Black Panther’s march towards pop culture dominance has seen it shatter box office records and colonize Twitter, but the film’s impact on toy stores that might be the most encouraging. If you have perused the aisles of a toy store this year, you will find that the seemingly infinite supply of Star Wars swag has been augmented with a similarly obscene amount of Black Panther merch: action figures, hot wheels, Legos, and even Build-a-Bears, all in honor of Wakanda. Beyond burning a massive hole in every parent’s wallet, Black Panther’s victorious arrival could signal a shift towards diverse representation in toy aisles.
There is extensive research on how toys play a powerful role in shaping kids’ self-image and sense of what is normal. Toys can even teach a child how to look at the world — and here is where diversity matters. Kids learn how to understand and contextualize race from an early age and the toys available to them can impact how they see both themselves and others.
For minority kids, the lack of representation in toys instills the notion that they are somehow not normal or not as important as their white peers. On the other hand, the ubiquity of white Barbies, white American Girl Dolls, and white superhero action figures teaches white children that they are normal. In this way, the world of toys can have an insidious effect on the real world attitudes exhibited by young people. And this is not just supposition. It’s well documented.
In 1988, Dr. Darlene Powell-Hopson and Dr. Derek S. Hopson released a study titled “Implications of Doll Color Preferences among Black Preschool Children and White Preschool Children,” which demonstrated the influence toys can have on racial biases. As part of the study, black and white preschoolers were presented with dolls that were black and white. When asked to state their preference, both black and white children chose the white doll.
The children then took the Clark Doll Test, an experiment which demonstrates the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children and were asked to choose their preferred doll again. This time, the majority of children chose the black doll. Powell-Hopson and Hopson concluded that black children have been taught to reject their own ethnic group as a result of negative stereotypes featured in the media, schools, and society as a whole. This behavior isn’t natural.
“Growing up as a black kid, if you only have access to white dolls, it reinforces the idea that whiteness is the default,” Samantha Knowles, the director of the 2013 documentary Why Do You Have Black Dolls?, explains. “And to a child, it can make you feel like an ‘other.’ Obviously, having a black doll isn’t a cure-all for that but it’s one other way to give someone something that represents them. Suddenly, they feel like they exist on a larger cultural scale.”
Dr. Elizabeth Chen, a Professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and the author of the 1999 study “Ethnically Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry,” agrees. She tells Fatherly that, while the toys a child plays with won’t cause – or solve – all of society’s racial issues, they can have a positive effect, especially for minority children.
“Making more and better diverse dolls is never going to change that fundamental problem,” Chen explains. “But making more and better dolls certainly can’t hurt.”
A quick glance at the history of American toys shows a lack of diversity when it comes to dolls and action figures. Barbie Dolls made their debut in 1959, but waited nearly a decade – until 1968 – to release their first non-white doll, a black Barbie named Christie. While Barbie Dolls have been everything from a nurse to an astronaut, they have rarely been anything but white. Last year, Barbie released a line of dolls meant to represent people of color, nearly 60 years after the first Barbie arrived at toy stores.
It gets even worse when you examine the history of American Girl Dolls, which only had one black doll in its collection as recently as 2016. To make matters even worse, the lone black American Girl Doll was Addy Walker, a nine-year-old African American who was born into slavery. The company has tried to up its racial representation over the last couple years, but still primarily places its focus on white dolls.
Long before the creation of the Marvel Universe, toys in America were overwhelmingly white. Action figures and dolls were primarily marketed for white kids and, as a result, the toys were mostly white. There were exceptions but they often had their own issues with representation. G.I. Joe, one of the most popular toy franchises in history, featured several beloved black characters, including Roadblock, Adventurer, and Doc but this was hardly reflective of the standard for its time. And even within the G.I. Joe toy universe, minority characters were often based on lazy racial stereotypes.
What is the reason for such a startling lack of racial representation for toys? According to Dr. Chin, it’s all about the money.
“I’m not really surprised this issue remains relevant and current; it seems to come in waves,” she explains. “In the world of toys, as in the world of movies, the main question is one of making things that sell. Really, the main obstacle is financial risk.”
Knowles agrees, noting that “Toy companies are trying to make a profit. They are driven by what will make them money. But only now do they seem to realize how much money can be made with a more diverse collection of dolls.”
Despite a grim past and uncertain present, a look at the future gives some hope that the toy industry may be ready to embrace diversity in a real way. In its opening weekend, Black Panther made a staggering $242 million at the box office and experts are already seeing Black Panther experience a similar level of success in toy stores.
“I think it’s filling a void, it’s serving a need, and it will sell accordingly, and not just with African Americans,” Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, acknowledged to the AFP.
It helps that Black Panther it is not just a black superhero that is primed to be successful with black audiences; it is tracking to be a hit across all audiences, regardless of race. With this mainstream success should come a veritable tidal wave of opportunities for toy companies to make their product lines more inclusive of other demographics.
With the movie’s overwhelming success propelling Black Panther toys towards new heights of popularity, the long nascent demand for diverse dolls is skyrocketing with supply. The toy industry may not be leading the way, but that doesn’t mean that the Wakandan takeover won’t make a massive difference to kids.