In German bars during the 1950s, miniature sex dolls were sold as gag gifts. This doll was the Bild Lilli, based on cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien’s lippy and lubricious character Lilli from the German tabloid Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was the social haplotype of Hollywood sirens like Marlene Dietritch and Carole Lombard: bold, friendly, risible and sexually provocative. Somewhere around the same time, a Mattel Inc. executive Ruth Handler chanced upon Bild Lilli in Switzerland. That is the beginning of the Barbie empire. American children were still playing with paper dolls, and Handler realised they needed something far more realistic. In 1964, Mattel acquired the rights to Bild Lilli, including its name and numerous patents in dollmaking. The iconic slim, blonde, blue-eyed, affluent Barbie -a serial entrepreneur talented at pretty much everything- became synonymous with dolls. Today, the same doll is sold in every corner of the world to children and collectors with a diverse wardrobe, toy mansions, cars, video games and other merchandse.
The Barbie hasn’t come without her own set of challenges. For long, feminists have criticised her for setting an unrealistic racially-exclusive standard of beauty to aspire to. Whether this at all effects adult self-esteem is doubtful. Children do seem to differentiate between reality and fantasy. As older women, our perception of the world and ourselves is more nuanced and informed. Not every adherence to a mythical norm is subliminal and sinister. Experiments, however, done on children show a preference for white Barbies over black Barbies. This experiment was an echo of the 1939 Clark Doll Experiment by Civil Rights-era psychologists Dr Kenneth and Mamie Clark on racial preference. However, it is also more likely that cultural preference of race is mirrored in the way girls select dolls than the other way around.
But this was not all. In 2014, Barbie introduced a comic, “I Can Be A Computer Engineer,” that made even non-feminists recoil with detestation. Before this, Barbie comics had never tried to be socially instructive. The stories were what any child would find exciting: murder mysteries, adventures and fun times. The new book, though, was unintentionally soaked in the kind of stereotypes people fight every day. It was perplexing and patronising, as conversations like this took place:
“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
Their attempt at ‘feminism’ was absurd, considering Barbie has held a host of jobs, some of which include doctor, astronaut, fire fighter, street rapper, President of the United States of America and paratrooper. She may be nauseatingly pink, plastic and robotic, but Barbie was, in her own right, already an early model of feminism with a record 130 diverse careers.
But these days Barbie has stiff competition, and it’s feeling it. For three years straight, Barbie sales have been slumping. In 2014 alone, sales dropped to 16 per cent and continued to fall. Its biggest competitor in the market is Disney’s ‘Frozen’ collection. Simply put, Disney is a colossal behemoth of an empire with the largest repository of highly-marketable (and beloved) characters. It values at USD 142.9 billion. There is almost no competition against its merchandise, and Barbie can feel that pinch.
But Disney has the same problem Barbie does: lack of diversity. By no means can either be considered exclusively American brands any more. Part of the world’s cultural heritage, they function in global markets, so their lack of diversity stands out even more. This opens paths for native creators to tap into the market where Disney and Mattel haven't.
So what happens to coloured children like us who spend their whole childhood playing with beautiful white Barbies?
That’s where Taofick Oluwasegun Okoya comes in.
An indigene of Lagos, Nigeria, Okoya studied in the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, and later earned his national diploma in ceramic designs from North Staffordshire Polytechnic in the UK. After his education, Okoya would end up working in diverse fields of management in Lagos until he became the CEO of FICO Solutions Ltd in 2004 through the combined experience and knowledge of his previous work.
How he came to found his company is a personal tale. On a day like any other, Okoya’s daughter asked him a worrying question: “What colour am I?” When Okoya answered, “black,” his daughter was ostensibly upset. She wanted to be white. “This broke my heart,” says Okoya. “It opened my eyes to the fact that all her dolls at the time and all her favourite characters were white, and looking in the mirror she doesn't see the image she has as play tools or favourite characters.” As a devoted and loving father, Okoya was determined to change her perception by introducing her to African women. But he didn’t want to stop at her. He wanted to “reach children of African descent all over to have a better appreciation of the colour and culture.”Once engendered by the conviction to put an end to this skewed self-perception, he began to research dolls that already existed, their market and their prices. Nigeria, Okoya’s home, is likely the most diverse region on the planet. With close to only 170 million people, it has more than 200 languages and ethnic tribes, the Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Fula and Ijaw accounting for most.
