Black Barbies: A Question Of Representation

Illustration for article titled 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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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

DISCUSSION

latoyapeterson-old
LatoyaPeterson

I am really starting to hate writing about racial issues for Jezebel.

To all the folks who point out that the white barbies don't look like you either - we know. We know that Barbie's measurements are ridiculous, that she puts forth a beauty standard toward white woman that is almost as unattainable as it is for black women and other women of color, we know that molds lend to standardization, we KNOW.

Feminism is full of scholarship about Barbie's impact on white women. It's no fucking picnic for you guys either - we get it.

But it's frustrating to have people keep deliberately inserting their experiences into a narrative that does not fit. It's not the same experience. I can read about what it's like to grow up as a middle class white girl, but I don't live it, so I don't know.

I do know what it's like to grow up as a lower-class black girl whose parents gave her science toys and books to read, and I can only think of owning two Barbie dolls (one black, one Hawaiian) my whole life.

Did Barbie impact me personally? Not really - I wasn't inclined to play with dolls, and I was conditioned to recognize when I was being sold something. I learned from a very early age that white beauty isn't the only beauty and there was no reason to feel bad about some white doll thing when there were so many other cool things in the world.

But that was *my* experience.

My cousin, who had dozens of Barbies and their cars and their dreamhouses thinks Barbies are wonderful toys for her four year old daughter. My cousin jokingly describes herself as looking for a Ken (we are both moving into our late 20s) and keeps her hair long and relaxed.

Unlike my cousin, I never hid under a towel at the pool to keep my skin from turning darker.

And unlike some of my friends, I never felt that sting of being passed over to play with Barbies because there weren't enough black one's to go around. I didn't walk around with a towel on my head swinging it around as if it was long flowing hair, and I didn't (as described in a seventeen magazine article that was published when I was still in the age range to read it) pump out lotion and leave it on my skin pretending I looked white.

I never felt that pain that one of my friends felt when her classmates teased her about having dark skin and short hair, even though it was relaxed and she used a variety of products to try to make it grow.

And I never felt the kind of pain one of my other friends felt when she went up to her white crush and confessed her feelings, only to have him reply "But...you're black." All the parental affirmation in the world was not helping then.

When you have children, you are their primary example. For a while. And then they go to school, they socialize with others, they pick up words, ideas, actions that you never would have dreamed they would. Some of my friends had color struck parents. And some of my friends just got caught up in a glossy, aspirational, media saturated world that paints a very clear picture of who in our society is beautiful and wanted and who is not. Barbie is a part of that. Hollywood is a part of that. TV is a part of that. Advertising is a part of that. And it is relentless and endless.

It might not make sense to some of you who have not felt the sting of feeling entire pieces of your identity excluded from view and representation. Who take for granted that while you may not relate to Blake Lively or Lauren Conrad that you can always turn on the television and see someone of your race and your gender doing all kinds of activities and seen in all sorts of contexts.

If you've never had to hunt for "the one" in media, you are not going to be able to get why Barbie representation is so important to people.

If you felt like you could relate heavily to Daria and Jane but you were still thankful for the one time Jodie made a speech about being the only black kid at Lawndale, if you watched The Craft because it was awesome, but you always remember that it was Rochelle who got told that her "little nappy hairs" looked like "pubic hairs" or you just realized that the only "role"for black girls in society was as the silent/funny/pathetic side kick in a white girl's story then you understand.

This isn't a narrative unique to black women - many, many of us are erased. But the black woman's story is the one I know best because I live it.

If you don't give two fucks about Barbie, great. Bully for you. Dolls don't really move me to action either. But in the context of our society, and how pop culture shapes not only the fantasies that people have but also limits the spaces where they can visualize being, where women grow up to have Disney themed weddings, where Barbie is a global icon, you cannot tell me that a little spit shine and whimsy is all kids need to get over years of conditioning on various fronts that something about them is inferior.