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Face Value: Are you ready to face the truth about doll bigotry?

There’s a lot of bigotry in this world. I’m sure you don’t need to read a doll blog to figure that out, but I am shocked to realize that I, too, am a bigot—and in a completely indefensible way. I’m not a racist or a homophobe or a political ideologue. No, my prejudice is something more insidious, and ingrained really deep inside. I just realized I judge a doll by her appearance, and—this pains me to admit—I favor pretty faces over plain, ordinary ones. I am a doll-mold monster!

Yes, the truth is sometimes hard to take, and this reflection on me is not a flattering one. But when I hold my doll up to a mirror, I want a sunny, stylish, and special visage to stare back at me. It doesn’t matter if time has dropped a few lines, wrinkles, and blemishes on my countenance; I want my dolls never to lose the first blush of beauty.

This all came to a head—pardon the pun—when I discovered the Girls Explore line of dolls http://store.girls-explore.com/badizadoset.html. The New Jersey-based firm has such a laudable mission: they want to encourage girls “to reach for the stars.” As part of their arsenal to do this, they have a line of doll sets that includes a meticulously sculpted doll along with a book that tells the doll’s life story. The characters that are being offered are all real-live women who made a difference: aviator Amelia Earhart, super athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias, freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, and pilot Bessie Coleman, to name a few.

Bessie-ColemanAlexander_small

bessiecolemanaviator_small

What is so noticeable about these dolls is that they have been sculpted to capture the appearances of their famous figures. The dolls are not creampuffs and onetime runway models—no, they actually resemble the heroines they are depicting: flaws and all.

When I was looking at the Babe Zaharias doll and the Amelia Earhart one, I immediately thought about the Hollywood movies that have told these famous women’s tales. In films, Susan Clark has the distinct privilege of playing both Babe and Amelia; Diane Keaton, Amy Adams, and Hilary Swank have portrayed Amelia as well.hilaryandamelia_small All of these actresses had to be “made-down,” as opposed to “made-up,” to fill these roles. Applauded and lionized for their accomplishments, both Babe and Amelia were NOT lookers. The Girls Explore company knows that “looks don’t matter, achievements do,” and they have made dolls that demonstrate that mantra. I know that truth, too—I preach that all the time—but I have to admit, I am perplexed by these dolls.

When I look at their Amelia, I can see that this was a woman who was fearless as she took to the skies.ameliaearhartdoll_small And their rendering of Harriet Tubman is bursting with bravery and dignity. Bessie Coleman, who is less known than the other personages, was the first African-American woman to attain a pilot’s license, and the first woman to receive an international pilot’s license. She opened a flight school to teach other women how to fly, and lobbied to encourage fellow African Americans to overcome poverty and discouragement by literally rising above it all. That sums up the whole notion of “reaching for the stars” beautifully and lyrically.

Why, then, when I look at this lineup of women who made a difference, do I think, “Hmm, too bad they don’t look more like my Gene or Barbie or Tyler dolls?” Why is my first thought: “Will little girls want to play with them? They’re not that attractive.”

Over the years, we’ve all been exposed to dolls that have been garbed as well-known characters. Barbie has been dressed as Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth, Olivia Newton-John and Isaac Newton. (Okay, I’m kidding about Isaac Newton, but she has been decked out as a scientist.) Gene, as a make-believe movie star, had costumes that spanned decades and professions. She was able to dress the part, but did not necessarily “look” the part. How many WACs actually wore eye shadow and lipstick so thick that it could be spotted by B-52s buzzing above? I doubt that many, but Gene went to war with full “war paint” covering her pouty face.

I guess I am a hobby hypocrite. In real life, I am all for being judged on one’s talents and abilities. The idea of the “pretty preference,” which does exist in schools and the workplace, irks me. Why should a person receive inflated grades and undeserved promotions because of a genetic blessing? Why should better DNA translate into an unearned A or B? However, when it comes to dolls, I am much more comfortable with a Bessie Coleman doll that looks more like Halle Berry or Beyoncé. I’m not proud of this; I’m just stating a fact.

It’s ironic that I discovered this company and its offerings now in February, the start of Black History Month. I think about Dr. King and his exhortation to judge others by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin.

I hope I can carry that open-minded viewpoint into my doll-buying life: after all, it would be nice to bring the Mary Cassatt doll home and have her inspire my artistically talented daughter and son. It seems to me, this company has a lot to teach all of us, not just girls. I think we all can reach for the stars, by reaching deeper into our better selves.

What do you think about dolls that dare to stray away from the beautiful and the adorable? Would you buy a doll that is just ordinary or average in her appearance, or are you more inclined to be smitten by the cuter, prettier ones? I’d love to hear. Please share your thoughts below!

Photo Captions:

Caption: Bessie Coleman fought prejudice and earthbound discrimination before she took to the skies and etched out a flight plan for success and self-determination. The ahead-of-her-time entrepreneur has been carefully crafted into a doll by the Girls Explore firm. However, the Alexander Doll Company’s salute to Bessie (an African-American Cissette doll) is more tailored and oh-so glamorous. She is a revisionist delight! [top]

Caption: Oscar winner Hilary Swank portrayed Amelia Earhart in a recent biopic. Other leading ladies like Diane Keaton and Amy Adams have also removed the greasepaint and donned the aviator cap to play this pioneering pilot. [middle]

Caption: Girls Explore is striving to teach young girls that nothing is beyond them. They have launched a doll set of books and figures to open up kids minds and hearts. Amelia Earhart is one of the real-life heroines who have been translated into a toy via this firm. [bottom]





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I am so knocked out by the lively conversation and debate that this column prompted. You all have made such compelling points, and it really shows how difficult it is for an artist to create a doll that can have BOTH aesthetic and educational/historically relevant appeal. Such great viewpoints and insights from everyone!
Stephanie , March 16, 2011
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From the beginning of my sculpting career I have noticed that pretty dolls do seem to sell. I first discovered OOAK Dolls (from polymer clay) on eBay. The first thing I noticed about the category was that everyone was trying to depict beautiful model-like fantasy woman, fairies or elves. Even the male dolls were an image of perfection with their rippling pectorals.
It seemed to me, that the artists who sculpted these images the best, earnt all the money. Unfortunately the beginner sculptors, who couldn't sculpt something to look accurately pretty, simply lost out.

