Written by Love Isn’t Enough Contributor TAB
My youngest child, who is preschool age, recently celebrated his birthday. He is a big fan of Playmobil toys. We went to his favorite toy store to pick out his present. Nestled among the Playmobil pirates, Vikings, farmers, and so on . . . was a dark-skinned, half-naked figure in animal skins and face paint, holding a spear. It was the only dark-skinned figure in the entire Playmobil section. It was the only figure that came without a complete environment (e.g., the knights come with castles and dragons, the pirates with ships, sunken treasures and sea monsters). To a little boy who loves to engage in creative play for long stretches of time, the doll was unappealing. He is too young to recognize what I understood: Playmobil was conveying a clear message about which people are more technologically evolved, multifaceted and more appealing. To some, that realization may seem like a stretch but as a Kenyan-born American citizen, I have repeatedly encountered assumptions about Africans from well-meaning (non-African) adults that fit with Playmobil’s monolithic, primitive representation of us.
A store manager informed us that the unlabeled doll was an older version of Playmobil’s “Zulu Warrior.” The current version of “Zulu Warrior” is no longer half-naked but it remains without an accompanying environment. Upon glancing at Playmobil’s 2010 paper catalog, I found more of the same. Rather than expand its line of African dolls to include other representations of Africans, Playmobil further reified the “essential” nature of “Africans” by issuing a new doll collection, “African Natives,” sporting animal skins, face paint and spears. To be clear: wearing animal skins does not make one inferior, or one’s culture inferior; it’s equating animal skins to primitiveness and inferred lack of intelligence that is problematic and damaging. Failing to acknowledge Africa as a diverse continent containing distinct cultures and peoples is equally problematic. For example, my father’s people are not warriors; they are traditionally pacifists who value education. Yet Playmobil frames non-Westernized Africans largely within the context of conflict, defining us as primal, violent, and savage – as evidenced by the weapons, descriptors such as “warrior” and “native(s),” and the menacingly-displayed skull. And, absent any context, such as the pirates in their ship sailing for treasures, the Playmobil Africans have no reason or purpose for their aggression, they just “are.” The absence of buildings, homes, or even families for the “African Natives” and “Zulu Warrior” define Africans as aggressive and violent only. It is yet another stereotype, not just about Africans specifically but black people generally.
Notably, the black Playmobil dolls in non-violent roles, such as the ranger in its “Vast African Wild Life” collection, are all in European/Western clothing. The “Vast African Wild Life” ranger could possibly be an African since it shares the same dark brown skin color as the “African Natives.” The rest of the Wild Life dolls do not resemble the ones Playmobil has labeled as “African.” In fact, the large, two-page catalog spread, which takes up ¾ of each page, does not include the dark-skinned doll (he is relegated to a small picture in the bottom right-hand corner; 2010 catalog, pp. 14-15). The dolls prominently advertised are either white or tan. This is problematic for a number of reasons.
First of all, by populating its wildlife set with non-black dolls, the implication seems to be that Africans require other people to look after their own environment for them. If so, it defies logic: who would know the flora and fauna better than people indigenous to the same land? An animal and/or nature preserve requires intelligence, organization and knowledge/education about the animals and plants in question. The overwhelming presence of non-African dolls again seems to fall along the lines of the stereotype of Africans as lacking enough knowledge, intelligence and organization to create and sustain such an entity. Traditional knowledge is inferior to Western knowledge.
Second of all, by restricting its non-violent options to black dolls in Western clothing, Playmobil is conveying a clear message regarding who/what constitutes civilized. For example, the possibly-African “Wild Life” ranger doll, in Western clothing, carries a bottle and bandages to care for wounded animals (per the catalog description, p. 15). By contrast, the “African Native” dolls, in non-Western wear, carry weapons. The implicit message is that one culture is nurturing, constructive, while the other is inherently destructive. Those acquainted with the brutal European colonization of many African nations will realize what a preposterous, offensive misrepresentation this is. Even worse, this misrepresentation sends a subtle yet insidious message to children regarding who is civilized and desirable and who is not…and therefore, who is “better” or superior. They may not understand the message as children but I have encountered enough adults who assume most Africans had no self-governance, technology or even agency, prior to European invasion. They see us as a continent of children in adult bodies, fully formed yet still fundamentally undeveloped.
Third, Playmobil’s non-Westernized African dolls look indistinguishable. Although Playmobil references the Zulu people with one figure, it terms the others as “African Natives” and “African Chief,” as if all other African peoples are one indistinguishable lump. Notably, the Zulu warrior, natives and chief look virtually identical (compared to the white Playmobil dolls with various eye and hair colors, hair lengths, etc.). They also look masculine. Non-Westernized African women are glaringly absent from Playmobil’s vast inventory. In contrast, Playmobil’s “African/African American Family” wears Western clothes and includes a mother. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the message conveyed is western = civilized, distinct individuals, including women; “African Native”= aggressive, visually indiscernible, and excludes women – or maybe, absent westernization, the women are indistinguishably masculine. It is hard to tell. Maybe that was the point? It reinforces the stereotype of black women as masculine and requiring the “civilizing” influence of westernization in order to become or be seen as more feminine.
It is as if Playmobil could not be bothered to individuate Africans in the same way it has repeatedly done so for its other groups. For example, it makes white Viking dolls and white Roman army dolls, which relate to specific eras and countries. By not designating an era, country or ethnicity for the “African Natives,” Playmobil perpetuates the myth that Africa is a time-frozen monolith. We are apparently indistinguishable from each other yet we are distinguishable from the rest of multifaceted humanity by our one-dimensional trait: overt aggression.
As previously stated, Playmobil’s “African Natives,” “Chief” and “Zulu Warrior” exist in a vacuum, lacking houses, families, transportation, etc. A quick Google search would easily prove that many African peoples have traditionally had these things. Such omissions merely emphasize who Playmobil deems worthy of multifaceted portrayals. Playmobil reduces an entire continent to a one-dimensional caricature.
[Part II of this post will discuss other problematic representations of Africans in other Playmobil playsets.]