Dolls Are Us

Intro from Kay

Being an only child meant I spent a lot of time in the world of dolls and I had many over the years. Barbie was never on my radar, she was a little too ‘cheerleader-esque’ for a little Brit like me, and Sindy (the British equivalent) seemed frumpy. My favourite doll as a girl was Daisy, a real ‘doll du jour’. Designed by Mary Quant, Daisy was a gorgeous blonde whose hair (which if you brushed out went into a strange sideways Afro hybrid) formed one very large curl all the way around her head. I liked Daisy because she had a fabulous wardrobe and seemed like a cool and independent young lady, neither innapropriately sex-toy looking like Barbie, or a housewife like Sindy..

But I was never going to look like Daisy. She was very fair-skinned, had highly styleable, long blonde hair and impossibly long, skinny thighs.Daisy Dolls


 There were no dolls that looked like me. Were there any that looked like you?

So let’s discuss dolls.

Barbie – the world’s most popular doll and female icon for so many little girls – was born in March 1959 and came in both blonde and brunette hair and was the first doll to have an adult, not infant’s, appearance. Ruth Handler, the woman behind the creation of Barbie (named after her daughter, Barbara) was actually the wife of one of the co-founders of the Mattel toy company which produced the doll. Since then over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries and Mattel claim three are sold every second.

Mattel has created a range of friends for Barbie over the years including redhead Midge, Hispanic Teresa, African-American Christie (first introduced in 1967/68) and Christie’s boyfriend, Steven. In later years, Barbie made her first Asian friend, Kira Wang, in 1990 and then Nikki, another African American friend in 1996. Barbie has also had a host of jobs over the decades (around 130) including space explorer, presidential candidate (serving as the ‘B Party’ candidate!) and computer engineer.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mattel pushed out a targeted advertising campaign specifically for the hispanic and african-american dolls in a bid to allow ‘ethnic Barbie lovers to dream in their own image’.

Over in Africa, the dolls outselling Barbie in Nigeria however, is Queens of Africa,

Queens Of Africa

Queens Of Africa

a trio of girls modelled on three of the country’s tribes. Founder Taofick Okoya, created the dolls to help create a positive influence on his daughter’s childhood, after she once wished to be white.

“It made me aware that I needed to make her proud and happy being a black African girl, and not limit it to her alone as this was a common trend among the younger generation. The Queens of Africa became a platform to achieve this.”

In 2016, after years of debate about Barbie’s unrealistic body shape, she got a makeover with three new body types: petite, tall and curvy. This news was released by Time magazine with the cover image showing the new ‘curvy’ Barbie.


More serious than child’s play.

In the 1940s African-American psychologists Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie conducted a study on children’s attitudes about race through dolls. Black children in the study were given white and black dolls and then asked which dolls were “good,” “bad,” “nice,” and “mean.” The majority – 63% – said they’d rather play with the white doll and associated positive qualities with the white dolls and negative qualities with the black ones.

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone”.

Eve Arnold in her 1968 book Black is Beautiful, shot a factory in Harlem where black dolls were being produced.

Eve Arnold in her 1968 book Black is Beautiful, shot a factory in Harlem where black dolls were being produced.



60 years later a professor Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African American studies and women, gender, and sexuality, revisited the Clark study. He thought the study’s results were not necessarily a reflection of self-hatred among black children but reflected a negative portrayal of black culture in American media. In theatre and TV they were subjected to ‘servitude or comic violence’ which sent messages to children that they should play with black and white dolls differently. He also noted white children in the 19th and 20th century were often violent and abusive to their black dolls but were punished by parents if they did the same to their white dolls. He thought the notion that one doll should be loved and cherished and the other physically harassed was a reflection of culture and popular media at the time.


“Malaville is a place of stunning beauty, where everyone is welcome to play”

So delighted to stumble upon Malaville Dolls on Instagram recently which inspired this post. 

Mala Bryan

Mala Bryan

Tell us about how you chose their distinctive looks?

