The new Ken: what dolls (and characters) have to do with the way that we see ourselves


Recently Mattel gave their Ken doll a makeover – two new body types (slim and broad) over and above the original and according to Time, ‘seven new skin tones and nine new hairstyles, including cornrows, a fade and a man bun.’

Buzzfeed reports that ‘the new, more diverse Barbies Mattel introduced last year reportedly boosted Barbie sales in 2016.’ Even though the company’s drive to create more representative dolls is probably based on profits rather than principle, it’s encouraging to see these changes.

I have two nieces that live here in South Africa and luckily for me, only a block away from where I stay in one of Joburg’s suburbs. Sadly my nephew is far away in Norway and so I don’t get to see him often or spoil him as I should and do with the girls. I’ve always been against gendered toys but I do believe that it’s necessary for both girls and boys to play with dolls and other toys as a way of expressing and exploring their identities and sense of the world.

Last year Christmas time, I was looking for presents. I traipsed from mall to mall and various shopping complexes looking for black dolls that weren’t Barbies. Now, I have nothing against Mattel. In fact I am forever grateful that the first dolls I remember playing with had the same complexion as mine, even if their hair wasn't – my father once returned from a trip to the US with three black Barbies for his daughters.

But I was looking for dolls with hair texture that more closely resembled my nieces and who weren’t standing on tiptoes as if the only shoes women should ever wear are heels.

I myself only went completely natural in I think, 2014, after decades of straightening and perming my hair – I was long embarrassed by it’s thick curliness and even though I love my heels and how sexy and powerful they make me feel, I never want my nieces to feel any pressure to associate beauty or power with limited tropes. 

READ MORE: Grow your fro with these 14 tips that actually work

Anyway, my blood sugar levels dropped too low after the third shop I visited proved fruitless. It was one of the country’s biggest shopping malls and toy stores and I took to Twitter to vent about the lack of a selection of dolls or toys for that matter that properly represent our country’s demographics.

When I finally found a range of Malaville dolls at Toy Kingdom in Sandton City, it was one of the most retweeted and liked posts I’ve ever shared. I know that I’m not the only one who has been frustrated. 

Maite Makgoba, founder of Mommy Pommpy, was inspired to start her toy company when as she told Mpho Raborife from News24 she ‘realised that there were barely any toys in stores which celebrate a black girl’s natural beauty,’ after shopping for her niece.

This year, more frequently, I find myself stumbling into stores where children’s books and toys feature complexions, hair and features that I and my nieces can identify with. If you wonder why this is important, explore your reaction to or the message in the image taken by photographer Chris Buck where a white girl stands in front of rows and rows of black dolls. 

Because all children deserve to see themselves in the books they read

If you still wonder why diversity is so important, imagine never coming across anyone that you can relate to.

How do you form a sense of yourself, a feeling that you are not alone, that you’re a part of a community and that your views, dreams and desires are as important as anyone else’s, that you matter; how do you eliminate stereotypes? How do you get a range of voices to create interesting content? I’m also looking at you advertising agency heads and publishers who wonder why what they are trying to sell or communicate continues to be unsuccessful in certain markets. 

Matau Ramapuputla, a children’s book publisher who runs Bathobela Can and has published a series of books in our eleven official languages about a young girl who grows up with speech difficulties says that it’s rare to find African characters that kids can aspire to. She believes that the only way to improve the way we are represented, is for us to create, write and make brands that reflect us in a positive way.

An international independent publishing company called Lantana Publishing puts it best – ‘Because all children deserve to see themselves in the books they read.’ That goes for dolls, toys, games, TV, billboards, magazines and more. And beyond children, this applies to adults too. 

READ MORE: Why you shouldn't only read books that feature white characters

Contact these entrepreneurs and vendors to get your hands on toys and books that will diversify your current collection:

1. Masebotsana Afro Dolls 

2. Mommpy Pommpy 

3. Malaville Dolls 

4. Ntombenhle Dolls 

5. Bathobela Can 

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.

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