How red locs on The Little Mermaid shows the ways dolls move from mere representation to authenticity
Dolls aren’t just playthings. They tell a story about how children see themselves.
When the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid was released in theaters recently, there was a predictable, if disheartening, reaction from people upset that the title role was portrayed by a young Black woman. (Because, in real life, uh, cartoon mermaids are never Black?) Overshadowed by that predictable paroxysm of racism was an interesting development in the toy aisle.
To accompany the movie’s release, Disney and Mattel produced a series of dolls made in the likeness of the actress who took on the role of Ariel, Halle Bailey, right down to the head full of red locs cascading down her back.
It’s a small detail, but also one more step in decades of innovations to authentically showcase Blackness in children’s toys.
“I see Black dolls as historical objects,” said Sabrina Thomas, a dean at Duke University whose research focuses on material culture and childhood. “They provide a visual narrative of Black history in America by their presentation, not only their hair, but their coloring, their clothing, their presentation, and how that has evolved over time.”
Thomas’ collection of 900 dolls spans from 1900 to the present day. “When you think about the earliest Black dolls, they were [created] by Black people,” said Thomas. There are few remaining examples of those handmade dolls or rag dolls because their materials deteriorate over time.
There was little movement toward manufacturing Black dolls in the U.S. until after the famous doll choice study by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. The study was first performed in New York City in the 1930s, and an NAACP team suing to end school segregation asked the Clarks to repeat their study in the South in the 1940s. In a series of experiments, Black children were asked to choose between white and Black dolls. Most of the children not only preferred the white doll but attributed positive attributes to its skin color.
“[The study] catapulted the doll as an object into the consciousness of America as an everyday object that speaks to our racial anxieties in the sense that we can extrapolate children’s understanding of themselves as racial beings and their place in the world,” Thomas said.
“I think it gave a new level of consciousness to the object itself, but we’re still not talking about mastering representation.”
Representation started with two dolls: the Patty-Jo and the Saralee. The Patty-Jo, which was sold from 1947 to 1949, was based on a character created by cartoonist Jackie Ormes, whose work appeared in the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.
“In mid-20th century America, most black dolls represented stereotypes, like mammies, dolls advertised as ‘piccaninnies,’ and raggedy little boys and girls,” reads Ormes’ website. “Jackie Ormes said, ‘No more … Sambos … Just KIDS!’ and she transformed her attractive, spunky Patty-Jo cartoon character into the first upscale American black doll.”
The Saralee, made by the Ideal Toy Corp., was in production from 1951 to 1953. A color jury that included political scientist Ralph Bunche and author Zora Neale Hurston came together to determine the appropriate skin tone for the doll.
Thomas noted that Saralee is significant in doll history because this was the first time the White House got involved in doll production. Ideal agreed to produce the doll after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for it.
But the company viewed the project mostly as a publicity stunt. The doll’s debut was featured in Life magazine, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. It seems commonplace to think about marketing a doll like this now, but it was unheard of at the time.
Interestingly, Patty-Jo was more popular than Saralee. “I believe it’s because Saralee came out as an actual race doll, if you will,” Thomas said. “They were both Black, but the Saralee doll is making a political statement, and the Ideal Toy Corp. wasn’t that invested in her.”
“Saralee just had so much fanfare around her,” said Thomas. “A Black doll had never been produced with that amount of celebrity or political backing but Ideal didn’t didn’t promote her after that. But Patty-Jo, who’s around the same time, she’s very popular and what Patty-Jo did for Black dolls, I believe that she’s one of the first Black dolls that actually said Black people can be solidly middle-class.”
These dolls appealed to upwardly mobile Black folks looking to impart the idea to their children that, in a phrase that would become more prominent in the Sixties, Black is beautiful. It’s at this point that dolls stopped being simply playthings and became a symbol of progress.
Patty-Jo was advertised as having “playable hair, and the finest and most extensive wardrobe on the market, with all manner of dresses, formals, shoes, hats, nightgowns, robes, skating and cowgirl costumes, and spring and winter coat sets, to name a few.”
“Think of anything that said glamour, she came with it,” said Thomas. “It’s the first time in Black history where we see it so prominent.”
Skip ahead two decades, and another doll, Baby Nancy, reflected the state of Black America. Baby Nancy, a 13-inch baby doll, debuted at the American Toy Fair in 1968.
