Jade Goss, age 2, looks as if she just stepped out of the wildly popular “Doc McStuffins” cartoon.
“She has the Doc McStuffins sheets. She has the Doc McStuffins doll. She has the Doc McStuffins purse. She has Doc McStuffins clothes,” said Jade’s mother, Melissa Woods, of Lynwood, California.
“I think what attracts her is, ‘Hey, I look like her, and she looks like me,'” Woods said of the character, an African-American child who acts as a doctor to her stuffed animals.
With about $500 million in sales last year, Doc McStuffins merchandise seems to be setting a record as the best-selling toy line based on an African-American character, industry experts say.
Its blockbuster success reflects, in part, the country’s changing consumer demographics, experts say, with more children from minority backgrounds providing an expanding, less segregated marketplace for shoppers and toymakers.
But what also differentiates Doc - and Dora the Explorer, an exceptionally popular Latina character whose toy line has sold $12 billion worth of merchandise over the years, Nickelodeon executives say - is her crossover appeal.
“The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that’s really big for them,” said Chris Nee, the creator of Doc McStuffins. “And I think a lot of other kids don’t see her color, and that’s wonderful as well.”
Nancy Kanter, general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, which developed “Doc McStuffins” - and who suggested the character be African-American in the first place - said Doc’s wide-ranging fan base could be gleaned from a spreadsheet.
“If you look at the numbers on the toy sales, it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t just African-American families buying these toys,” Kanter said. “It’s the broadest demographics possible.”
Industry experts say that children still tend to gravitate toward toys and characters that look like them, with parents clamoring for more nonwhite dolls and protesting in online petitions when a company like American Girl drops a black and an Asian doll, as it did in May.
“Right now there are more multicultural children being born under the age of 5,” said Lisa Williams, chief executive of World of EPI, the company behind Positively Perfect Dolls, a line of multicultural dolls sold at Wal-Mart stores around the country. “They are no longer the minority; they are actually the majority of children. The demand is there.”
Recent census data supports Williams’ point of the growing marketplace for nonwhite dolls and characters: Last year, roughly half of all infants in the United States were minorities, and minority children younger than 18 are expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites of the same ages by 2018.
These days, any toy whose sales reach several hundred million dollars, as Doc’s have, is considered significant, given the toy industry’s estimated $22 billion business nationwide. In the past, none of the toys based on Tiana, a recent black Disney princess; Little Bill, a television series starring an African-American boy; or even Michael Jackson in the ‘80s, have enjoyed such a prosperous shelf life as Doc’s, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.
“This is a different stratosphere,” said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TTPM.com, a website that covers toys.
Silver, along with parents and analysts, suspects that the key to the “Doc McStuffins” success is the TV character, which appeals to parents and children alike. But social and political changes over the past few decades have also broadened customers’ views.
“I don’t know if this character, 15 or 20 years ago, would have been as successful, because the culture has changed, and attitudes have changed,” Silver said of Doc. “You go back 20 years ago, and does a black president get elected?”
Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago whose research has focused on children, race and identity, said children from all backgrounds derive meaningful lessons from their toys.
“Children’s play is serious business,” Spencer said. “They are getting ideas about who they are from these objects. There are messages about one’s confidence, one’s sense of self in terms of what I look like and being powerful.”
At the same time, she notes that children of different races or ethnicities do view some toys differently.
“When little white girls embrace Doc McStuffins, for them Doc McStuffins is a girl, and Doc McStuffins is powerful,” Spencer said. “For a little black girl, it may be all of those things, but also that she’s black.”
Natalie Elisabeth Battles, a toddler who lives with her family in Little Rock, Arkansas, is so taken with Doc McStuffins that she sometimes wears a doctor’s coat to preschool. She has worn the full Doc McStuffins outfit, complete with stethoscope and thermometer, while accompanying her parents shopping, prompting other children to want a picture with her. Her father, Kevin, said they think she looks like Doc.
“To be able to identify with someone of her own race doing something positive” is valuable, her mother, Jennifer, said. “I know she’s only 3, but I think the message reaches her.”
Other mothers appreciate the character’s lifelike features.
“She has real coarse and pretty curly hair,” Kataya Smith said of her 5-year-old daughter, Kaydrian. “The Caucasian dolls’ hair is easy to manage, and I don’t want her to feel that that’s the way you need to look to be pretty. I want her to know: This is a pretty baby doll, and she has hair like me.”
Williams’ line of Positively Perfect Dolls offers a variety of hair textures and skin tones, “from vanilla crÃ¨me to pecan to mocha,” she said, adding that the facial features include “full lips, noses and deep eyes” that better resemble children of nonwhite backgrounds. She added two Latina dolls, Aleyna and Camila, this year.
Despite the newfound success of a few nonwhite dolls, a decision in May by American Girl to discontinue two dolls provoked an outcry among some parents. Frustrated parents protested on the company’s Facebook page, contending that the action was a step backward.
A spokeswoman for American Girl said those two dolls were part of a line of “friend” dolls, designed as companions to another character, that the company is moving away from. She also pointed to several other dolls of color, including Addy and some Bitty Baby dolls.
But the flap highlighted continuing gaps in toyland, with parents of Asian children and toy analysts saying that Asian dolls may be the scarcest of all.
No divide in the toy store is wider, however, than that between the girl and boy aisles. And that is another bridge Doc McStuffins has remarkably crossed, according to Disney executives and toy analysts.
Even though most Doc McStuffins toys look like toys typically marketed to girls, boys like Nathan Lipschik, 2, and his brother Asher, 4, who live in Scarsdale, New York, have also become fans of the cartoon and its merchandise.
“I was surprised when they started watching the show,” their mother, Leah Lipschik, said, adding that the pair more often leaned toward series like “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.”
Lipschik welcomes the show’s diversity, especially for her young son Nathan.
“He sees the same type of person every day, and that person is white,” she said.
And she is fine with the little boy’s interest in what some children Nathan’s age might consider girl’s toys.
“Do I care that it’s purple and pink?” she said. “He loves it. So I don’t care.”