“I could not capture most of the attributes in one look," says Okoya, "hence started with the three major tribes in Nigeria. The looks were based on common features of ladies from these areas. It required attention to detail, while still trying to make them commercially viable. The final was then sent to our mould manufacturer, and from there on to production.”
Okoya even admits he never realised how much white dolls account for in the world market, where more than 70 per cent of the population comprises of other races and ethnic groups. “It was sort of acceptable and not an issue in our subconscious.” Though he reiterates he has no problem with Mattel. To Okoya, they create for a different environment altogether. “As for African children, I believe they should play with tools that reflect their characteristics and culture, as this could impact the level of confidence and self worth they develop. Children are on a continuous learning process and take in things around them quite easily, so we need to be conscious of what we expose them to through play tools or toys.”
Okoya’s Queens of Africa dolls aren’t just dolls. His company also produces books, comics, music and animation series as a means to empower children from Nigeria and other African countries (or descent, for that matter). He wants children to “mature ethically”, and instilling ethnic confidence by exposing children to local heritage and history is one way to do that.
Okoya elaborates by saying,
“The Queens of Africa project is a girl child empowerment programme with the goal and aim of inculcating in the African/Nigerian girl child positive attributes and interest through play using fun and entertaining ways. The attention span of children can be rather short. Our aim is to use fun, engaging mediums to subconsciously improve their appreciation of their culture.”
But the market’s response to Queens of Africa would prove it was, indeed, a disruptive force. The reaction to Okoya’s dolls was not only lukewarm, but many times stinging. “The children didn’t embrace them and the stores didn't want to carry them. A store attendant actually said, ‘Bring us white dolls, they sell better.’ I embarked on a campaign for over two years educating people on the need to have positivity of having dolls in their likeness. And here we are today. It wasn't an easy ride.”
Okoya wants more diversity in the market, but says, “at what cost?” A country like the US dictates the trends, whereas China plays its part of the cheap producer. The average consumer in the Old World is less likely to spend money on expensive children’s toys when Western markets can deliver cheap products in mass quantities.“The venture must make profit to sustain and grow itself. Nigeria, for example, has the manpower, but lacks the technology and infrastructure to support local production.”
But all this still doesn’t explain why Mattel, Fisher-Price, Jakks Pacific, Hasbro or Disney are so reluctant to diversify their characters when they function at a global scale (killing local markets). The times when they have attempted, they’ve simply slapped dark paint on European features. Are non-white races simply not marketable? Or, will the world be held hostage to American and European tastes? Okoya says, “I believe what they are selling is an image of perfection and fairytale. Fairy tales and fantasies are big sellers. I guess to them there’s no need to change a winning formula. They are selling to people what they want. Why people want this is a different issue entirely.”
And there lies the fix. Our own inclination to prefer white over coloured stems from a damaged sense of communal self. This damage came from centuries of racism, colonisation and conflict with the West and ourselves. It doesn’t help either when Western interests continue to dominate the market.
How does Okoya face criticism over producing dolls over ‘gender-neutral’ toys? He says, “People are diverse. It may work for some to have gender neutral toys as this does not typecast them, and to those who need a leading, it's not going to appeal to them. Truth is, we are not all the same. There is no one formula across the board that will fit or work with everybody all over the world. Accommodating every personality and likes with diversity, I believe, makes the world a better place to live.”
Doll play is not just a cultural heritage of the world. It goes back all the way to wildlife. In 2010, gender-driven desires were observed in young female chimpanzees whose used sticks as dolls, nurturing and playing with them. The same behaviour was less frequent in male chimpanzees. So the inclination to play with dolls is not a purely social construct. The idea is to make it a healthy one.
And Okoya is planning on doing just that by expanding his Queens of Africa line to include all major African ethnicities. The operose task of distributing these in their respective countries will be the most testing aspect of Okoya’s business. He says, “Our plan is to get a major store or toy store with strong and wide distribution” to cut expenses.
When asked if he wants his dolls across continents, Okoya exclaims, “Oh yes! That's my goal and prayer.”
Never has the world needed more cultural representation. If Queens of Africa can lead to a cultural shift that sees more regions express ethnic self-determination through the toys they make and market, Okoya, indeed, would be the man to thank for.