You heard the news. Barbie has evolved. Rolling out over the next many months are Barbie dolls of 4 body types, 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors (that seems a bit excessive), and 24 hairstyles. This has gotten plenty of press, most of it glowing. As happens after a long day of fighting the patriarchy (and before a long night playing Destiny), some of the women on the BNP Staff got to talking about Barbie — what we remembered, what we loved, what we hated, and what we felt about the big announcement. What we had to say may surprise you.
I had several dolls growing up. My mom made sure of that! I, too, had Barbies. I’ve bought Barbies. I’ve critiqued Barbie both as playtoy and as an American icon. Surely she’s created a legacy that’s not going away anytime soon. And certain editions of the doll — like the Moschino Barbie with a commercial that features, for the very first time ever, a little boy — seek to challenge common stereotypes of gender-based toys. We can’t deny that good ol’ Barbie still got it. I mean… the Ava Duvernay Barbie doll sold out in mere minutes. Mere minutes.
But I gotta share a not-so-secret, dirty little secret here… Mattel suffered a HUGE loss by losing the Disney Princess doll line to Hasbro. Which means what, exactly? That they are hurting! Sales are suffering and they need a new sales pitch to help hold them over. So what do they do? Introduce these new Barbie dolls with diverse shapes and all. Is Mattel too late in a world where Princess Planet has already stepped up to the plate with an ambitious vision to do it all: doll line, books, and an app? Another example? Did you know that there’s a doll company based in Nigeria that’s been outselling Barbie?
I will say that I am excited by the body positivity that I’m seeing regarding the new Barbies. Available in curvy, petite, and tall, I’m seeing grown women get excited by seeing a more realistic Barbie doll that looks more like them. And that, in itself, is awesome. This means that younger women and little girls can see themselves as beautiful… they can see themselves and all the women they see as role-models represented in a small way. How many of us adult women have grown up seeing our bodies not represented positively in the media? Let me take it one step further: how many of us women of color have had to navigate spaces where our bodies were the only pieces of us that mattered to others? So I’m fine with Mattel dropping the news about Barbie’s new “Diversity Line”. I love to see body positivity. I believe that young children, especially girls should start seeing and hearing about that wayyyy before they are adults. But as for diversity, Mattel is a little too late. But I don’t see them leaving the game anytime soon!
After years of losing market share, Mattel has decided that diversity is the way to go? Okay. I guess. All that really tells me is that Mattel as an organization has no real interest in inclusion or representation, but is desperate enough to try anything — anything means including brown people and people with remotely realistic body proportions. I want to be excited, I do. Barbie is a global icon and was (note that past tense) once the most popular doll in the world. BUT Anna and Elsa came for that ass. And so did Apple. Now the market for these toys is smaller/younger and so I’m supposed to be excited about this? Naw.
The thing is that, yesterday, I got my Queens of Africa Trinity pack delivered to my door.
Three Black dolls in three different Black complexions. And I didn’t feel like I was begging for it from the company that produced Colored Francie or the company that has been criticized (by Ann duCille among others) for using “ethnicity” and “diversity” as inaccurate descriptors and marketing tools. This is not to say that the Queens of Africa dolls did a great job with body shape diversity because they didn’t. But they don’t have to be everything to everyone, because they are not the only ones in these aisles offering choices. Have you see the Fulla dolls yet?
I mean I might be willing to give Mattel a pass in the “you’re at least trying” sense if, when I visited their website and clicked around, ending up on their “Games” page, it wasn’t a sea of white faces or should I say a singular thin white face? Then I got curious, what about their movie offerings? (Last week, I had to suffer through a trailer before we were allowed to watch Wonder Woman. Damn you “This command is not available”!). Still a single, thin, white face.
So with the market getting smaller and younger, the way to be inclusive is to change the product/doll that represents a shrinking portion of your business, but to leave the online offerings (games, apps, and movies) where you still have potential for growth untouched? Okay. Yeah, I’m going to skip this one. I’ll check back when you’re being proactive and not defensive — or maybe when the next Barbie DVD trailer that I’m not allowed to click away from looks remotely like me or my kids or my mom.
I was a Barbie girl. Not that I was tall, blonde, or traditionally pretty. Those are the things I wanted to be. What I was, was the girl with the Barbie stuff. I had the three-part dreamhouse, the townhouse with the elevator, the RV, the speeder car…oh, and the Salon Barbie head where you could cut her hair and pull more out of her head. And yes, I had Christie, Barbie’s Black girlfriend. Of course Barbie had a Black friend and regardless of that friend, I knew who the star was, who I was supposed to aspire to be. Black or white, I took her clothes off, tried to make her feet flat by burning them with a lighter, and endlessly invented soap-opera plots in which Ken was awful and the two girlfriends rode off together in their car (I did Thelma and Louise way before Thelma and Louise did). All of this illustrates the real importance of inclusive design for dolls: when you have a variety of dolls, variety becomes normal. When all you have is one kind of doll, the characters in your imagination are curtailed, and limiting your internal vision can’t help but limit your external one. But variety isn’t sufficient. It is a great step and on that basis, I’m down for Mattel deciding to diversify their doll offerings. Last year they introduced dolls of multiple skin tones and hair styles. This year dolls that are curvy, shorter, taller. All good.
But I’m going to need more.
