Black Barbie strikes back

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(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Last week Mattel, makers of the Barbie line of dolls announced their newest addition to the pantheon of girls toys “S.I.S”! The acronym stands for “So In Style” which characterizes this new line of dolls that are targeted at African-American girls and their moms who are desperate to buy a Barbie doll but don’t want to get all wrapped up in the racial and social implications of re-enforcing European standards of beauty. Either that or they’re just desperate to keep up with the Joneses. While this new line is a step in the right direction, those hoping that these dolls are finally going to solve the age old debate about Black beauty images and give our girls a self esteem boost are delusional.

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The SIS line is the brainchild of Stacey McBride a Black woman and mother of two who felt like it was high time for Barbie to dip into diversity market again. This isn’t the first time, Barbie’s fist Black friend, Julia was introduced in the 1970’s, she was a nurse and basically indistinguishable from Barbie except that she was Black. In the early 1990’s Mattel came out with the “Shani” line of dolls, which was the first time the Barbie line tried to make black dolls distinct from the mainline Barbie. “Shani” dolls featured a trio of girlfriends all decked out in enough hoop earrings, sneakers and Kente cloth that they could’ve passed as extras on “A Diff’rent World”. This new line features three girls as well, teen friends living in Chicago who are of course depicted in the three convenient colors, one ‘dark’ one ‘brown’ and one ‘yellow’, and to top it off they are all supposedly created with broader noses and wider lips to better reflect African-American girls and lift their self esteem.

Look if you’re expecting another in a long line of diatribes about how Mattel enforces self hatred and body issues in young Black girls, you’re reading the wrong article. If you’re using dolls to improve your daughter’s self esteem you’re already out of the running for parent of the year. Even SIS creator Stacey McBride’s own on-line interview discussing the new line re-enforces the problems we already know. She wistfully recalls her childhood of playing with Barbie and how she “…loved her long blonde hair.” Later in the same clip a young Black girl is seen talking about how much she likes the new dolls because “…she can comb their long hair.” And let’s not fool ourselves, Barbie presents just as many problems for White girls and Latino girls. The biggest issue with Barbie and feminine self image hasn’t been as much about her clothes and hair as her body, with measurements that no human woman could ever hope to achieve.

But the larger concern I have with the new line of toys is the predictably negative way that some African-American social commentators attack the problem. All too many of the writings I’ve seen about these new dolls attack them for reinforcing old images and not going far enough to really represent all of young Black America. What do people really expect? Dolls are all about creating a fantasy (usually an unobtainable one) for young girls. Black or White the fantasy is not healthy in the long term if people fail to also infuse their daughters with a sense of self. If anything I’m disappointed at how lazy Mattel was in creating the new line. We live in an era where twists, cornrows, micro-braids and even locks are almost mainstream. Last year we saw the president’s daughters sporting braids around the White House. How hard could it be for a toy line targeted at Black girls to actually re-create some of the styles that girls are actually wearing now?

I recognize that much of the consternation over Black images and dolls stems from the age old “Doll Test” that was used during Brown v.s. Board of Education in the 1950’s and the similar test that was repeated by filmmaker Kiri Davis in 2006. But the fact is that children simply pick the doll they think is the most popular. Tests have shown that among boys Black dolls are preferred for action figures and sports toys. So rather than us wasting time and fretting as a community over the newest piece of plastic to get in the toy aisle, let’s instead concentrate on what’s important. If kids see healthy functional families and communities I’m sure they’ll draw more upon that than on Barbie’s friends. We may all be forced to live in “Barbie’s world” but we don’t have to raise self-hating Barbie Girls.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)

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