Polly Pocket Politics



I had good intentions, really I did. And I more or less fulfilled those intentions…but along the way I had to confront the fact that Polly Pocket, that tiny latex-clad lovely, might be an instrument of white oppression.

The good intentions: wanting to instill in my children the idea that “giving back” is an important part of existence, especially when you’re as (relatively) privileged as they are.  Every year I troll around for kid-friendly volunteer opportunities … and almost never follow through, which means that I go into the holiday season feeling guilty even before the over-eating and over-spending has started.  We do manage to make little packages of goodies for family and friends, which I suppose demonstrates some type of community spirit, and at very least, we always participate in the toy drive at Liam’s school: we sign up to give a new toy to children in foster care and I take the boys shopping with me to choose the gifts, for which they each make a card.

But this year, for whatever set of reasons, I almost even failed at toy drive. Oh, I signed up all right…and forgot about it until this morning. This morning, the absolute last day to drop off the gifts. Didn’t have time to take the boys shopping with me after school, so off I went alone to buy presents for the children we were assigned: Quamique and Shamesha, a brother and sister, ages 6 and 5.

A gift for a six-year-old boy? No problem: anything with an engine. I know, I know, that’s a total gender stereotype,  not all boys like cars yadda yadda yadda, but guess what? Actually, most of them do like cars, or at least, every boy I’ve ever known (ages 2-65)  has derived some pleasure from making motor sounds, whether planes, trains, or automobiles.  In fact most of my experience mothering boys has been a process of unlearning all that I learned in graduate school about socially constructed gender roles (take that, Judith Butler): it doesn’t matter how many times I read Princess Furball or The Princess Knight or other tales of self-sufficient heroines, sticks still become weapons, objects on tables must slide “by accident” to the floor, and anything on the floor must become a soccer ball.  It’s hard-wired. 

So Quamique got a ten-pack of garishly painted Hot Wheels, easy enough.  Then … Shamesha.

K-Mart, like so many other stores, has divided its toy area into the “girls” section and the “boys” section (thus reinforcing gendered inclinations), so I walked up and down the pink aisles, scrutinizing my choices. Now, I don’t spend a lot of time in the pink aisles of stores, usually, and I don’t spend much time looking at dolls, either (except on that rare occasion when Liam or Caleb has professed an interest in Polly Pocket dolls, but that’s a post for another time—I will say only that I wonder what those latex outfits are doing to the latent erotic imaginations of the under-ten set, both male and female).

The dolls stared out at me…and suddenly I saw these rows and rows of plastic toys with in a different light: all those pink dolly faces, all those staring blue eyes, the aisles and aisles of…whiteness. It’s one thing to read about, or hear from friends, how frustrating it is not to find dolls that reflect their children’s skin colors, but to suddenly be confronted myself with that problem? Another thing entirely.

Could I buy Shamesha a white doll?  Should I buy Shamesha a white doll?  And wait a minute, wasn’t the toy industry supposed to have gotten hip to the fact that people (white and non-white)  might want a non-white doll? Weren’t we all post-racial now, here in Obamamerica?  Or was I simply late to the shopping season? Had all there been a rush on non-white Polly Pockets and Strawberry Shortcakes?

It doesn’t matter, I thought.  I just wanted Shamesha to have something to open on Christmas morning, so I reached for what seemed like the least offensive thing: a shiny plastic carrying case enclosing a little doll with long pink hair and various sparkly jungle creatures. Nothing in the set was designed to be “realistic” and so perhaps it would read as less “white.” But then there was all that long hair – obviously Caucasian hair, even if it was fuschia.

So I’m standing there and standing there and then my dithering ratcheted another notch: why did I assume that Shamesha wasn’t white? What kind of stereotyping was that?  Who was I to assume that her first name indicated something about her race? 

Over-thinking, I muttered to myself, you’re over-thinking.  Goddamn white liberal can’t even shop for a freakin’ doll without turning it into a Big Cultural Referendum.  It’s a DOLL fer crissake, not a national policy question.

I’d become the crazy lady that other shoppers swerved to avoid; I stood muttering in front of the Pollys, wondering what Shamesha would like. A pink-haired sparkly jungle doll? White-skinned Polly Pocket with festively colored suburban garb (a latex tennis outfit? cheerleading clothes? beach-wear?)?
I punted. I wandered around until I found the markers-and-coloring books aisle: a coloring set featuring—wait for it—Princess Tiana!

Those folks at Disney maybe deeply, coldly cynical, but Princess T. is this season’s “it” girl: she’s got something for everyone: Obama-esque skin color, lots and lots of big puffy dresses, funny sidekicks and an alarming villain.  Even Liam and Caleb want to see her movie and while I think mostly they’re in it for the frogs, I’m hoping they notice the outfits, too.

My quick trip to K-Mart took more than an hour. I have no idea of Quamique and Shamesha will like what I got them—for all I know, he’s a budding fashion designer and she wants to be a military officer—but I did the best I could.

I am often wistful about the fact that I don’t have a daughter (and that is definitely a post for another day) and while I wish that “boys toys” weren’t always so violent, at least there’s no Shamesha-dilemma when you’re shopping for Bionicles. After all, if it ain’t human in the first place, there’s no way you can search for yourself in its plastic image.

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4 Responses to Polly Pocket Politics

  1. a guy January 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

    I struggled with this in less stark terms over the holiday, buying books for kids 3-11. I usually try to buy plucky heroine books for the girls, but what counts as pluck changes a lot over the timespan of the books I like. Increasingly I also have kids of non-European backgrounds in my list. Should I try to get them something heritage-specific (where I’ll know a smaller pool of books), or remember that as Americans they inherit the fine English-American tradition of mystery-solving young white kids? An additional factor is how many other books (or in your case, dolls) you expect them to encounter. If your present will join a diverse group, I think you can obsess less over its message. Oy.

  2. betsy December 4, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the Shamesha Dilemma lately, so while this comment comes nearly a year after the post I hope you’ll forgive. Even here in United Colors of Brooklyn the babydolls are all Pepto-pink or chocolate-brown – – nothing in between (unless it’s some gnarly handmade cloth thing so organic and crunchy no self-respecting girl could love it (unless in fact a relative *had* made it )- those politically “sensitive” and “colorblind” dolls with purple hair that were surely made by the original authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I have pored over the (many) pages of the American Girl website, looking at the rainbow-hued, $95 “Just Like You” dolls which really DON’T look just like you, if your eyes are not round, your nose not button, your hair not silky, and your cheeks not Shirley Temple’s, wondering what I’ll say when my (possible) daughter (possibly) asks me: “why don’t any of the dolls look like me?”

  3. Suzie January 19, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    Wow, how did I miss this post from two years ago. I do the exact same thing, same toy drive, same shop with the kids, except that time I completely forgot, same over thinking. My policy now is K-mart, cute pajamas, and a colorful plastic game. No gender, no race, so middle of the road and hopefully helpful and fun. So glad the holiday are over.

    • Deborah Quinn January 21, 2012 at 12:52 am #

      cute pajamas! what a brilliant choice! must remember that for future…

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