Look, my 5-year-old has a collection of dolls in the Barbie style: plastic body, more leg thatn body, hair for styling, clothes for taking off, shoes for getting lost in the back of the car. They already vary in height, waist size, and (to a lesser degree) skin tone. I don’t need Mattel to vary their offerings, other manufacturers, some Black-owned, have already filled that gap. We wanted options and other companies provided them. I can go down to Toys R Us right now and buy a whole grip of Black “fashion” dolls with names like Kenya, Clawdeen (Monster High), and Sasha (Bratz). And these dolls come with more than just darker skin and hard-to-comb hair — they come with varying storylines and varying aspirations.
If Mattel wants my “YAAAASSSSS!” of Black mom approval, and the money that comes with it, they should see to their associated product lines (#BarbieSTILLSoWhite). They should work on centering some of these “other” character dolls, so that any of them can be the star of the imagination game. It is no longer world changing for me to have different colored/sized dolls. It changes my world to decenter the white woman as the star of the story. Inclusion is a beginning-to-end proposition and I don’t have any need to hang around and wait for Mattel to catch up. Iridessa (Disney) is due at a tea party with Tink and the gang, I need to comb her hair.
I loved dolls when I was a kid. I mean LOVED dolls! LOVED. I was the eldest girl with a great grandfather who enjoyed spoiling her with whatever extra money he had and he LOVED Barbie. I mean LOVED Barbie. I LOVED him which meant, I put up with Barbie. Yeah, I said it. I enjoyed the dolls that I could carry around and hold and love on. I was smitten with my Cabbage Patch Doll named Robin, I bald white boy with blue eyes that my aunt mailed to me from Germany before the line ever hit the states. I carried that little boy around with me like I had given birth to him.
That ever growing Barbie collection, though. Well… I just kind of posed them on the custom built shelf that my grandfather made for me and that was about it. I hated her. I hated that feeling of accidentally stepping on her at night. It was just as bad as a Lego. I also didn’t like how stiff she was. Now, I’m going to be honest. I had Barbies and I had Barbie-like dolls that didn’t have bendable joints and were kind of see through. In the 80’s, outside of Christie, the knock-offs were available in a few more skin tones. When I say a few more, I mean like one or two more, but with a lot more outfits than Barbie’s single Black friend. Which brings me to today. Mattel, Mattel, Mattel… You and your 18 new skin tones and 3 new body shapes. I want to be happy. I do, I really do. I mean, I was at first. I small part of me still is happy, but I think that this is a nice start. Maybe.
I have a hard time believing that Mattel is diversifying Barbie in order to create a more realistic world for young girls. I really think that Mattel is doing this to garner more profits, or any profits. Adult women everywhere are beginning to look at Barbie in a different light. Look! That one looks more like me than ever before. She’s curvy/tall/petite and brown/tan/olive/mocha just like me! Initial excitement in tow, I ran to the interwebs (as my grandma used to say) and prayed to find my Barbie-self to place in my online shopping cart, ready to sit at the door until she arrived. I wanted Christmas! I didn’t find it. I searched and I still didn’t see me. I came close in the tall, brown-skinned Barbie with the glowing red curly ‘fro who isn’t available yet and the dolled-up denim sistah with the long chocolate mane to match her chocolate skin. They aren’t me though. Where is the petite curvy chocolate girl with the jet black curly ‘fro? Hey, let’s not even think of me. Where’s the brown Barbie in a hijab that I can gift to my preschool student who is constantly telling people that she doesn’t have a scarf on her head? Where’s that Barbie?
I don’t expect Mattel to have all of the answers and all of the body types. I don’t expect any white or mainstreamed corporation to get diversity right, especially when they’ve been doing it the “white way” for decades. I don’t expect it from Mattel because this attempt was to cure their bank account not to cure privilege and to make dolls who look like the salad bowl of folks living in this world. Honestly, I only expect as much from Mattel as I did from my childhood Barbies; sit there and stay there so that I don’t step on you in the middle of the night. There is nothing worse than stepping in a puddle of “but I have Black friends” when all you wanted was to be seen and heard for who you actually are, not the you who can bring in the bank with a pretty chocolate fat face.
So if we’re being honest, getting us all of us to agree on anything is hard. You really should have have been a fly on the wall for our debates on the best outfit in “Formation”; it was serious. So how is it possible that five women from varying backgrounds, with different family situations, and ranging across the United States all come to the same conclusions : that this is nice and all, but we’re not impressed.
Maybe Barbie isn’t meant for us anymore. Beyond being grown-ass women with grown-ass responsibilities, maybe the “diversity” pitch isn’t a valid or useful sale. We aren’t willing to settle for being pretty for a Black girl… or a short girl … or a thick girl. The idea that women of color have to be willing to accept the afterthought scraps from corporations is dated at best. It’s how you kill your company. We don’t need Mattel. We have options. We have small business loans. We have websites like this one. We have each other. And that, perhaps, is the difference. In 1968, when Colored Francie came out and there were few/no other mainstream options, we would have been happy about this. In 1983, when Vanessa Williams won the Miss America pageant, maybe. But it’s Black History/Future Month 2016. We have Ava Duvernay, Beyoncé, Gabourey Sidibe, Nicki Minaj, Viola Davis, Iman, Queen Latifah… we’ve got Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Did-You-Eat-Your-Veggies Obama:
So who are these new Barbies for? Little Black girls? Little curvy girls? Little… uh… little petite girls? No. This is for their white feminist moms and dads so they can feel like they are doing the dirty work of anti-racism and anti-body shaming by buying another toy. It’s like buying a Girl Scout cookie and pretending it was to help young girls’ educations; it was always about the Thin Mints.
New Barbie is fine and good, but if you think this doll is The Work… you aren’t an ally. And you owe it to your kid (and ours) to figure out what that really means.