“Oftentimes when people spoke about Baby Nancy, they said she was the doll born from the ashes of the Watts Riots in 1965,” said Thomas. “The company that produced Baby Nancy, I would say, is a definite turning point in sort of the representation of Blackness in the toy industry.”
In the aftermath of the riots, Louis S. Smith II and Robert Hall worked with civil rights activists and community members to launch Operation Bootstrap, an organization focused on creating social and economic equity. Baby Nancy was designed by Shindana Toys, a start-up within Operation Bootstrap. Mattel provided Shindana Toys with a factory, business loans, and consultants.
Baby Nancy was introduced with a short Afro because Shindana Toys was focused on not just representation, but authenticity, creating dolls with a hairstyle that epitomized Blackness in the 1960s.
And, Thomas said, because Shindana Toys made it clear it wasn’t producing dolls from molds created for white dolls, by the time production shut down in 1983, the company had opened the way for representation for other racial groups and ethnicities.
“The impact they’ve had on the toy industry is that they essentially serve as a test model to prove that Black dolls could be sold, that consumers were interested in Black dolls and not just Black consumers,” said Thomas. “They reported many times that the majority of their dolls were being purchased by white customers.”
Bottom line, she said, it’s because of Shindana Toys that by the 1970s, every major toy company had at least one Black doll line. “This is important because prior to that they were having conversations in the boardroom about whether or not America was really ready for an integrated doll market,” she said.
Growing up, I didn’t want a Barbie or a Cabbage Patch doll. My mother bought me an Addy Walker, Pleasant Co.’s first Black American Girl Doll, which was introduced in 1993. In the accompanying books, 9-year-old Walker escapes slavery with her mother to start a new life in Philadelphia. Her skin looked like mine, her nose resembled mine, and, importantly, so did her hair texture.
When the company was acquired by Mattel in 1998, it was able to add depth to the diversity of American Girl’s offerings. “When I heard Pleasant Co. sold to Mattel, I said, ‘Oh, something is about to happen’ because one thing Mattel is exceptionally good at is accessorizing,” Thomas said, citing the brand’s “create your own” feature. “You can go into American Girl Place and order skin tone 003, request green eyes, and freckles creating a ginger if you want.”
“You can either take her home as-is or you can buy a wheelchair for her. Or you can buy glasses. You can buy a cochlear implant. You can make that doll whatever you need her to be where she represents people in the world.”
Mattel was involved in reimagining Disney Princesses, too. When Disney introduced its first Black princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog in 2009, her character not only told an authentic story about another culture, it reimagined who got to be a Disney Princess.
Like Ariel, Princess Tiana was also brought to “life” in a doll.
A lot of the work that went into creating the Ariel doll started with The Princess and the Frog. Launi King, Disney’s global product design director, spent two years designing the Tiana Disney Ultimate Princess doll.
King said she was honored to work on Tiana because the character is Black and had a close relationship with her father in the film. Also, Princess Tiana’s story was different from some of the other princesses: She wasn’t waiting for her prince to show up before she could live her life. King wanted the work process with the doll’s designers to be different as well.
“I have a vision in my mind of who the character is and how I would like her to be designed but then I also needed to speak to them about when you’re designing a Black doll,” said King. “I needed to have that moment where you get to see the beauty of our curls and our culture and our texture. And so that was one of the first things that I asked for was to really showcase the hair.”
Re-creating Black hair is rarely done in mass-market dolls because of the expense involved in mimicking different hair textures on one head. For instance, the Princess Tiana doll wears her hair sleek and styled into an updo and the Ariel doll’s hair is styled with a mix of locs and straighter hair.
“There’s a machine and it can go in and it puts the hairs in individually into the scalp, but you’re not mixing [textures] because that drives the cost up, and you’re definitely not doing things by hand,” King said.
The next challenge with Princess Tiana was to showcase authentic skin tone and facial features. “African Americans have a colorization that’s beautiful. It has highlights and shadows in the skin,” King said. “So one of the things about us being browner is that the light actually has the opportunity to bounce off of our skin in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen when your skin is very light.
