Bad Sign Language: Why We’re Not Loving This McDonalds/Barbie Collaboration

By Arturo R. García

Film critic Kartina Richardson sent us a link to the picture above, taken at a McDonald’s restaurant during a recent visit.

“We’re not as race conscious as we think,” she wrote. In fact, it demonstrates that neither Barbie nor McDonald’s has learned much in the wake of other race-related rows.

To be fair, McDonald’s wasn’t responsible for its most recent imbroglio: Last summer, a fake sign asking African-American customers to pay extra fees because of “a recent string of robberies” went viral, spawning the #seriouslymcdonalds hashtag and putting the company on the defensive before the hoax was discovered.

But, for a company that maintains a site called 365Black, McD’s has made other missteps. Like the infamous “Southern Style” sandwich commercials, which touched off such a furor that not only were they pulled from the air, but they’re nigh-impossible to find online. Even on YouTube. But, as AdSavvy recalled in calling it one of its “25 Most Racist Advertisements,” the commercial showed two black women waxing rhapsodic over “Grandma’s fried chicken.” Apparently it got worse from there. Also problematic: the unusually high number of commercials showing black people dancing, jumping, singing, etc.

As for Barbie, longtime readers will recall its S.I.S. black doll line of 2009, which didn’t pass muster with guest contributor Seattle Slim:

The message is clear to little girls, and it’s saddening because they will go on to feel this more acutely as they get older. The message is unless you are “exotic” or multi-racial, you are simply and utterly unremarkable, unworthy and unimportant. They may make a doll with more Afrocentric features, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Little girls will then inevitably draw conclusions that they are not good enough, because they are not pretty enough. You must be multi-racial (or have some indication that you have some “white” or “Cherokee” in your family), with light eyes and long flowing, loose-curly (3A) hair as a minimum.

And most pointedly, the image itself–a black girl dreaming she could be not just Barbie, but the white Barbie specifically–revisits some uncomfortable territory, as Tami Winfrey Harris wrote:

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.

And neither will this new campaign. Has anybody else seen this sign at their local McDonald’s?

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  • http://twitter.com/TheSuperAmanda Super Amanda

    Burn all those ads. That may be one of the all time worst. Sad for a company that actually helped rebuilt Watts and created many positive dolls of color long before it was fashionable.  The fantastic book “Forever Barbie” by M.G. Lord; Chapter 8 “Barbie Like Me” has a great and very detailed overview of Shindana Toys (which Mattel bankrolled), Shani Dolls etc  in juxtaposition with The Clarks  study. For some reason as yet unexplained, production costs were so high for Shindana Toys that they had to out source. They even produced “Manipulation: The Mammoth Corporation Game”.  A monopoly for POC. Being way ahead of your time never pays off has to be included in that game somewhere.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MQEC5FUPX6GT5FFCFG3RK3LUOI Rebecca

    At my high school, this girl was present her black history project on Madame C. J. Walker. She showed pictures pf afrosand labeled the slide “bad hair” She went on to explain that these natural hairstyles were horrible and bad because t
    they were nappy. This girl is black, goes to a predominantly black school, and is bashing the hair she was born with
    I have dreads and I was disgusted. My hair isn’t horrible because it’s natural. She praised perm. When I
    Try to call her out on the utter insanity of what she was saying my white teacher told me she didn’t mean it like that
    but she said it and wrote it like that. Perm, weave, are all things that are over valued in the black society. We want to be
    more white because that’s what we been told looks good. Black barbie is worth nothing if she isn’t real.

  • Pinkorchid5830

    You mean little GOCs (girls of color) don’t look wistfully at the sky whilst dreaming of white blonde people?….color me shocked!

  • Anonymous

    Something I feel I’ve noticed in commercials featuring black families is that they will pick parents who look pretty “mainstream, average” black and they might pick a son who looks that way as well, but they LOVE to then throw a fair-skinned, curly-haired child in for the daughter  

    Black people are quite diverse looking, and people in one family can have a myriad of skin tones and hair textures, and I’m loathe to call someone with straighter hair or lighter eyes or skin less black looking, since in my own family, a lot of people look that way and have no biracial parentage (so to me, aside from being prettier than average, I don’t actually think Halle Berry is much of an outlier in regards to skin tone or hair).  

    However, it just shows me that darker-skinned, kinkier-haired girls who hope to be on TV will not be cast even when they physically resemble the rest of the TV family that is being hired.  So what is that?  Why is that done?  

    I also remember noticing in the 80′s, when I was a child that several of the black actresses who were in Barbie commercials were not light-skinned, but were straight-haired.  So when the Fresh Prince of Bel Air came on, I totally recognized Tatiana Ali as one of those little Barbie girls b/c she had a look that they liked to use (and honestly that does match the black Barbie…a dark-skinned hair with very straight hair).  

    I think a good solution for black Barbies would be to show a better range of black hair b/c the hair on the Black Barbie is in fact natural for some black women.  We just need to show MORE types.  

    • Mickey

      I’ve noticed commercials like that, except the one that comes to mind is the McDonald’s commercial where there are two dark-skinned parents, a dark-skinned daughter, and a very light-skinned, curly-haired son, whose hair looks a bit light as well, and he is doing some breakdance-like moves.

      Another person noticed that the eldest daughter, Claire, in the television show “My Wife and Kids” was changed from a dark-skinned, kinky-haired girl to a light-skinned, long curly-haired one. The eldest boy, Junior, remained dark-skinned and the light-skinned youngest child also remained as she resembles Tisha Campbell.

  • http://twitter.com/KristenTheMom Kristen L. Reese

    I have not seen that ad and it just leaves me speechless right now.