As a child, Barbie was the fantasy version of how I envisioned my grown-up, glamorous life: closets full of gorgeous dresses and sparkling jewels, my choice of high-powered careers, and without question, fabulous hair. My dolls shared the names of soap opera characters, such as “Dominique” for Diahann Carroll’s iconic Dynasty diva. I used real shampoo and conditioner on their hair. When Barbie needed pampering, she visited the “spa.” (Unfortunately, I was only able to stage a single Spa Day due to a misguided decision to use the microwave for the sauna. Long story.)
Barbie could be anything or anyone she wants—doctor or diva, bride or bombshell, princess or president. She could be anything, though it seemed sometimes, anything except black.
Mattel’s black dolls go back to the 1960s, but the cocoa-skinned Barbies don’t always sit side-by-side the white dolls on store shelves. And sometimes when you do find a “black” Barbie, the doll … well … she might as well be blonde. Although Barbie is still my favorite doll, the love affair is somewhat complicated. That’s why I was intrigued by Mattel’s new So In Style line of black dolls being launched this summer. The dolls are touted as more authentically African-American with curlier hair, wider noses and fuller lips.
In Barbie’s 50-year history obviously there have been African-American Barbie dolls. I played with some as a child and own more than a few now as a Barbie collector. I celebrated last year’s Alpha Kappa Alpha Barbie doll as progress toward greater reflection of African-American images and interests. I felt even more excited when I saw newer dolls in honor of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre’s 50th Anniversary and the reproduction of the vintage Julia doll, modeled after the groundbreaking TV nurse that Carroll portrayed in the 1960s.
As a kid, I didn’t care that certain dolls weren’t available in black. Barbie was Barbie. However, I imagine it caused some disappointment, maybe even frustration, at times among my mother and other women who bought the dolls for me. I remember my mother’s excitement once at finding an “anti-Barbie”—a beautiful black doll in a pretty pink dress with long, thick hair and non-waif measurements—because she said it reminded her of me.
She never said that about Barbie.
Stacey McBride-Irby, a 12-year Barbie project designer who worked on the AKA Barbie, had an uneasy love for the doll growing up. She credits the countless hours she spent playing with Barbie as the inspiration to pursue a career in fashion design. “She’s a fashion icon,” McBride-Irby said of the doll when I caught up with her at the National Barbie Convention in Washington. But, the designer admits, “I didn’t see a doll that represented me.”
McBride-Irby received one of the first black Barbies created in 1980. It was a bit of a letdown, she says. The doll had short, curly hair—unlike McBride-Irby’s own or the dolls she was used to playing with.
After working on the AKA Barbie in 2007, McBride-Irby made the push for a new line.
“I wanted to design more dolls for black women and have them represented in the Barbie world,” she said. “I wanted to offer authentic skin tones with fuller noses and lips to moms and girls at a more affordable option. I wanted them to have a doll that looks like them.”
So In Style, at first glance, seems to address frequent criticisms. The line reflects the diversity of skin color among black women. Mattel’s efforts to create an ethnically correct doll go back decades. In comparing So In Style to the earlier vintage dolls, I can see the careful attempts made to get these dolls right.
Aside from the appearance, the doll’s interests are both fun and scholarly—one doll prefers science and drill team while another one likes art and journalism. The dolls come in pairs of big and little sisters to encourage mentoring relationships.
They may not be mirror-perfect, but they come closer to the fantasy than my childhood playthings.
When McBride-Irby presented the first versions of the line to an advisory board of African-American women, all of the dolls had long hair with a slight curl, like most Barbie dolls. The panel encouraged McBride-Irby to show that short and curly hair could be fun to style, too.
Now one doll has Afro puffs and another one has curly ponytails.
I would want these dolls for my daughter. McBride-Irby’s own daughter is a big fan.
“She says, ‘Mommy’s the same skin color as Kara’ and that she’s the same color as Trichelle.”
One day, when I have a little girl of my own, maybe she’ll say the same as we walk up and down the Barbie aisle at the toy store, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the beautiful dolls.
Raven L. Hill is a writer who lives in Maryland.