Dollitics: For Barbie's Birthday, A "New Look" And A Racial ScandalS

Today is Barbie's 51st birthday, which means you can buy a made-over SuperStar Barbie for a reduced price. Also on markdown at one WalMart: black Barbies!

According to a press release from Mattel, 2010 SuperStar Barbie is an update on a 1977 version of the doll, "introducing a fresh glam look." A side-by-side comparison reveals a disturbing inflation rate in the size of facial features — in addition to the "20-inch waist, 27 inch bust and 29 inch hips" a 5'6" woman would need to look like Barbie, it seems she'd also have to sport eyes the size of tennis balls. Can Alien Head Barbie be far behind? The good news, we guess, is that this week you can get those dewy, doe-y eyes and everything they're attached to for the original 1977 price of $3.

But the $3 price tag isn't just reserved for SuperStar Barbie, at least not at one Louisiana WalMart — where black Ballerina Theresa dolls are also going for $3. But, notes Cindy Casares of Guanabee, "The same exact doll, in Caucasian, commands almost double the price!" Yes, white ballerina dolls were still priced at $5.93, leading Thelma Dye, executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem, to argue, "The implication of the lowering of the price is that's devaluing the black doll." WalMart spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien gave ABC this uninspiring response:

To prepare for (s)pring inventory, a number of items are marked for clearance [...] Both are great dolls. The red price sticker indicates that this particular doll was on clearance when the photo was taken, and though both dolls were priced the same to start, one was marked down due to its lower sales to hopefully increase purchase from customers.

Lisa Wade, who posted about black and white dolls last year on Sociological Images, tells ABC that WalMart could have taken the position "that it's really important that we as a company don't send a message that we value blackness less than whiteness." While this would be a good step, Wade also notes that racial prejudice in the toy aisle goes deeper than stupid pricing schemes. She says that "most white parents wouldn't think to buy black doll for their child, even if they believe in equality and all those things," and that black parents are more likely to buy dolls of races other than their own. Her comment hearkens back to what stands in my memory as one of the most disturbing stories ever told on This American Life — Elna Baker's account of her time at FAO Schwartz. The store sold a flipper-armed, floppy headed white doll nicknamed "Baby Nubbins" before any of its black baby dolls.

The fact that Baby Nubbins was apparently "valued" — by customers, not by FAO Schwartz — above all the intact black dolls shows that there's something more upsetting at work in the politics of play than mere store stupidity. Sociological Images co-author Gwen Sharp suggests that maybe black Ballerina Theresas don't sell well because they just look like re-painted Barbies: "Maybe for both parents and kids, it seems more real and less symbolic of a change to have a doll that actually presents a range of attractive features rather than 'Oh we've changed the skin tone slightly.'" And Mattel says its "So In Style" line — dolls "designed to better resemble black women's facial features" — has received a "great response." Still, just as Barbie dolls continue to reflect institutional sexism with their unrealistic representation of the female body (a baby-face-plus-big-boobs representation that's become especially popular in an age that incongruously demands both extreme youth and sexual availability), so too the relative "values" placed on black dolls reflect the ways black women are often devalued. As Cindy Casares depressingly asks, "Who says Barbie dolls don't supply young girls with a realistic portrayal of womanhood?" Our Barbies, unfortunately, ourselves.

Image via Mattel press release.

Black Barbie Sold For Less Than White Barbie At Walmart Store [ABC]
Blondes Have More Value [Guanabee]

Related: This American Life Episode 347: Matchmakers [ThisAmericanLife.org]
The Price Of Profits: Are Black Dolls "Worth Less" Than White Dolls? [Sociological Images]

Earlier: Barbie Turns 50, Gets Chinese Facelift, Tattoos