So, there are now or soon will be a couple of new plush dolls–black hair, light brown skin, big brown eyes and bright smiles. They are named Marvelous Malia and Sweet Sasha, from Ty, Inc. According to the company the dolls are not meant to represent (marvelous) Malia and (sweet) Sasha Obama.
The First Lady, however, has released a statement opposing this move, and several commentators have expressed discomfort with the idea. The concern that is explicitly expressed about the dolls is that these First Daughters are private citizens, are children and should be off limits, and ought not be used for the financial gain of a toy company. A commentator on a CNN story about the dolls linked the move to the USA’s “consumer culture” and President Obama’s unique status as an iconic “rock star” politician so seems to think the marketing of the new First Family is to be expected.
The concern that is implicit in this story is that the image in this case is specifically of two pre-adolescent Black girls. When a psychiatrist in the CNN story says, “They should not be sold and feel like…they can be bought; This is not healthy for them psychologically,” I cannot help but think that at one time two little girls like this would have fetched a nice price, indeed. Healthy, presumably ripe for child bearing, offspring bred of two tall and strong stock… They definitely would have been bought and sold–and quickly.
Is it OK to excuse such things in the name of capitalism?
Some would be quick to point out that the Obama girls are not being singled out. In fact, the President Obama commemorative coins and plates and front page newspapers replicas and special magazine issues–not to mention the Michelle Obama dresses and First Daughters outfits and Aretha Franklin inaugural hats flying off of shelves–are all good signs that the public is embracing these Black people.
A White rural mother buying Marvelous Malia and Sweet Sasha dolls for her own daughters is a sign of progress in a post-racial age.
Some would be quick to point out that it is not only images of Black athletes and politicians and entertainers that are bought and sold. Anyone of any race and background is fair game to become merchandise in the game of commerce. After all, we in the United States of America live, as the CNN commentator said, in the “land of the free and home of the dollar.”
There is still a nagging feeling, though. We all may now have the potential to be symbolic merchandise, to be bought and sold (or, to buy and sell). But for some of us, that symbolism was at one time reality. We were listed, sometimes not even by names, along with horses and cows and plots of land.
Somehow, that makes a certain difference. Whether it is a difference that we can acknowledge and talk about remains to be seen.
UPDATE: More commentary here.