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Toymakers get real with dolls of diversity

Laurie Wickey plans to fulfill her daughter's Christmas wish list with the latest American Girl doll and book set. The doll, Rebecca Rubin, is Jewish with a back story set in 1914 New York.

Laurie is white, her husband, Matt, is Korean-American, and their children, Anna, 7, and Stephanie, 4, are both. For Wickey, therein lies the beauty.

"It's a way to help her connect with a culture that's different in time and in religious background from what she has," Laurie Wickey said. "So she broadens her own understanding of the world, and to me it's a great thing."

These days American Girl is not the only brand to appreciate the perspective of parents like Wickey. The doll aisle has seen an explosion this year in products that come in different hues and ethnicities, boast story lines that include interests in sports and music and promote individuality and friendship.


A leap from boys' toys
The Toronto-based Spin Master Inc., known as a major player in boys' toys, made its leap into the fierce doll competition with its Liv dolls this fall.

MGA Entertainment, the Van Nuys, Calif.-based company that lost the rights to its popular Bratz dolls to Mattel, wasted little time introducing its Moxie Girlz line, and Mattel also introduced its black fashion dolls called So In Style.

"Many of these dolls are tying into girls' desire for personalization and customization," said Reyne Rice, toy trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association. "It's a delicate balance. They want to be like everybody else in the realm of acceptability, but they want to be unique."

Toy makers say they have created their new dolls to appeal to all the traditional play patterns for girls in the 6- to 10-year-old range, but industry experts say they have given these dolls a dose of realism.

"Barbie was always aspirational," said Jonathan Samet, publisher of The Toy Insider, a consumer toy guide. "You could be an astronaut, teacher, anything you want, but when you looked at Barbie - a perfect blonde, 36-22-34 - she could be anything you wanted to be but she didn't look like anyone you actually knew."

Being real is an important goal, said Harold Chizick, a spokesman for Spin Master Inc., which makes Liv Dolls.

"We all don't look the same, so why should we make our dolls that way?"

MGA Entertainment was striving for a bit of realism as well as a mode for girls to express their individuality in Moxie Girlz and Best Friends Club Ink (BFC Ink.), two doll lines with more modest teen clothing styles and features reflecting a melting pot of ethnicities.


Options for different ages
Parents said they like dolls with an educational element, but what children want varies and changes at different ages, they said. And they like that their children have more options.

"For little girls, at least now they have a choice and can choose something different and out of the norm," said Jonie Williams, 34, of Huntington. She is black, and her husband is white.

Their daughter looks for many other features in a doll and uses each for specific types of play, Williams said. Kaylynn, 7, asked for a Moxie Girlz doll because it comes with an extra head and hair she can style, her mother said. She has tea parties for her American Girl dolls.

Liza Burby, editor and publisher of Long Island Parent magazine, found that a doll's skin color made little difference to her daughters, now 15 and 19. Her girls, who are white, had black Barbies and white dolls and played with them as one family. Her girls were also fans of the American Girl series because of their empowering stories.

"Every girl in the [American Girl] series has to make important ethical decisions, and she does it with the support of her family and friends, as opposed to Barbie, which is about accessories," Burby said. "As a parent I succumbed to both."

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