Black Barbie Dressed in Bulgari: Cleavage Baring Doll Draws Ire


As a child, I was an avid Barbie collector. Apart from my collection, Barbie dominated my everyday play. My friends and I would create fantastical scenarios for Barbie and her gal pals to act out.  A sanitized, multi-racial Sex in the City, the dolls became the celluloid extension of our imaginary adult selves; they dated, partied, shopped, and kicked it with the girls.  Perhaps this is why a recent story on the evening news about a collector Barbie drawing criticism from parents caught my attention.  The African-American Barbie is part of the Barbie Basic collection.  The doll is clad in a tight black sheath dress that features a plunging V-neckline, displaying plenty-o-cleavage.  While according to the Mattel website, the doll is intended for the adult collector, parents our outraged with the sexy figurine.   For her part, the designer—Stacy McBride—defends the look and says the dolls she designs are intended to be a positive influence on young African-American girls.  Criticism of Barbie’s anatomically—if not proportionally—realistic frame and oft sexy wardrobe is not new.  However, I would suggest this Black Barbie is uniquely problematic at this cultural moment and for that reason deserves critique.

Michelle Obama, our sophisticated, elegant and graceful First Lady, was recently criticized for displaying too much décolletage at the White House State Dinner for Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon.  The criticism—mounted by Glenn Beck and others—was unwarranted.  Lady Obama was stylish, modern, and fashion forward. I suspect much of this criticism reflects a general distaste in certain circles for the Obama’s, but also reeks of an attempt to marginalize Black female sexual agency.  

In the same way, I wonder does the uproar over the Black Barbie purport a general distaste for Black female beauty and sexuality.  Such a critique could be found within and outside the Black community.  The Black feminine in the American narrative either highly sexualized or rampantly sexually negated; she is often subjected and without power or agency over her body or prostituting herself for money, cars, and clothes—See For the Love of Ray-J.  The lack of a realistic portrayal of Black female sexuality in the mainstream makes this Barbie issue more complex. For example, the modern black feminine is highly sexualized in hip-hop culture, as Black video vixens are surgically manipulating their bodies to become Black Barbies.  Nicki Minaj—self-proclaimed— Harajuku Barbie is an immediate example of this ironic trend. 

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie represents the idealized standard of American beauty.  Her buxom proportions and cinched waist line have informed and reflected what America considers beautiful.  Yet, Barbie has evolved over the years to be more ethnically diverse and inclusive.  Vogue Black from Italian Vogue features a lovely online pictorial and printed a catalogue of Black Barbies, in celebration of Barbie’s 50th anniversary.  However, the incarnation of the first African-American Barbie is storied:

 “Colored Francie”, first issued in 1967, was the first doll in the Mattel line with a truly dark complexion. However, the doll did not have genuinely African American features, since it was made with the same head molds as the Caucasian Francie doll. Because of this, a doll named Christie, first issued in 1968, is often considered the first true African American doll in the Barbie line.[1]

-Wikepedia Francie (Barbie) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francie_(Barbie_doll

Black Barbie was launched in 1980 but still had white features. In September 2009, Mattel introduced the So In Style range, which was intended to create a more realistic depiction of black people than previous dolls.[21]

-Wikepedia Barbie – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie

All of the dolls in the Basic Barbie Collection are sexy.  They look like a cast of America’s Next Top Model.  They are racially diverse with an Asian, Latina, and two dolls of African descent. 

One of the Black dolls even sports a textured short ‘do—very uncharacteristic for Barbie who is known for long, flowing, straight locks.  The same doll is very darked-skinned, a nod to Mattel’s efforts to include more diverse skin tones for African-American dolls.  They are more expensive than a traditional Barbie, but remain accessible at a retail price of about $20 each.  If the dolls are being sold in the toy section of the local Wal-Mart, I would argue that perhaps the cleavage is a bit extreme.  However, I have noticed that the press photo of the doll is far more exposed than the one on the Mattel website.

With the preference for white beauty standards still being illustrated in doll test today, some 60 years after Jim Crow, one can see the value of beautifully diverse Black dolls.  If the dolls can indeed help a little Black girl feel more beautiful about herself than they can be useful teaching tools.   For instance, the Barbie So in Style line features African-American dolls with broad noses and full lips, more characteristic of African-American phenotypes.

In March, a Walmart store in Louisiana caused a stir for selling a Black Barbie at half the price of White Barbie. The Black Barbie was $3 and the White, $5.93. Walmart representatives said the dolls weren’t selling well, thus the price cut.  This suggests to me a devaluating of Black beauty that has long been the tradition of this nation. It is the problem that lies at the heart of this Barbie cleavage debacle.  “Black is Beautiful” has been decidedly up for interrogation from within and outside the Black community.  Therefore, expressions of Black beauty are uniquely exposed to critique and bound by a tortured historic context. 

The cleavage baring Barbie is absolutely “sexy”, but is she a “jezebel because she is Black?  Or can a sexy, beautiful Black doll be a change agent for American beauty conceptions?   Is such a such a doll marketable to the mainstream or does it remain the doll of last resort.

Discuss.

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Hair Today Gone Tommorow…The Boldness of Baldness


Chrisette Michelle '"For Freedom, Not Beauty"

I did not exactly shave all my hair off  last year, but I came really close.  I was going through a period of transition and I hastily decided everything needed to be simplified.   So I rushed to the barbershop and asked the wonderful barber, who remains my guy ’till this very day, to just shave it all off.   He is so cute; I think I keep it low just to see him sometimes, but I digress.   Cutting my hair  was a harrowing experience, but very freeing.  I looked at my little boy bald head and thought wow,  no hair.  Sitting in the barber chair, staring at my now huge eyes and prominent nose, I began to questioned myself:  is this the same me?   Can I be pretty without hair?  Will men find me attractive?  The latter concern was of course reinforced after  my dad protested my decision, saying ” Why would you do that?…Men don’t like  women without hair”.

