How the Obamas should present their daughters to the public.

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 29 2009 6:28 PM

Not Dolls

How the Obamas should present their daughters to the public.

Makers Of Beanie Babies Ty Inc. Create Sasha And Malia Dolls. Click image to expand.
Ty Inc.'s "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia" dolls

If you walk into a store and see your child for sale—face emblazoned on a T-shirt, name planted on a doll—what's the proper reaction? In my world, there is only one: dismay, followed by protest. Which is why Michelle Obama's response to the blatant packaging of her daughters by the toy company Ty, as brown-skinned dolls named "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia," hit precisely the right maternal note. Even in the carefully chosen words of Michelle's spokeswoman—"We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes"—you can feel the heat beneath the ice.

And that comes as something of a relief to me. Because Barack and Michelle Obama's job as parents is to think first, middle, and last about what's good for their girls. When it comes to the kids, forget the country. Forget the opportunity and burden of being black role models, and all the children out there whose horizons will expand as they hug their little Sasha and Malia replicas. There are plenty of other people—a whole nation's worth, it seems—who can obsess about the implications of that. The Obamas have a harder task: negotiating the boundaries for their children without, apparently, resorting to the utter kids-off-limits policies of presidents before them.


In the Washington Post, my friend Ruth Marcus says that she understands Michelle Obama's reaction to the dolls but urges her to "embrace them." (I'm not sure why Michelle O. had to make this all about the first lady's office, since the president could have spoken out as a father, too.) Ruth hearkens back to the famous psychology experiment cited by the Supreme Court in its 1954 school desegregation decision, in which black children by wide margins chose to play with white dolls, which they called "nice," in contrast to the "bad" black ones. Ruth adds that a 2005 documentary posed the same choice and got the same distressing results. My colleague Jessica Grose makes a similar point that there's an upside to Ty's opportunistic profit-making: "Little girls of all races might want to play with black dolls now."

Lovely. The one time I bought my older son dolls, when he was 2 or 3, we picked out a pair of twin black babies dressed in pink and white. (Don't give us too much credit for enlightenment: Eli named the boy doll Rohan, after a baby at his day care, and completely ignored the girl doll.) Sure, it will be good for African-American children's self-image, and white children's perceptions of race, if the Obama products do well.

But in solidarity with the Obamas as parents, I am not going to buy Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia for my 3-year-old niece. It's beyond dispute that Malia and Sasha have already lost all semblance of ordinary life. They are growing up as objects of national fascination. Inevitably, almost everyone they meet will think of them as Barack Obama's children first and as 7-year-old and 10-year-old girls second. The problem with the Ty dolls isn't so much the crass commercialization. Hey, it's America, and there's even a shred of tradition here: When Caroline Kennedy was a little girl in the White House, someone made a doll of her, too, we learn from The New Yorker this week. The dolls irritate because they're part of the myth that these very real White House girls are slowly being wrapped in, one more data point that suggests to them that they're not just living in a storybook, they're starring in one.

And that can't be a good thing for a kid. Childhood shouldn't be about watching other people watch you and thinking of yourself differently as a result. On Slate's "XX Factor" blog, my colleague Samantha Henig asks, "Do any of you moms hold it against [Obama] that he chose to go for it anyway, even though [becoming president] would almost certainly make a 'normal' childhood impossible for his daughters?" My answer is yes: It's the least appealing thing about the man.


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