Black Barbies or Barbies in Blackface?

10/08/2009 5:19 PM |

An African-American mother of two is the developer behind the new So In Style line of black Barbies by Mattel. Stacy McBride-Irby has been a Barbie designer for 12 years and, understandably, wanted to create a line of dolls to reflect her family and its community. The dolls introduce the urban clique of Kara, Trichelle, and Grace, each coming in three varying skin tones and has a “little sister” to accompany a mentoring concept that was also introduced with this line. While many parents agree that increased variety in the availability of dolls for young girls is a good thing for sparking imagination and self-recognition, many black parents have noted that the dolls aren’t as diverse or representative as Mattel claims. And while it is encouraging to have a black woman with such a high position within a prestigious company, one blogger argues that a Stacy McBride-Irby doll would be more inspirational to young girls of color than the trio that went to market, whose main interests are advertised as fashion, friendship and fun.

Of course, no dolls can be all things to all children, but the S.I.S. dolls’ “authentic” facial features are drawing pause from those who remember the Kenyan Barbie from the Dolls Around the World collection. That doll portrayed similar facial features to the new Barbies, such as a wider nose and fuller lips, but also sported genuinely curly hair and more curves than Kara, Grace, and Trichelle. The new dolls have been accused of being “exoticized” through their light eyes and long, relaxed hair, which is frustrating to those who wonder to whom, exactly, McBride-Irby is catering. Recurring qualms on sites like Racialicious and HipHopWired follow this line of exasperated questioning and, more often than not, feel like the (intentional?) oversights whiten the dolls, therefore negating their intended representation of the African American community.

Basically, the critics are asking why these supposedly African-American dolls have features that indicate mixed heritage, which is understandable… I guess. I know that minority parents who witness the impact of the doll test first-hand feel strongly that it’s important that dolls do, in fact, look like the demographic they claim to represent. I don’t underestimate that the effects of off-target, child-aimed marketing could follow a young person into adulthood. But for me, who was an interracial child that never had any toys who looked familiar, I don’t really understand the qualms about the dolls themselves being offensive or confusing. What would’ve made the difference to me would have been to see some interracial doll playing in commercials. I believe that would also help to offset the perceptions of a tiered doll and doll owner society. The true thesis of these HYPERLINK “” research projects is the segregation—good vs. bad, light vs. dark, white vs. nonwhite—of advertising and the effects on those who are subjected to it. From Barbie to My Buddy, the white kids in the commercials played with their blonde dolls and the black kids played with their sidekick dolls; and that is still the scenario being marketed today. Unless that evolves, can we really go on complaining about the dolls themselves, the inanimate bi-products of the industry, being supremacist?