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Multicultural superheroes and dolls finally find a marketplace

On Doc McStuffins, a little girl pretends to be a toy doctor, while her mother, who is also black, is a medical doctor.Disney

In the Marvel Comics universe, there is now a black Captain America, a female Thor, a black-Hispanic Spider-Man and a Muslim Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel. In DC Comics, the Green Lantern is now gay. On the toy shelves and in cartoons, the black Doc McStuffins and Latina Dora the Explorer franchises are unprecedented multibillion-dollar crossover hits. The United States is finally seeing marketing intersecting with multiculturalism in a highly lucrative sweet spot.

Marvel Comics executive editor Tom Brevoort told CNBC, "It's almost a little mercenary. It's not like it doesn't come from a place of good-heartedness, but if we didn't get the kind of response we do every time we try to introduce one of these characters, we wouldn't keep doing it." Nancy Kanter, general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, said similar things about Doc McStuffins to Bloomberg Businessweek: "It's important to us that the brand and the content represents the world as kids live it and see it . . . For some kids this will look exactly like their families and for others it will look like what they see in their neighborhoods."

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Doc McStuffins is a particularly interesting case. She was originally created as a 6-year-old white girl who likes to heal her toys. Disney, criticized for decades for its alleged failure to cast people of color in powerful roles, made the switch to a black girl, and the doll's popularity took off. It now extends to boys ages 2 to 5, who make up nearly half the audience. To be sure, there is still plenty of gender and racial segregation remaining in the toy aisles of America, but this wave of multicultural characters begins the process of doing away with the very term "crossover" and creating truly "all-American" childhood heroes. Probably no one would be happier about this development than the late Kenneth B. Clark. His doll experiments of the 1940s and '50s, which included children in Massachusetts, found that black children rejected black dolls as bad and said white dolls were "nicer" and prettier. Clark's work was part of the basis for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, citing the harmful effects of racial segregation. Clark, who died in 2005, said as recently as 1995 that repeating the tests would probably yield the same result. Now the time is coming when children can look up to superheroes of all backgrounds, and view dolls of all colors as "nice."