“It’s very important as well to focus on the shape of the nose,” King said but that drives up manufacturing costs: “It is very costly to do a different shaped head on an adult, a different-shaped anything, really, because you pay for a tool and that tool can be anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 dollars just for you to do one doll.”
She said that the more manufacturing leeway given to create specific features on any particular doll, the higher it will retail. “We want to make sure that the dolls are at a price point where anyone can get it,” said King. “OK, so that could be from $14 to $150, but that $14 one should not feel cheap.”
Companies needed to amortize that cost, making sure they could turn a profit, and King says this is why there was such a lack of authenticity in the beginning. “They would do a Barbie doll and what was happening is she would just be made brown, which meant the color of the plastic changed but it didn’t change the fact that that’s not what our noses are normally shaped like and so we ended up with Caucasian-looking dolls with brown skin,” King said. “And this is where I think we’ve come a long way because companies are investing and making sure that we are represented in the most authentic way.”
Disney’s latest crop of dolls, created in partnership with Black companies, is working to create the range in authenticity that Thomas mentions.
In 2020, The Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Fresh Fierce Collection by The Fresh Dolls from World of EPI won The Toy Association’s Doll of the Year in 2022. “To be recognized by the entire toy industry, was just … Oh, my gosh. It’s still surreal,” said Lisa Williams, founder and CEO of World of EPI, a multicultural doll company.
Williams didn’t play with dolls growing up — her sister did have “a Black fashion doll with European features, with, like a coat of a deeper, darker tan skin tone, right, which was by no means authentic.” But after seeing a 2010 CNN report that reexamined the conclusions of the doll test and found that many of the same attitudes were still prevalent, she decided she wanted to make authentic-looking dolls for Black children.
At the time, Williams was a professor at the University of Arkansas, teaching executive doctoral and MBA students.
“I’m watching this, thinking by this time, we have beautiful [Black] celebrities on the covers of magazines, we’re being voted most beautiful in the world. Barack Obama was president, we had all of that going on,” Williams said. “This is the advancement I thought I would see but I didn’t.
“Something in me broke because I realized we really hadn’t advanced as far as I thought. I just realized that there was a generation of children who were growing up that didn’t know the beauty and the brains of who they really are,” she said. “That day, sitting on my sofa, I vowed to make a change.
“We are mindful about making sure shades of eye color blend perfectly with the skin tone which blends in perfectly with the lip color and the hair color and the blush color all that has to match and be complementary to you to get a beautiful face,” said Williams.
She said she was naive getting into the toy business but has a compassion for and understanding of why true authenticity historically has not been truly represented. “You have to have a ‘why’ you’re doing it. Because if you don’t, you will kind of settle like, ‘Oh, this is good enough,’ right? And that’s what we’re seeing in the market. It was good enough. The dolls weren’t so horrible when we’d throw the dolls in the trash, right?”
The Walt Disney Co. approached Williams to re-create The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder cast as dolls to celebrate the reboot in February 2022 and in September 2022, this time with Marvel to recreate the women of the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever cast in doll form.
“It’s such an honor and we worked very collaboratively. But they really did lean in if we said this isn’t quite accurate or I think we can do better,” said Williams. “Like for Nakia’s character [from Wakanda Forever], she actually had locs, not braids, and locs did not exist in the mass-market before us. Clearly, we could have taken existing braids and just said OK, here it is, but we knew that that’s not authentic.”
Williams knows the difference between a braid and a loc, and she knows the community she’s serving knows the difference, too. “So we went to the drawing board, and we went to the fiber manufacturer to get both a fiber and a technique that’s now patent-pending.
“I’m always thinking about the little girl and little boy playing on the floor. What image do I want them to play with?” she said. “Who are they when they play with that doll? And I want them to see themselves and I want them to envision themselves achieving their dreams and they can only do that, in my opinion, when there’s a great connection with the doll that really resembles them.”
What Williams is saying is a nod to what Thomas sees as the future of doll production: moving beyond racial representation to creating real authenticity.
“That is going to require the toy industry to recognize that there is not just the presence of Blackness, but there is a heterogeneous Blackness out there that they have not figured out how to personify or create into an artifact,” said Thomas.
This story has been corrected to clarify that World of EPI was the creator of The Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Fresh Fierce Collection and that the company worked with Disney on the dolls for the Wakanda Forever movie, not The Woman King.