“I chose the skin tones from Pantone color charts and choose different browns for the eyes. Only my fashion model doll required makeup but I still wanted to keep it looking natural. I wanted their natural beauty to shine. I gave one doll a beauty mark near her nose (like I have) and another some freckles just to change their looks a bit. Then I chose the hair fibers from kinky curls to a loose curl.”
“The clothing had to go with each doll’s personality and career. Maisha’s name means life and part of my Ma’lavi’lle logo spells out LAVI which also means life in my Creole language, so I decided to have that on a t-shirt for her with some cool pants, it felt fitting as she’s a fashion stylist.
“For Mala, I made her a sweatshirt with my personal MB logo on it. I usually wear mine whenever I travel. I paired that with some shorts and sneakers because that was my favorite way to dress when I was a teenager. My girlfriend chose the dress that Malina is wearing. From a business point of view, a princess dress is a must. And I wanted a nice, smart but still girly look, so Mhina ended up getting that look.
“I made the package to look like a suitcase, with passport stamps and baggage tags, as I felt like the dolls have been on a wonderful journey with me and I wanted them to continue on to a great journey with their new owners. So they had to be packaged for travel.”

Why is a diverse representation in the dolls children play with important?

“I believe that diverse representation is extremely important because children tend to associate their dolls with their playmate. Parents can usually tell how their children are interacting with their friends by observing how they play with their dolls. So if a doll does not have the same skin color of that child or their friend, imagine the confusion it causes. Lots of adults talk about the sizes of the dolls as well but most times kids comment on the hair of a doll and the color, so I made that my focus to start. Everything else will come after.”Malaville-dolls-2-600x478

What inspired you to create Malaville Dolls?

“I went shopping for toys to give away to some children back in my hometown in St Lucia but had a very tough time finding black/brown ones. So I ended up buying only white barbies, this bothered me a tiny bit as I wanted to give the children dolls that were more relevant for them. As far as I can remember it didn’t affect me negatively having white dolls growing up but I made note we are living in a different time now – children nowadays are exposed more to race so the idea of making my own was born. However my modelling career got busy again and I put the idea aside.

“Then I started growing my Barbie doll collection again but could not find affordable curly haired black/brown dolls. There are lots of adult doll collectors who re-root black Barbie dolls with more natural hair but they are usually quite expensive. So the urge to make some affordable black/brown dolls with Afro/curly hair became stronger. If there is something that I want and I cannot find it as I want it, I will find a way to make it myself and that is how my dolls came to be.”

Who do you envisage buying and playing with your dolls?

“My target audience is both adults and children. Adults who want their inner child to come out to play. Children of all races. Black children with Afro/curly hair should be able to have dolls that they can relate to and children of other races should be able to have diversity in their doll collection.”

What impact do you want Malaville Dolls to have?

“I want my dolls to have an impact on the citizens of the world, not just in Africa. I believe that even the Dollie world needs diversity. For adults, I would love them to be able to play with the dolls and feel stressful situations disappear and for them to be able to connect with their inner child, that is something I believe is very important.
For children, I love the fact that finally I’ve been able to create a doll that many young black and brown girls can relate to and many children of other races can now have a black and brown doll to add to their collection. The dolls were created for everyone, both young and old, black and white, brown and yellow.”


One thought on “Dolls Are Us

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  1. Arana

    Hi Kay/Thandie,

    I just found out about your blogsite from Mala Bryan’s Malaville dolls FB page. I too want to talk about dolls.

    I am an adult doll collector, and I have been into dolls ever since I was a little girl. When I was little back in the late 70s and early 80s, there were no dolls that looked like me. Now, I had baby dolls and Barbie dolls who were both black and white, and I played with dolls of both races equally. I didn’t collect them when I became a teenager and when I was in college because I was too busy with school. I got back into collecting Barbies after I had graduated from college, and then discovered that Mattel was producing Barbie dolls who looked like me (the black dolls with light skin). I really loved those dolls because I felt they were a reflection of how I perceive myself to be. I later discovered the Robert Tonner doll collection in the mid 2000’s and didn’t really get into collecting those dolls until about 3 1/2 years ago. I really fell in love with the Jac doll and ended up acquiring a handsome fashion doll collection from the Tonner line. I am really pleased that there are dolls nowadays that are being made to target the audience of girls and women of African descent who are a variety of skin tones. Mala Bryan’s collection is reaching out well to this consumer base in my opinion…and I already bought all 4 of her dolls and have added them to my collection. I also just bought a Springfield doll (Madison) recently that I absolutely love because she looks just like me!

    I think girls and adult collectors are fortunate to have a wider selection of dolls to choose from nowadays, in contrast to the array of dolls that were on the market 30 years ago. In having observed the doll test and children’s learned attitudes towards race from that test, it would be interesting to eventually see if the attitudes of children of this millenial age will have changed over time because there are a wider variety of dolls that are out on the market.

    April 3, 2016 at 5:12 am

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