Barbie’s Back in Black; Reaction Runs the Spectrum

By Joshua Tapper on Oct 20th, 2009

 The So in Style Barbies each have unique personalities, such as "girly girl," "smart and sassy," and "funky and fun." (Photo by Joshua Tapper)

The So in Style Barbies each have unique personalities, such as "girly girl," "smart and sassy," and "funky and fun." (Photo by Joshua Tapper)

By Joshua Tapper
Audio Report by Rachael Horowitz

Never known for her physical or cultural authenticity, Barbie has once again been refashioned to reflect contemporary womanhood. This time, however, the doll isn’t fair-haired or vanilla-skinned. Barbie is black, and she has the physical features to prove it.

Designer Stacey McBride-Irby, creator of Mattel’s new So In Style line of black dolls, said she wanted to create a doll that “authentically represents the physical aesthetics of African-American women,” according to a company statement. The So in Style Barbies all feature broader noses, more prominent lips and cheekbones, and curlier hair than their white counterparts.

Harlem residents—Central Harlem has a nearly 80 percent black, non-Hispanic population—expressed mixed feelings about whether Mattel’s new product, released last month, constitutes a blatant stereotype or a welcome addition to the traditionally monochromatic world of white dolls.

“It just reinforces all kinds of negative body issues,” objected Dani Gonzalez, a mother of two who lives at West 117th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. To one employee of Grandma’s Place, a Harlem toy store that stocks the new Barbies, the dolls’ features are of less concern than their wardrobes. They wear short skirts and lots of bling, including sparkly silver bracelets and oversized hoop earrings.

“They just don’t look very sophisticated,” said the employee, who declined to give her name.

But Barbie’s new “hip hop look” isn’t so far from the truth, said Dennys Franklin, manager at Grandma’s Place. “This is an accurate version what teenagers look like these days,” she said, noting that neighborhood girls she sees wear similar outfits.

These aren’t the first black Barbies, of course. That honor goes to the disturbingly named “Colored Francie” in 1967. Black Barbies of yore were essentially white dolls dyed brown; the most recent incarnation before this one was produced in a muted, coffee brown so she could be identified as either African American or Latino, said Franklin, a Harlem resident. “These dolls represent African American girls more than other Barbies,” Franklin said.

But Barbie does discriminate, argued Gonzalez, taking offense. The dolls have names — Trichelle, Kianna and Janessa — that are less common among white girls. Some dolls come packaged with a hair weave or crimping iron, which screams “urban,” said the toy store employee.

McBride-Irby said the dolls should be role models for young women. Each Barbie has a pair of academic interests—math and music, art and journalism—and comes with a “Little Sister” doll. At first glance, one Grandma’s Place customer concluded Mattel was making a subliminal social comment on teenage motherhood.

Nor is the So In Style look exclusive to African-American communities, said Shaon Truesdale, a hospital technician and Harlem resident. “You can go anywhere other than Harlem and have hoochie mamas,” he said.

Toirey Smith, a mother and co-owner of The Little Gym, a children’s play zone on St. Nicholas Avenue, said she, not Barbie, is her daughter’s role model. She stressed that one doll can’t stand for an entire diverse community. “I don’t look at it as offensive,” she said of Barbie. “It only represents someone who lives in Harlem. It doesn’t represent everyone.”

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Categories: Arts & Culture
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1 Response for “Barbie’s Back in Black; Reaction Runs the Spectrum”

  1. Rebehair says:

    I also have a barbie when I was a kid.
    It has long hair and beautiful skirt.

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