Why is Latina Representation in Toys So Important?

Thoughtful Latina girl observing a blonde, light-skinned doll

In the world where a child grows and learns, the toys they play with and the media they consume significantly influence their understanding of themselves and their surroundings. As they immerse themselves in these playful realities, they instinctively draw parallels between their personal experiences and those of the characters they encounter.

This goes to show how much responsibility the media and toy industries have in showing the actual diversity of our world. One part of this is making sure young Latina girls are represented properly, something they often miss out on in mainstream stories.

Imagine a young Latina girl seeing a character or doll that looks and talks like her and reflects her culture. It might seem small, but this representation can have a huge impact on her self-image. It shows her that she matters, that she's valued, and that she truly belongs in this world.

A historical reference underlining this concept comes from the 1940s. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark devised a series of experiments known as "the doll tests" to investigate the psychological impacts of segregation on African-American children. The Clarks' experimental design, using dolls identical but for color, highlighted how children's racial perceptions are shaped.

Their conclusions, drawn from children preferring the white doll and assigning positive attributes to it, are stark – prejudice, discrimination, and segregation led to feelings of inferiority and damaged self-esteem amongst African-American children.

Clark Doll experimentswww.youtube.com

The narratives children encounter matter. Seeing characters that resemble them overcome adversities, achieve great things, and be celebrated gives them tangible role models. A young Latina girl can dream bigger and aim higher when she sees a Latina scientist, artist, astronaut, or entrepreneur in a book, on a television screen, or in a movie.

Needless to say, diverse representation should not be a sporadic token. It needs to be genuine and thorough. Latina characters should not be relegated to the margins but should take center stage across various genres – fantasy to science fiction, romance to adventure. These characters should be layered and complex, with stories that transcend their cultural identities.

If we take a closer look at industry giants like Mattel's Barbie and American Girl, they talk a big game about being committed to diversity and inclusion. But the real question is, how far does that commitment really go?

In 1980, Mattel introduced three versions of Barbie—white, Black, and Hispanic—but the differences were only skin deep, as they all bore mostly the same face mold and body shape.

1980s hispanic barbieartsandculture.google.com

According to El País, the first Latina Barbie doll, Barbie's "best friend" Teresa, was launched in 1988. But her Latina identity was never explicitly confirmed, her features designed to be ambiguous. Only in 1999 was it established that her last name was Rivera, lending some credence to her still-very-ambiguous Latina identity.

And oddly enough, consistency hasn't been a strong point for the character, as Teresa's eye color, skin color, and even cultural background have constantly fluctuated, making her more of a wildcard than a genuine representation of a Latina.

And while today's "Barbies of the World" line celebrates various Latine cultures, they are often limited and overpriced, meant for collectors rather than children.

A similar pattern is visible in the American Girl doll line. Though it boasts a range of cultures today, one major criticism of the doll line, particularly concerning their representation of historically marginalized cultures, is that these dolls are not easily accessible to the communities they are meant to depict. In fact, American Girl dolls are notoriously priced well beyond the reach of what most American families would intend to spend on a children's toy, if they can even be called that.

a screenshot of the $115 USD josefina doll by american girl

As seen with Barbie's bestie Teresa, Latina dolls are often given secondary roles, usually introduced as just friends or companions to the main white dolls. Even today, despite having their own unique names, Latina dolls still often get stuck being the "other" dolls, rarely taking on the role of the main character.

The importance of diverse representation extends beyond skin color. It's about the narratives constructed around these dolls and their unique worlds.

Authentic representation of diverse cultures in media and toys plays a crucial role in shaping children's understanding of our world's cultural differences. This inclusivity empowers young girls, giving them a sense of visibility and acceptance while fostering empathy and understanding in others.

Accurate representation becomes a means of transmitting cultural values, history, and traditions. When girls see their heritage portrayed authentically, it instills pride in their identity and offers an opportunity for others to learn and appreciate different cultures.

Yet, the journey to genuine representation is far from over, despite increasing awareness of its importance. Purpose Toys' Latinistas doll line is a step in the right direction as it seeks to pay homage to Latine culture by showcasing a range of diverse characteristics such as hair textures, skin tones, makeup styles, and fashion choices (those iconic hoops included!)

However, there's still much ground to cover, especially when portraying a wider variety of body shapes, fashion use, and facial features, which the Latinista dolls fall short on.

latinista dolls by purpose toysCourtesy of Purpose Toys

Ensuring that dolls reflect the diversity of real individuals from different backgrounds will be crucial in fostering a sense of belonging and validation among children who play with them. While progress has been made, toy manufacturers need to continue pushing boundaries and exploring ways to be more inclusive.

Representation of young Latina girls in media and toys goes beyond mere fairness; it’s a powerful tool to nurture self-esteem, inspire ambition, promote inclusivity, and foster cultural understanding.

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