Mattel Introduces Black Barbies, to Mixed Reviews

Megan K. Scott, Comcast News, October 8, 2009

Mattel has launched a new line of black Barbie dolls with fuller lips, a wider nose and more pronounced cheek bones–a far cry from Christie, Barbie’s black friend who debuted in the 1960s and was essentially a white doll painted brown.

The “So In Style” line, which hit mass retailers last month, features BFFs Grace, Kara and Trichelle, each with her own style and interests and a little sister she mentors: Courtney, Janessa and Kianna. The dolls reflect varying skin tones–light brown, chocolate, and caramel–and Trichelle and Kianna have curlier hair.

Barbie designer Stacey McBride-Irby, who is black and has a 6-year-old daughter, said she wanted to create a line of dolls for young black girls that looked like them and were inspirational and career-minded. For example, Kara is interested in math and music.

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Many black women are praising Mattel for its efforts–Black Barbie hit the shelves in 1980 with white features shared by many of the dolls following her.

But some say the long straight hair does not address the beauty issues that many black girls struggle with. In the black community, long, straight hair is often considered more beautiful than short kinky hair.

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“Why are we always pushing this standard of long hair on our girls?” asked Gail Parrish, 60, a playwright in Alexandria, Va., and a mother of four grown children. “Why couldn’t one of the dolls have a little short afro, or shorter braids or something?”

McBride-Irby said she originally designed all the dolls with long hair. Combing her Barbie’s long hair when she was a girl was the “highlight of my play experience,” she said. She was advised to create some dolls with curlier hair, so she did.

There is a So In Style hairstyling set so girls can curl, straighten and style their dolls’ hair over and over. (It costs $24.99, more than a pair of dolls at $19.99.)

That is troubling to Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, because it actively involves girls in the process of straightening hair. She worries that it reinforces the message that there is something wrong with natural hair.

“Black mothers who want their girls to love their natural hair have an uphill battle and these dolls could make it harder,” Parks said in an e-mail.

Aside from the hair, some black women are concerned about the dolls’ thin frames. Barbie, which celebrated her 50th birthday in March, has for years come under fire for promoting an unrealistic body image, with her long legs, tiny waist and large breasts.

While white girls also deal with body-image issues, Kumea Shorter-Gooden, co-author of “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America,” believes Barbie has a more negative impact on black girls. They are already struggling with messages that “black skin isn’t pretty and our hair is too kinky and short,” she said.

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[Editor’s Note: An earlier story on these dolls can be read here.]

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