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Have a politically correct Christmas

It's been the year of shaving Ken, ethnic Barbies and the wheelchair doll. By Sally Williams
It's been a good year for dolly minorities. Take men dolls, for example. Ken had previously always been just Mr Barbie - Barbie's partner at the ball, Barbie's groom at Barbie's wedding. But now Ken is a doll in his own right: as Shaving Fun Ken and Baywatch Ken.

And then there are the black Barbies. Tropical Splash Christie (intended to be African-American, but actually looking Polynesian) hit the scene this year, complete with tropical flower bikini, and some Tropical Splash friends including Teresa (Hispanic) and Kiera (Asian).

Toys that reflect racial and sexual diversity are not new. Sasha multi- ethnic dolls were popular in the Seventies and Barbie's first black friend, Francie, was launched in 1967. Black dolls may not be news, but, says David Coombs, editor of Toy Trader, but the fact that more and more companies are now pushing politically correct lines, is.

Parents wanting to wish their children a Politically Correct Christmas this year can choose, among others: Sindy's first black friend, Crimp & Bead Imani launched this August by Hasbro; the only wheelchair doll - the Little Tikes Wheelchair, Ramp and Friend; a black "drink and wet" baby doll, Aysha, or a soft bodied black baby boy doll, Junior, both recently launched by Hunter Toys. There's also an updated version of Subbuteo, the footballing game, which now includes three black players per team.

Even the aggressive Power Rangers are, in fact, according to David Coombs, "very right on," and not just because they eat in a health food bar. He explains: "One of the girls is Asian, two of the boys are black, and yet the boys do the same as the girls; and the blacks do the same as the whites. Children watching will identify with both sexes and a wide range of races - and that has to be positive."

According to David Coombs, the same is true of Pocahontas. "Thanks to Pocahontas, children are now identifying with a Native American Indian." Critics may argue that the doll looks as much like a American Indian as Naomi Campbell, but, says Dave Coombs: "Dolls are aspirational. They depict the person the little girl would like to be, or the person she would like as her friend. Black Barbie may not look like a real black person, but who looks like the blonde, blue-eyed Barbie?"

Nevertheless, a desire to reflect a changing society is what motivates some toy manufacturers to produce more PC toys. "We just believe producing dolls like Aysha and Junior is a healthy thing to do," said Jimmy Hunter, managing director of Hunter toys. Retailers like John Lewis, Hamleys and Toys R Us agree, but Hunter said more rural outlets can't see the point. "If you live in Forfar, Scotland, you're not going to come across too many Asians or West Indians. It's not that people are racist, it's just that they don't think about it."

This is one of the reasons why blonde Lucy sells better than Aysha, and why Tropical Splash Christie only accounts for 10 per cent of the Tropical Splash range. A couple of years ago Hasbro was forced to withdraw a black Action Man, due to poor sales, so the future for Imani could be bleak.

Not so for Barbie. Mattel has big plans for her in 1996. Perhaps the most radical of all is not the black Baywatch Barbie,but the fact that shop-till-you-drop, disco-dancing Barbie is to become a school teacher.