I’m saving my cheers over new, “authentic” black Barbie line [Alternate Perspective]

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – (Business Wire) Mattel® announced today the launch of So In Style™, a new line of black dolls by Barbie® featuring more authentic-looking facial features such as fuller lips, a wider nose, more distinctive cheek bones and curlier hair. So In Style™ (S.I.S.™) was developed and inspired by Barbie® designer of 12 years, Stacey McBride-Irby, an African-American mother of two who wanted to create a line of dolls more reflective of her daughter and community.

The So In Style™ line features Grace™, Kara™ and Trichelle™ dolls, three best friends who are all about fashion, fun and friendship. Each of the dolls features its own unique personality and style and reflects one of three varying skin tones. The S.I.S.™ line also introduces a mentoring theme; each doll is accompanied by a smaller doll or “little sister” and has different interests – from music and math to science and drill team. The big and little sister dolls are meant to introduce and inspire girls with mentoring themes.

“I believe that a happy inspired childhood creates happy, inspired, powerful women,” said McBride-Irby. “I want my new So In Style dolls to not only be an authentic representation of my community and culture, but to also encourage girls to be inspired and dream big.” Read more

Big sigh…

Okay, before I put on my womanist, anti-racist parent hat and get all humorless, let’s talk about what is good about yesterday’s announcement.

Lots of little girls use fashion dolls for creative play. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. It is troubling, of course, that toys, such as Barbie dolls, can reinforce narrow standards of beauty and damage self-esteem. I wish that young girls did not learn to judge their own beauty by consumerist standards, but too often they do. In that light, it is good to see more variety in the kinds of dolls available. It is good that a young, black girl can play with a doll with features a smidge closer to hers (as much as Barbie looks like any real person).

It is also good to see a black woman playing a role in designing a product for an internationally-known mega-company and being given the latitude to inject bits of her culture and community into her work. Surely that says something positive about the opportunities for women and specifically women of color. In fact, I’d rather the little girls in my life play with a Stacy McBride-Irby doll than Grace, Kara or Trichelle. Where can I get a doll like that?

Frankly, though, I am ambivalent about these things. I mean, we are still talking about Barbie, here…BARBIE. As I said in a post about the black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha introducing a custom Barbie doll to celebrate it’s centennial:

…Barbie–whose teen version once gleefully spouted insipidness like “Math class is tough!” and “I love shopping!” while AKA was setting up schools for South African girls. Barbie–of the 36″ 18″ 33″ dimensions and permanent tip-toe. Barbie–the symbol of Eurocentric beauty standards that are a tyranny to women of color. Barbie–with her club makeup, stripper fabulous gear and ever more sexualized image. Barbie. Barbie. BARBIE? Really?

Yeah, I know Barbie allegedly has a pilot’s license and at some point, between tooling around in her purple Corvette and riding the elevator in her Dream House, she earned a medical degree, too. But that’s not what Barbie is really about, is it? Those things were just bones thrown to mouthy feminists. Barbie seems like such a symbol of retro womanhood–the look painted and pretty and maybe you’ll find a (hopefully anatomically correct) Ken to get you nice things kind of womanhood. Read more…

Like a lot of women, I am uncomfortable with Barbie and her role in the development of young girls. It’s not all Barbie’s fault. It is the space she occupies in the universe of things that influence how girls grow up to be women: what goals they ultimately have, how they see themselves, how they judge their self worth and how they define womanhood.

I also have a beef with the word “authentic” to describe the three acceptably “blackified” dolls. Let’s face it, these dolls don’t represent any sort of break-through in representation of black faces. The skin tones and facial features fall within a narrow range that is acceptable within Eurocentric beauty standards. And to say that their hair is “curly” like that of most black women (as McBride-Irby does in this video on the consumer page for the new dolls) is being a wee bit disingenuous. Most black women have hair that is more kinky than curly in its natural state. (These dolls ain’t no nappy heads.) Of course, most black women chemically straighten or weave up, which makes the dolls an accurate representation. Fine, but don’t try to market them as some representation of “authentic” black physicality.

I also note, in the linked Mattel page above, the use of vaguely “urban” music, a gold, blingy necklace and a backstory that involves Barbie’s friend Grace moving from California to Chicago, where she hooks up with Kara and Trishelle. The story and associated imagery is relatable for many black girls, but not all. What about the many, little black girls who live in the burbs? Of course, these dolls can’t be everything to every child. But again, the use of “authentic” is a marketing fail. The urban experience is no more “authentic” to black folks than the rural experience.

And these Barbies are no more authentically black than standard Barbie is a representation of authentic white women.

Do black children even want dolls that look like them? That is really the rub. You can give a girl Barbie’s best, urban, black friend, Grace, but even little black girls will recognize that Grace isn’t the star of this show. The coveted one, the truly beautiful one, the worthy one is blonde, blue-eyed, narrow-featured, skinny Barbie. If the black version of Barbie was so damned great, then the little white girls on the commercial would be playing with her, too.

Those of us who are familiar with the heart-breaking “doll test” know that even when given a doll that obstensibly looks more like them, black children are inclined to want and favor the white doll. Black children who are still young enough to play with dolls have already absorbed the larger society’s notions about what is good and what is beautiful–and they know people (and dolls) who look like them are not part of those notions. Mattel’s new Barbie’s won’t fix this problem–the real problem–I think.

Look, I’m not hating on these dolls or their creator. My nieces love Barbies and I will probably get these for them. And it will be nice to choose a fashion doll that, at least loosely, looks like them. But I recognize that this new Mattel line will not come close to helping them solve the challenges they will face to their self esteem, identity and eventual womanhood.

Is this an advance for black women and girls? I’m not so sure.