I saw Rosa Parks in her underwear. I was looking for Michelle, Sasha, and Malia dolls on the Internet and found myself visiting stardoll.com, which traffics in virtual paper dolls and includes facsimiles of everyone from Angelina Jolie to Zhang Ziyi, but at this point, no Obamas. (For the record, possible ensembles for Parks include a demure blue coat with a stars-and-stripes scarf.)
In fact, I can’t find Obama dolls anywhere. I know times are lean—just yesterday, I got an e-mail that actually suggested toothpaste as a stocking stuffer (“The holidays are a great time to smile . . .”)—but I would think that if anything would fly off the shelves, it would be a quartet of shrunken Obamas.
Is it just too soon for these dolls to hit the stores? Is that the problem? I attempt to contact a number of toy companies, Mattel and Stardoll among them, to find out what’s up. Stardoll gets back to me—they decline to speak to me, but at least they get back to me—but no one else even has the courtesy to reject me. I chalk this up to three possibilities: 1) The companies’ PR departments have been laid off; 2) I am too ridiculously unimportant to be acknowledged; or 3) Legal problems surrounding the manufacture of celebrity dolls is a subject no one cares to discuss with a reporter.
I prefer to go with number three, especially after I do speak with somebody: Bruce Giuliano, a guy who was one of the people responsible for the ascent of Hello Kitty (don’t hate him for that) and who now has his own branding firm. Giuliano confirms that it is indeed a legal quagmire out there: Maybe a Barack doll would be OK, he thinks, since the president is sort of in the public domain, but the ladies are strictly off-limits. Of course, you could produce them without the first family’s permission, but then you might get sued.
In the unlikely event that you could get the Obamas to cooperate, you could just pay them royalties and you’d be fine. (There’s a guy somewhere in California who makes money every time you buy a Marilyn Monroe fly-swatter or beer mug. On the other hand, Giuliano tells me, the heirs of Audrey Hepburn are vociferously protective of her image, which is why you don’t see her elfin presence gracing toilet-paper covers.)
So, Bruce, how come Stardoll can feature everyone from Anna Wintour to Tinkerbell and not get sued? Seems as if you can do whatever you want with other people’s images, as long as you don’t make any money from it. And Stardoll.com does appear to be free (I just spent an hour dressing up Paris and Nicole, and it didn’t cost me a thing). Then again, the site also features something called Stardollars, though I do not understand exactly what you can buy with them. (Ask an eight-year-old.)
Well, if I can’t have an Obama-girl doll, what can I have? I take a stroll through midtown, passing Saks Fifth Avenue, where there is a harrowing sign in the window that reads: “The Gift of Time—Enjoy no interest and no payments for 12 months when you spend $2,000 or more on one receipt, Tuesday, November 11 through Thursday, December 11.” What? Saks is now adopting the come-ons perfected by shady furniture stores on 14th Street? Who says you’ll be in any better shape to pay a year from now? On the other hand, should I just go in and buy a Cartier watch?
“No!” the Kit Kittredge doll shouts from the window of the American Girl store across the street. Kit is one of the store’s “Historical Characters”—she lived during the last economic collapse 75 years ago, and she’s so popular, she was played by Abigail Breslin in a movie last summer. (I saw it. It was good.) Kit’s on the market just when we need her. She even has a book, subtitled “Times are hard during the Great Depression, but Kit finds a way to make Christmas bright and merry.” (I hope it doesn’t include giving people toothpaste.) Plucky Kit, who wants to be a journalist (bad career choice there, hon), now comes not just in the traditional American-girl doll size—18 inches for $90—but in a $22 miniature version, so she can give you lectures from your pocket about canning fruits and making dresses out of flour sacks as you wander around Saks buying stuff you can’t pay for.
What’s this I spy at Toys “R” Us in Times Square, which is blissfully empty on a weekday afternoon? (Well, blissful for me; I don’t think the Toys “R” Us owners are all that thrilled.) It’s a Barbie for President doll, in black and white versions, and only $14.99! The box says, “Turn the White House pink—Vote Barbie for president,” and they are a distinct improvement over the sticky Fairytale Wedding Barbie and Musical Princess Barbie, both of whom, I am sad to say, are here in abundance. More good news in the next aisle: Sharpay and Zeke are going to the prom together. This is a boxed set of two dolls from High School Musical—she’s blonde and appears to be named after a dog; he’s black and has his arm around her—who seem to be dating, and no one cares. (At least I assume they’re dating, since I’ve never seen their show, since I run screaming from anything with “high school” in the title.) Sharpay and Zeke remind me, briefly, of another showbiz couple: If you’re really, really old, you remember that in 1968, Petula Clark (she’s white) merely touched Harry Belafonte’s arm (he’s black) during a musical number on NBC and set off a shameful storm of controversy.
I exit the store just in time to catch the tail end of the elaborate Uniqlo event set up across the street in the Times Square Recruiting Station (a task that may be easier if the new prez keeps his promise to extricate us from unnecessary conflicts). Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing company, has built some kind of elaborate booth its calling a human vending machine and has staffed it with Heat-Techies wearing silver bodysuits who are dancing around and dispensing free Heat-Tech shirts that allegedly retain warmth no matter how cold it is outside.
Just the thing to keep Rosa Parks’s descendants toasty in D.C. on January 20.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 26, 2008