New Black Barbies, Same Old ControversyS

The mainstream media has finally caught on to what the black blogosphere buzzed about two weeks ago: The premiere of the So In Style (or S.I.S.) line of Black Barbies. But are the dolls going to be an adequate representation?

Okay, that's a trick question. It's hard to make an adequate representation of anything, and have it appeal to a mass market. Interestingly, creator Stacy McBride-Irby came up with the doll redesign out of a desire to have a doll that reflected what her daughter looks like

"They mean so much to me because they did come from a positive place," McBride-Irby said. "My daughter loves the dolls. I've had dads thank me for creating this line of dolls that represent their little girls. These dolls are for girls all over the world."

Over at Racialicious, I had two separate submissions, begging to disagree.

Seattle Slim wrote:

Mattel, you disappoint me. What was wrong with giving these dolls from your S.I.S line natural hair, dark brown eyes, and features that fit with most of the particular demographic, black girls, that you are looking to cater to?

If you guys think that these dolls don't mean shit, might I kindly ask you to check out the Doll test?

You should not be lauded for this, Mattel. I appreciate you thinking of us and all, but you dropped the ball on this.

Even if you wanted to keep these dolls, that's fine. I've already described my grandfather and family history here. Where is MY doll? Where is the doll with the Afro? Where is the doll with twists? Where's the doll with the lowboy? Where's the doll with the dark brown eyes, and the flatter nose, and the voluptuous lips? Where's the doll that has all of those things, not just some? Where's the doll for little girls that look like me?

Let me be more clear, these dolls (except for Kara's crazy lace front) are not terrible. I think they are actually perfect for little girls who have a mixed background. These pretty much cover a broad aesthetic and look like plausibly like someone with mixed heritage. In that respect, these dolls are perfect!

However, for the little black girls that look just like ME with unmistakably Afrocentric features, these dolls appeal to the tried and totally untrue, but respected, hip-hop beauty ideal that has become an "exotic girls only" industrial complex. So not only are young girls bombarded with those images on television, if their parents aren't careful, they are basically kicked while they're down walking through the toy store.

Tami, the editor of Love Isn't Enough, opened by explaining what she likes about the dolls. However, she still had heavy reservations:

Like a lot of women, I am uncomfortable with Barbie and her role in the development of young girls. It's not all Barbie's fault. It is the space she occupies in the universe of things that influence how girls grow up to be women: what goals they ultimately have, how they see themselves, how they judge their self worth and how they define womanhood.

I also have a beef with the word "authentic" to describe the three acceptably "blackified" dolls. Let's face it, these dolls don't represent any sort of break-through in representation of black faces. The skin tones and facial features fall within a narrow range that is acceptable within Eurocentric beauty standards. And to say that their hair is "curly" like that of most black women (as McBride-Irby does in this video on the consumer page for the new dolls) is being a wee bit disingenuous. Most black women have hair that is more kinky than curly in its natural state. (These dolls ain't no nappy heads.) Of course, most black women chemically straighten or weave up, which makes the dolls an accurate representation. Fine, but don't try to market them as some representation of "authentic" black physicality.

I also note, in the linked Mattel page above, the use of vaguely "urban" music, a gold, blingy necklace and a backstory that involves Barbie's friend Grace moving from California to Chicago, where she hooks up with Kara and Trishelle. The story and associated imagery is relatable for many black girls, but not all. What about the many, little black girls who live in the burbs? Of course, these dolls can't be everything to every child. But again, the use of "authentic" is a marketing fail. The urban experience is no more "authentic" to black folks than the rural experience.

This idea of authenticity permeates the whole line - each of the dolls has an optional hair styling kit, which includes a curl spray, clip in extensions, and a curling iron.

(Pause here for a second. The dolls come with activator and a weave. Both! Even Régine on Living Single didn't go this deep and she was checking for a Chocolate Ken!)

The reactions to both the pieces raged back and forth - some people thought we should appreciate the effort, the steps taken, and the fact that a black designer created and conceived the S.I.S. project. Others thought that anything that reinforces eurocentric beauty standards is still damaging, even if it is created by another women of color.

But the strength of the reactions - both for and against the dolls - showed what's really at stake here. While some people might say that all of this attention toward Barbie is silly and misplaced, the fact is Barbie still occupies a certain, exalted place in the cultural consciousness. Even as the Barbie brand is falling out of favor, she remains a symbol of (white) femininity and desirably, and unreachable ideal that far too many girls still find imprinted on their psyches.

The truth is, we don't want to change Barbie, or Trichelle, Kara, and Grace. We want to change the culture that says we must look a certain way in order to be beautiful.

But changing a culture is difficult. And even as we grow up, and leave our Barbies behind (or decided we never liked them in the first place), the painful truth remains: we all want our beauty to be validated.

And in our own, individual way, we're trying to influence the world to do just that.

New Black Barbies Get Mixed Reviews [CNN]
Mattel Falls Short With S.I.S (So In Style) Line Black Barbies [Happy Nappy Head]
I'm Saving My Cheers For New, "Authentic" Black Barbie [Love Isn't Enough]
Barbie So In Style Stylin Hair Grace Doll