in a doll.