Black Barbie

Black Barbie

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When I think of Barbie, I think of a small white doll with blue eyes, yellow hair, pink mouth and that is all in pink. This first statement should prepare the audience for a comprehensive analysis on the most popular doll ever: Barbie. Since it hit the market in 1959, she has been seen as the ultimate child’s doll across continents for many years. However, no one had ever considered Black Barbie until Mattel employee Beulah Mae Mitchell suggested to Ruth and Evan Handler that they create an edition which would be more responsive to her community and look like them.

Her unique position as one of the first African-American employees at the renowned company became an inspiration for a documentary film that explores deeply into marketing and merchandising intersection. “Black Barbie” is unapologetic about how Black women were depicted through our struggle to raise our voices and image using toys so that we stopped being disregarded both in the world of toys as well as anywhere else.

It was directed and written by Lagueria Davis who is Mitchell’s niece; it is broken down into three chapters because the impact felt by this community goes beyond skin color. Prior to mid-twentieth century, black dolls were either calico dolls or Aunt Jemima jar/topsy-turvy dolls (which were not only largely unflattering but their exaggerated stereotypical features were based on degrading racist tropes). The fact that little black girls could not become white girl standard because of their skin colour or hair type thus making some little Black girls feel left out or rather ugly according to Shonda Rhimes “…there is real damage done when you force children of color to play with white dolls.”

Mattel changed all that when they partnered with Lou Smith and Operation Bootstrap to form Shindana- a toy company that would later become the largest manufacturer of Black dolls until 1983. But it was Kitty Black Perkins who turned revolution into reality when she responded to an open ad from Mattel for a fashion designer. Perkins was a spitting image of Black Barbie with her long curly hair and a sports convertible like the one featured in the ad, designed by Kitty herself and inspired by Diana Ross. However, it’s really Stacy Mc Bride- Irby who took things a step further when she released the 30th anniversary edition dolls, including one made specifically for Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the well-known Greek organization. It just goes to show you that if black people make black dolls, they can be created in so many more versatile ways both ideationally and aesthetically.

The marketing campaign for the Black Barbie was not impressive, but this blunder did not prevent a plethora of dolls about different real-life role models from Misty Copeland to Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad. That is why Barbie movies, vlogs, and her new animated series with a caramel-colored doll from Brooklyn show that Barbie transcends color—it is a movement in itself, bringing diversity of ideas, one doll at a time.

“Black Barbie” is an intelligent, mobile education on the globe that wasn’t made for us historically. In the end one walks away feeling proud that some black women (and their activism) changed their story. In so doing they yielded generations of dolls: beautiful lips and full hips and brown and black tans that look like our culture which is uniquely gorgeous in its variety. “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is as tasteful and enlightening as the doll it’s named after.

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