Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New African American Barbies

Mattel has introduced a new line of African American Barbie dolls, created by a Black designer. The collection is called So In Style (S.I.S.), and the dolls come in pairs--there are 3 young women paired as "mentors" to 3 girls. Michelle Bryer wrote an interesting article a few months ago about them here. I think the concept of selling the dolls in pairs is neat, and I appreciate Mattel's efforts for more multiculturalism.

Some say that yet again the doll manufacturers have created the standard Barbie only with darker skin, that her features do not otherwise reflect what African Americans look like. And, of course, the dolls' hair is a source of debate. Only one of the adult dolls and one of the girl dolls have natural 'dos. The rest have the long, straight hair, and critics complain that this just perpetuates the accepted "white" aesthetic and reinforces the old good hair/bad hair issues. They say that more of the other various hairstyles African American women wear should be represented too--braids, etc.

It never ends.

I can see their point, but I think we should give Mattel some credit for trying at least. The truth of the matter--please don't hate me for saying this--is that little girls like dolls that have hair they can comb and style. It's more fun. A TWA or short natural 'do made out of synthetic hair (see the irony there? No matter what the doll's hair is going to be fake) might not be as pliable or allow for braids or ponytails, etc. I can see that perhaps this can lead to dangerous internalized racism if the girls want to look like their Barbies and don't elsewhere find positive reinforcement for the way they look (see the Kenneth Doll studies), but is it always that way? And what if the girls' mothers relax their hair or wear weaves, as a large percentage of AA women do? Maybe these dolls represent their mothers or the AA women girls see day-to-day. This goes back to the question of whether doll makers and media should strive for representation or positive progressiveness. To me, the media (print advertising, movies, etc.) play a strong role, and I'm more inclined to complain when they mess up or shy away from positive, realistic representations of real, live Blacks. Furthermore, I think the responsibility falls above all to parents to tell their daughters again and again that they are beautiful, that their hair is acceptable in its natural form, that dolls are just dolls.

My question about the new line of Barbies is this: Where are the African American male dolls? What might their absence communicate?


Amy said...

I mean, those dolls look about as realistic as, say, Barbie does in comparison to white women.

There's an interesting essay from Dan Savage about the portrayal of gay characters on TV and how he doesn't get terribly upset because straight characters are never stand-up people, either.

Liberty said...

I agree--Barbie doesn't really look like anyone.

Dan Savage is hilarious--I'll have to check out that article. Thanks, Whip!