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Let Them Play
The Good in 'Sweet Sasha' and 'Marvelous Malia'

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

About "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia," the newly issued dolls that just happen to share names, and skin colors, with the Obama girls: I understand why Michelle Obama is bristling, mama-grizzly-like, about the commercialization of her children.

I'd bristle, too. But I think she should reconsider.

"We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes," the first lady's press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, said in a statement about the dolls. Ty Inc., the company that makes the dolls, along with "Jammin' Jenna," "Happy Hillary" and "Precious Paris," didn't exactly help itself with its smarmy evasions. "Sasha and Malia are beautiful names" that "worked very well with the dolls we were making," the company's senior vice president of sales, Tania Lundeen, told CNN.

Yes, and my new doll, "Two-Faced Tania," has nothing to do with Lundeen. Beautiful name, though.

The classic, cynical Washington move at this point would be to note that the Obamas, actually, have been none too shy about deploying their adorable children when it suits their political purposes. "Young, private citizens" don't exactly pose with their parents on the cover of People magazine ("The Obamas at Home. Exclusive Photos!").

Having been none too shy about deploying my adorable children when it suits my journalistic purposes, I'm not going there. The Obamas seem appropriately attentive to how their daughters are dealing with their new celebrity. While hamming it up on stage at the Democratic convention in Denver or being interviewed on "Access Hollywood," the Obama girls appear to be more than capable of handling, even enjoying, the spotlight. Their parents are calibrating the exposure accordingly.

Which gets back to the dolls. I say: Embrace them. It's impossible to read about "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia" without being reminded of the famous psychology experiment cited in Brown v. Board of Education. Offered dolls of differing skin tones, black children overwhelmingly chose to play with the white doll; they picked the white doll when asked to identify the "nice" doll and selected the brown doll when asked which was the "bad" doll.

"We interpret it to mean that the Negro child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group," psychologist Kenneth Clark testified.

When a high school student named Kiri Davis repeated Clark's experiment with 4- and 5-year-olds at a Harlem child-care center for her 2005 documentary, "A Girl Like Me," she found heartbreakingly similar results.

In the video, a little girl in a lavender sweatshirt identifies the "bad" and "nice" dolls. "Why does that look bad?" Davis asks. "Because it's black," the girl replies. "And why do you think that's a nice doll?" "Because she's white."

Then comes the real gut punch. "Can you give me the doll that looks like you?" The girl touches the white doll. Her hand lingers on it for a few seconds. Slowly, she slides the dark-skinned doll across the table.

If anyone understands the debilitating power of these internalized messages, it is the new president. In "Dreams From My Father," Barack Obama describes how, as a child in Indonesia, he ran across a Life magazine story about a ghostly looking black man who had tried to chemically lighten his skin. If the photograph he remembered can't be found, the trauma of the event -- his recognition of "a hidden enemy out there, one that could reach me without anyone's knowledge, not even my own" -- seems all too real.

"I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation," Obama wrote -- and it is no coincidence that one of his examples was "the frustration of not having hair like Barbie no matter how long you tease and comb."

So it may be, as my daughter Julia pronounced, that it is "disgusting" for Ty to try to make money off the Obama girls.

Then again, if hawking "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia" encourages children of any hue to want an African American doll, or to admire two African American girls whose father just happens to be president, maybe that's not such a bad trade-off.

marcusr@washpost.com

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