A few weeks ago, my mom went shopping for a Christmas gift for a very young cousin of mine. This cousin is very fond of dolls, so my mom set out on what should have been a completely unremarkable, straightforward mission.
It started out that way. She had only to drive to the nearest Toys "R" Us and follow the hot pink glow to its source.
But when she arrived at the doll aisle, she was disturbed by what she found.
"Do you know what dolls look like?" she asked me the next day.
"Um," I said. "Is this a trick question?"
"Do you remember what they look like?" We hadn't spent time in the doll section since I was 10 or so.
"OK," I said, playing along, "There are two basic types: baby and Barbie."
"And their hair?"
"Yes! It's all blond!"
This was the thing that caught her off guard. Almost every doll she saw was blond. A few were brunettes, and even fewer could be identified as anything other than Caucasian. The ones that weren't babies looked like they were about to go clubbing. They were all trying to seduce some non-existent male doll (let's hope it wasn't the popular Justin Bieber doll). Their breasts were very prominent, and very perky.
It used to be that way, too. When I was very young, Mom bought me Barbie-sized dolls with small breasts and proportional eyes and flat feet. She found baby boy dolls. She must've worked pretty hard at it. I wanted dolls, and I had them, but they didn't look the ones my friends had. I preferred brown hair, anyway.
The thing is, nothing has changed.
"Something must have changed," I said. I mean, I've seen a few black and Latina Barbies, and kind of get the sense that toy companies might be trying to be more inclusive. Maybe I just spent too much doll-time with American Girl, which makes a huge effort to go beyond blond.
"No," she said.
"Well, you were at Toys 'R' Us," I said.
She told me that she'd gone to three more toy stores after it. She was indignant and determined. One of the stores was in a majority black area. But the dolls stayed blond.
And beyond that, there were no science kits in the girl section of any of the stores. She had to go to the boy section to find those. And when she found them, they featured oozing slime and pictures of "mad scientists."
"Science is actually fun," she said, a little defensively. "Why do they think they have to make it gross so it will be interesting?"
Why do they think they have to make dolls white and blond to make them interesting? Personally, I'm bored just thinking about the way these dolls look.
But I'm anything but bored by the fact that they dominate the market.
So what did my little cousin end up with?
"I got her a plastic horse." Girls love horses, too, right? It came with a rider doll. "She looked normal," said mom. "She didn't have those big breasts." Well, that's something.
Note: I went to the Toys "R" Us website, and they have a search category called "ethnic dolls." So maybe shopping online is always the better option?
Additional note: I know this is pushing it, but I'd like to see a doll with really, really dark skin, and more recognizably ethnic features. Or an Asian doll. A Korean-American doll... A Guatemalan-American doll... I'm just fantasizing now.