Black Barbies: A Question Of Representation

Mattel and Stacey Irby-McBride debuted the So In Style line of black dolls to record levels of praise - and criticism. "Three dolls can't represent the whole African-American community," McBride says, not realizing her statement is the root of the issue.

The Wall Street Journal article documents the various critiques the dolls have attracted since they hit toy story shelves. Everything from the hair texture of the dolls to their features to their packaging has come under harsh scrutiny.

While the piece is pretty standard fare, one sentence in particular stands out as if it were surrounded by neon lights:

The criticism over Mattel's new black fashion dolls underscores how difficult it is for large commercial companies to please a widely diverse black community with a single image or two depicting young African-Americans.

This is where discussions of representation, politics, and commerce get thorny. One of the reasons that the So In Style Dolls are attracting so much attention is because there isn't an endless fountain of African American images to choose from. It is costly to create customized dolls for every variance in skin tone, facial structure, and hair style. My Twinn dolls, which are created in the image of the child who plays with the doll, retail for close to $150 dollar a piece.

For the toy maker seeking to turn a profit, mass production is generally the way to go. However, due to costs, these designs are limited. So from a business perspective, it would make sense for Mattel to drive money into a few different designs that will hopefully appeal to a broad range of people.

However, a market-based explanation does not take into consideration the long history of exclusion of African-Americans (and other minorities) from other aspects of the American cultural landscape. This exclusion, often intentional, was often rectified by making token gestures - like making sure that there might be one black friend, but ONLY one. As a result, because these opportunities for representation are so few and far between, the reactions come quickly.

And, in light of the societal preference for light skin/long hair, an unintended side effect of doll play is that young girls learn that the features and traits their dolls possess are pretty or beautiful, and often seek to emulate them. Irby-McBride acknowledges this dynamic in a video on the Mattel site, explaining that dolls do influence the behavior of young girls. She made a conscious decision to provide the dolls with younger sisters to encourage mentoring, and had the girls interested in science, math, and music to promote school engagement. However, she did not extend her concern to the physical cues that the girls may get from the So In Style line:

[Irby-McBride] also wanted them to be fun. She loved playing with Barbie's long hair as a child, she says, and Mattel's extensive research repeatedly shows that young girls want their dolls to have long hair they can brush and style. The So in Style dolls also have a hair-styling kit to curl and straighten the hair.

The black women recruited by Mattel to give input during the dolls' production had extensive discussions with the company about giving at least some of the dolls varied and representative hairstyles, says Ms. Johnson, the mother of a 14-year-old girl. Mattel's concession was to make one doll's hair wavy and give one of the little sisters short puffy pigtails.

For a lot of people, particularly those of us who want our children to love and embrace the hair that grows out of their heads before they start making any changes, this kind of oversight undermines what we are trying to teach. If we teach that long, straight hair is beautiful and fun to play with, and there are no representations of short hair, cropped hair, or kinky hair, what kind of message does that send to a child?

In an interesting twist, the WSJ asked doll modification expert Loanne Hizo Ostile (whose work we have featured before) for comment:

Loanne Hizo Ostlie says she also likes the dolls, but thinks Mattel did black girls a disservice by not giving them a more varied, representative look. For more than 10 years, she has been customizing dolls, specializing in creating black dolls from Kelly dolls, Barbie's little sister, and selling them on the Internet.

In the past, she also customized Barbies, but the field got increasingly crowded, she says. Now, she's turned to the So In Style little-sister dolls, painting their eyes brown and giving them "dreadlocks, Afros, cornrows and kinks."

Amazing.

Perhaps full and equitable representation is a bit much to ask from profit-driven enterprises, like Mattel. However, I am encouraged to see doll makers like Stacey Irby-McBride and Loanne Hizo Ostlie, each doing a small part to correct representations that they see as problematic.

Are Mattel's New Dolls Black Enough? [Wall Street Journal]
So In Style [Barbie.com]

Earlier: Dear Mattel: This Is How How You Make Barbie More Diverse