Not Dolls

How the Obamas should present their daughters to the public.

Ty Inc.’s “Sweet Sasha” and “Marvelous Malia” dolls

If you walk into a store and see your child for sale—face emblazoned on a T-shirt, name planted on a doll—what’s the proper reaction? In my world, there is only one: dismay, followed by protest. Which is why Michelle Obama’s response to the blatant packaging of her daughters by the toy company Ty, as brown-skinned dolls named “Sweet Sasha” and “Marvelous Malia,” hit precisely the right maternal note. Even in the carefully chosen words of Michelle’s spokeswoman—“We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes”—you can feel the heat beneath the ice.

And that comes as something of a relief to me. Because Barack and Michelle Obama’s job as parents is to think first, middle, and last about what’s good for their girls. When it comes to the kids, forget the country. Forget the opportunity and burden of being black role models, and all the children out there whose horizons will expand as they hug their little Sasha and Malia replicas. There are plenty of other people—a whole nation’s worth, it seems—who can obsess about the implications of that. The Obamas have a harder task: negotiating the boundaries for their children without, apparently, resorting to the utter kids-off-limits policies of presidents before them.

In the Washington Post, my friend Ruth Marcus says that she understands Michelle Obama’s reaction to the dolls but urges her to “embrace them.” (I’m not sure why Michelle O. had to make this all about the first lady’s office, since the president could have spoken out as a father, too.) Ruth hearkens back to the famous psychology experiment cited by the Supreme Court in its 1954 school desegregation decision, in which black children by wide margins chose to play with white dolls, which they called “nice,” in contrast to the “bad” black ones. Ruth adds that a 2005 documentary posed the same choice and got the same distressing results. My colleague Jessica Grose makes a similar point that there’s an upside to Ty’s opportunistic profit-making: “Little girls of all races might want to play with black dolls now.”

Lovely. The one time I bought my older son dolls, when he was 2 or 3, we picked out a pair of twin black babies dressed in pink and white. (Don’t give us too much credit for enlightenment: Eli named the boy doll Rohan, after a baby at his day care, and completely ignored the girl doll.) Sure, it will be good for African-American children’s self-image, and white children’s perceptions of race, if the Obama products do well.

But in solidarity with the Obamas as parents, I am not going to buy Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia for my 3-year-old niece. It’s beyond dispute that Malia and Sasha have already lost all semblance of ordinary life. They are growing up as objects of national fascination. Inevitably, almost everyone they meet will think of them as Barack Obama’s children first and as 7-year-old and 10-year-old girls second. The problem with the Ty dolls isn’t so much the crass commercialization. Hey, it’s America, and there’s even a shred of tradition here: When Caroline Kennedy was a little girl in the White House, someone made a doll of her, too, we learn from The New Yorker this week. The dolls irritate because they’re part of the myth that these very real White House girls are slowly being wrapped in, one more data point that suggests to them that they’re not just living in a storybook, they’re starring in one.

And that can’t be a good thing for a kid. Childhood shouldn’t be about watching other people watch you and thinking of yourself differently as a result. On Slate’s “XX Factor” blog, my colleague Samantha Henig asks, “Do any of you moms hold it against [Obama] that he chose to go for it anyway, even though [becoming president] would almost certainly make a ‘normal’ childhood impossible for his daughters?” My answer is yes: It’s the least appealing thing about the man.

That’s why I’ve found a couple of the Obamas’ recent moves about their kids faintly disturbing. Why release pictures from the first day of school at Sidwell Friends? Why write an open letter to the girls for publication in Parade magazine the week before the inauguration? That letter didn’t seem pitched to kids of their age. And as I wrote at the time, it was a combination of stilted rhetoric (“I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential”) and of weighting down Malia and Sasha with the burden of future service. Their father charges them with “righting the wrongs that you see and working to give others the chances you’ve had.” Give it a rest.

At the same time, I’m not sure I want to argue that the only choice parents can make for kids who grow up in the White House is a reclusive rule of no press and no exposure at any time. It’s not that I think the nation shouldn’t be denied the teachable moments that will come from glimpses into our first African-American first family. Like I said, as parents, Barack and Michelle Obama are the two people in the world who should ignore that consideration. But I do wonder if keeping entirely out of the public eye isn’t what the girls want themselves.

Maybe it’s a sign of our overly permissive, child-centric times to take what may be their wishes into account in this way. (Also, maybe I’m trying to excuse myself, once again, for writing about my own kids.) But once you’ve decided to run for president, and in the process vaulted your kids into a position as America’s darlings, I’m not sure how you tell them to stay entirely out of sight. Those girls clearly reveled in waving to the crowds on Inauguration Day. In the TV interview they gave last July—the one that their father later apologized for—they betrayed traces of impatience and tiredness. After a few minutes, I wasn’t really sure they wanted to be there. But I bet they were the instigators. And I do think they enjoyed puncturing their father for the world by rolling their eyes over his odd disinterest in dessert.

The Obamas are still finding their footing over how much to let the girls into public view. Meanwhile, that parenting tightrope-walk is itself the subject of endless press interest. Mine included: I share the ambivalence of Salon’s Broadsheet about how much I should be peering, via photograph or video, into those girls’ wide-open faces.

My hope for Sasha and Malia is that at least some of the kids they go to school with will respond to them simply as kids. Sidwell is its own D.C. fishbowl, but at least the girls are young enough to have young, relatively uncanny classmates. Or at least a few. I heard a reassuring story, third-hand, along these lines: Soon after Sasha showed up for school, the mother of one of the boys in her class couldn’t resist pumping her son for details. What was the president’s daughter like? His answer went something like, “I don’t know. She’s a girl. I don’t talk to girls.” That’s the best news I’ve heard yet about Barack Obama’s girls since they moved to the White House. Let’s hope that it’s a bubble that lasts.