What a Doll

Last Update: 30 June 2001

Source: Canoe

02 May 2001

What a doll (story about dolls featured in Don't Say a Word)


Once upon a time, not too long ago, really, some parents in Toronto had a hard time finding dolls that looked like their children. True, Toronto was arguably the hub of multiculturalism in Canada, with the exception being its toy stores. If your little one wanted a doll, chances are you'd have to settle for a Barbie. Then you had the task of explaining to your Chinese daughter (or son!) how she'd become mommy to a blond, blue-eyed and unusually well-developed dolly. Sure, there was the odd "black" or "oriental" doll, but the exceptions were few and far between, and in many cases, served to perpetuate an unwanted stereotype about the given culture.

Luckily, the doll "scene" in Toronto has started to catch up diversity-wise, thanks in part to Maggie Harries-Jones. She is the creator of Mshimpi dolls, a line of dolls that come in a variety of skin tones, hair
colours and textures, and facial features to reflect doll-lovers from different ethnic communities. Harries-Jones herself comes from a multi-cultural background, but the dolls were borne just as much out of necessity as they were a need for representation.

Harries-Jones was born and raised in Zambia to a Welsh father and Zambian-Palestinian mother. She found herself financially strapped a few years back. So, she says, "I decided to sit down and maybe create something for myself." She had always made dolls for her children, so she decided to manufacture a soft, sturdy doll for children of all ethnic backgrounds.


In 1995, Mshimpi was born. Named after Harries-Jones' grandmother, Mshimpi also means "princess" in a Zambian language. Almost every type of person imaginable can be made into a Mshimpi doll. There are Asian baby dolls and Caucasian grandfather dolls, dolls with long black hair and dolls with short spiky blond hair. Harries-Jones will customize a doll to resemble a photograph, or mix and match the family dolls to reflect all kinds of families, be they multi-ethnic, gay or lesbian, "nuclear' or single-parent. As a parent and grandparent, she feels that it's important for a child to have a doll that the child can identify with.

"I think that every child should look at itself first," she says. "I think that there's too much stereotyping in this society. I think that we [should] begin to teach them at an early age to love themselves first." And a
child who does not see herself represented in her toys may not acquire this self-esteem as readily, according to one expert.

"We see a lot of children of African heritage, who when they're exposed to only white, blond dolls, want to look like that," says Dr. Judith K. Bernhard, professor of early childhood education at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. "It's very upsetting for a parent to hear that. It's denying who you are, and it's saying that beauty is that other thing." Bernhard generally supports the use of multi-ethnic dolls in classroom and daycare settings.

"The danger of course is stereotyping, and saying 'All Asians are like this (doll)," she says, adding that educators just need to stay aware of that possibility. In addition to reinforcing a child's sense of belonging, Bernhard says that having dolls who represent a variety of ethnic backgrounds can help foster understanding and diffuse conflicts. If for example, a child makes a racial slur toward another child, the dolls can be used to discuss why it's wrong to call people names.

"You can just take what's happened in the classroom and put it on the doll," Bernhard says. "It's a very, very powerful tool. The whole classroom can discuss what happened, how would the other person
feel...without putting the blame on the two people involved." She says that if the dolls are given a personality and story behind them, they grow to represent more than just a "black" doll or "Chinese" doll. "People start to see that there's more than just the one dimension that we tend to assign."

At the Pride in Heritage Children's Centre, Mshimpi dolls abound. "We're an anti-bias childcare centre," says Joy McFarlane, the executive director of the centre. "If we don't have a particular doll, we make sure we get one." So far, she says, the centre has about 15 Mshimpi dolls, which the kids regularly put through the paces.

"They love them," McFarlane says. "They enjoy them. They take off their clothes." For Harries-Jones, seeing a child with her doll is one of the most rewareding parts of the business.

"It's great when you walk into a daycare, and this child says 'This doll looks just like me,'" she says. "It's a wonderful experience o see after seven years that the doll is still intact." Pride in Heritage is one of about 25 across the city that now carry Mshimpi dolls. Since she started the business, Harries-Jones has made dolls for daycares in Vancouver, in Prince Edward Island, and for various museums. Most recently, she made the prototype of a doll for the upcoming Michael Douglas movie, Don't Say a Word, and will be marketing similar dolls when the movie is released in theatres. She's come a long way from her leaner days, something she says other women can learn from.

"When the chips are down, that is not the last," she says. Indeed. Harries-Jones is planning "massive expansion" into Canada and the United States, and expects her dolls to be widely available by catalogue next year.

It's a doll world, after all.

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