For a while I found myself trying to follow the trend, and it did earn me a fair whack of money. However, the competition for pretty dolls was fierce, and if I hadn't met the challenge perfectly, my dolls would take forever to sell.

I personally decided to go a different route. Instead of sculpting what I thought was high in demand, I put my imagination to the test and sculpted what I felt like. Inevitabley that was ugly fat creatures.
My first ugly piece was a huge fat sea ogre with big gawky teeth, a big gut and man-boobs. He was holding a net with a captured mermaid in it, and a bucket with an ugly...and terrified...sea creature for bait.

Never having made something that ugly before, I wasn't sure how well it was going to do. Especially after the downturn in the economy, I thought I was really risking something. However, I thought maybe there was a chance that someone could see my imagination and originality in the piece, and it would set me apart from the competition.
I posted him up on eBay and to my surprise he was snapped up for nearly $400! This was the 2nd highest price I had ever recieved for a doll! The buyer expressed to me how she thought it was cute and had immediately fallen in love. Wow! O_o
Lately, I sculpted some grossly overweight elves, bare naked in all their flabby glory, and again, they were snapped up for healthy prices.

You have to wonder then, if perhaps, yes, the "pretty" industry is booming but there is an entire market out there that has been left untouched? There are many people out there who are horrified at how the world has become so focused on beauty. But maybe they need something that touches them personally to trigger that sale.

Perhaps with these character dolls, it's not so much the lack of beauty that is the problem, but the lack of connection with it.

With my recent dolls, I have been told they love the humour in it, or they struggle with obecity themselves, or it looks like their uncle (I hope they don't tell their uncle that) etc. Everyone who has emailed me about my fat dolls have drawn some sort of connection to it.

Maybe this is the real deciding factor in selling dolls.
Amanda DeVirgilio , March 01, 2011 | url
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I think the thing we're missing here is that the point and purpose of dolls and doll making is perfection.we buy dolls so that we can gaze apon it. we make dolls in an attempt to describe it.That's why plain dolls strike an odd note but we can seldom put a finger on what it is.In an imperfect world why would we want an imperfect doll too? In an imperfect world we want to be able to tell ourselves the story of a character who is virtuous(or not), strong(or yeilding), smart, loving,adventurous, innocent,the damsel and the heroine,physically strong but delicately beautiful, cunning and alluring too: Perfect.
monine , February 12, 2011 | url
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Is it bigotry, or is it just those particular dolls? The Babe Didrickson doll looks like a younger Robin Williams and Mary Cassatt looks like my mother-in-law! True to life or no, those particular dolls are just not appealing. The accessories are blah and I'm not impressed by the costuming especially, and these promotional pictures are just awful. I showed them to a friend's 7 year old daughter, and she didn't declare them ugly, she declared them boring: "They can't be anybody else, so I couldn't pretend they are. They don't have clothes for when they're not doing the golfing or the plane." The play value is sorely lacking. For collectors-- well, really, no play value there, either, except as nrfb oddities in a box in a closet.
Charlie Riley , February 04, 2011
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I think judging people and judging dolls are two separate issues. Dolls ONLY have "outsides" to be judged by. History's heros (human beings) have their own personalities, temperament, history, beliefs, accomplishments, etc.

It's still interesting to think about, though, because yes, doll collectors want dolls that are appealing to them. Fortunately, people's tastes vary enough that one collector's "ugly duckling" may be another collector's "cutie." We all still manage to shop, shop, shop, and add dolls to our collections! smilies/smiley.gif smilies/smiley.gif
Diana , February 03, 2011 | url
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Cute sells. Pretty sells. Dolls are a sort of i wannabe like that, i think. Action figures now thats a bit different LOL and guys dont have to be pretty to sell. Rather than an Amelia Earhart replica, makes more sense to me to do what American Girl and Barbie do, which is tell the story but have a doll that dresses like the heroine but not have to BE the heroine. How many girls are going to want to play with a female golfer doll? BUt they might want their doll to play golf...
frankie , February 03, 2011
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You're right. It's the ugly truth of buying anything in this world. If something is pretty, it's more appealing.

I guess these dolls are fighting an uphill battle. Maybe the books and autobiography are more important than the doll appearances? They've all been discounted at the website.
Jeannie Pierrete , February 02, 2011
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Cute sells better than ugly. If I have to look at something I want it to be pretty, or at least cool.. or intriguing in some way to me. Something or someone I would like to look like.
Think about the old dolls even. Some of the rarest dolls are the ugly ones. Peter bears, were "too scary" for kids... now they are one of the most sought after bears by certain collectors.... myself included.
Pretty sells... look at the magazines. They are not full of average people. They are full of beautiful or unusual looking people. I think with dolls it's the same thing.
Melanie
Melanie Clark , February 02, 2011 | url

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