As ‘Barbie’ becomes the only billion-dollar blockbuster solely directed by a woman, one doll maker in the Bay Area is hoping to break barriers of her own.
When 3-year-old Jillian Mak asked for her first doll last year, her mom, Elenor Mak, couldn’t wait to get her one.
But her excitement turned to disappointment the moment she set foot in the store.
“There were rows and rows of Caucasian dolls [with] blond hair and blue eyes,” she said. “And then, on the very side, there were these ethnic characters that looked ambiguously Asian, Latina. You just weren’t sure.”
She ended up buying the closest thing she could find, a doll with big green eyes and dark brown hair. But the idea that in 2022 she couldn’t find a single accurate Asian American doll, in San Francisco of all places, was hard to wrap her mind around.
“Dolls are not just a toy that’s in passing,” she explained. It’s the child’s first imaginary friend. It’s the child trying to make sense of the world.”
That’s when Elenor Mak decided to do something about it. She started by doing an online search for “How to make a doll?”
Then, she searched for an Asian toy maker. For the next few months, they researched everything from eye shape to skin tones to hair color.
“We would go out in the sun and look at our black hair and compare it to these samples,” she said.
While there were a few Asian American dolls by big-name companies like American Girl, she thought they were “too stereotypical.”
“We talk about how she loves sports,” she said. “It’s not a traditional association.”
She named her doll Jilly Bing — Jilly for her daughter’s nickname, and Bing is the Chinese word for cookie. One of Jilly’s accessories is a hat that flips into an egg tart.
“We wanted kids to have fun and delight in learning about different Asian foods,” she said.
Maria Teresa Hart, the author of the book ‘Doll,’ said being able to see yourself in them is critical.
“We have all of our feelings and assumptions about society are all contained in these toys and children are smart they do pick up on that” she said. “They may not be able to articulate it as well as we can, but they do understand what is being shown to them.”
Elenor Mak is now planning a whole cast of “lovable characters” she said will reflect the entire Asian American experience, including bi-racial dolls.
Jilly Bing, which sells for $68 online, seems to have struck a chord, the dolls began shipping on Aug. 1, with hundreds of pre-orders.
But the only customer that really matters is the one living in her house.
When asked what she loved most about Jilly Bing, 3-year-old Jillian exclaimed: “Everything!”
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