I’ll have him know that much to the contrary, I’ve found many do.

When I shaved my hair, I was not making a political statement or seeking to adopt any trend; it was more about a personal journey.  Taking off your hair, as a woman is like removing a security blanket.  Society is so hair obsessed that opting out can be viewed as revolutionary, even if one’s motivations are purely economical.

While I was not out to subscribe to a particular counterculture beauty aesthetic, I got to tell you not having hair is truly liberating.  There is real freedom in not having to go the hair salon and sit under the dryer  for hours, or fuel the cream crack economy.   Yet, I am now facing a real conundrum: to grow back or not to grow back that is the question.   My confidence journey is well-played out now having been hairless for close to a year and I want options, but at the same time options can be costly in time and treasure.  Plus I love the way a new shave feels on my scalp. However, I tired of men rubbing my head at public events.  I am short and I think they feel warranted to do so.  Yet I am stating unequivocally that it is not endearing, but instead, very jarring; so please stop it!

Chrisette Michelle, who recently decided to go low, has a wonderful poem entitled “For Freedom Not Beauty” on her website .  The poem is about her choice to shorn her locks.  In the poem, she asked the question, “Since when is creativity subject to criticism?”  In response to Michelle, I would argue since the invention of “the critic”. However, I too  was floored when Solange Knowles was berated in the and blogosphere last year for her choice to shave off  all her hair.

I found it odd folks were not happy with her “personal” choice.  Magazines accused her of doing a “Britney” and blogs were even more cruel.  Perhaps the criticism was because the original cut was such a hack job,or because she was seen in a wig at a public shortly after the bold move was made, or simply because there is just a lot of Solange resistance out there (methinks misdirected anti-beyonce sentiment?) .  In response Knowles stated:

“I guess you just go through different phases in your life. I was pretty much at the point where I needed the change and I needed to focus my energy on more productive arenas. I was putting too much into my appearance and I needed to make this about growth and going to the next stage of my life. I felt like I was being distracted by something as simple as hair.”

Here, here Solange.  Ironically, Solange’s sister, Beyonce is responsible for a lot of what is going on with hair culture now in my opinion.  As pop-stars and celebutantes like the Kardashians, Ciara, and Ms. B get these larger than life weaves, it sets unrealistic beauty standards in the real-world.  Women are getting all kinds of lace fronts, wigs, weaves, extensions to replicate this idealized hair aesthetic and even it isn’t real.  It is certainly not a realistic beauty standard for a lot of Black women, who are so often told to embrace and emulate western standards of attractiveness, if they want to be accepted.

Last year, I saw Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” shortly after getting my haircut off and it made me feel even more empowered.  Watching the film, I learned hair is a big business and it is a business whose revenues are seen largely outside of the Black community. I try to support “Carol’s Daughter” and other black vendors with that thought in mind.  However, I need hair to buy black hair products — it is a predicament indeed.  So what should I do?  While I make my decision, its comforting knowing I have at least one fan.   On the blog Beautiful Black Woman – Thoughts of a White B’woy, a site dedicated to uplifting and honoring the beauty of Black women around the world, blogger Andreas post:

Fact: The only women that looks good in shaved/bald hair/head are the black women. This fact is strictly subjective and reflect only my view. But hey, black bald women can be really fine! 🙂

Hair today or gone tomorrow? I need your help.

Thoughs.

Black Babies=New Birkin? Thoughts on the Transracial Adoption Uproar


I sincerely wanted to stay out of the overblown transracial adoption fray presently rocking the blogosphere.   I am of the belief that adoption is a personal choice; I am grateful whenever a child who needs a home finds one.  Yet, when news broke that Sandra Bullock secretly adopted  a precious little black baby from New Orleans, I started thinking about this issue at a cultural level.  What does it mean in the age of Obama, when white celebrities adopting black babies is suddenly en vogue?  A pattern of celebrity transracial adoption  is emerging that rightfully deserves critique.  So while CNN is asking, “Transracial Adoption: Big Deal or Not?” I am left asking, when did Black babies become the new Birkin bag?

Angelina Jolie and Madonna, who  of course got their Black babies overseas, are part of this apparent trend.   However, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun.  Celebrities have had a penchant for Asian babies for quite some time and decades ago Jospehine Baker adopted a dozen multi-ethnic orphans; she dubbed her rainbow tribe.  However, there is something unique about this cultural moment— bi-racial President, Precious, tea partiers, militias, and inane immigration laws—that makes the current trend of  transracial adoption slightly more compelling.

The story of Bullock’s secret adoption broke several weeks after her Oscar win.  Ironically, she won for a role in which she played surrogate mom to an emerging African-American football star.  I guess the cynic in me cannot help wondering if this adoption is at least to a certain extent life imitating art?

Unfortunately, Bullock announced the adoption not long after the equally compelling, but not so triumphant news  of her  marital problems surfaced.  Bullock managed to deflect most of the negative press emerging from the tawdry spectacle, as the gossip rags were largely sympathetic to the beloved actress.  Several weeks later, during what had to be the zenith of her publicist’s carrier,  Bullock appeared on the cover of People delightedly lifting a cherubic little Black baby in the air; the cover headline reading  “Meet My Baby!”.

When I saw the cover, I was at once delighted and yet filled with a bit of cognitive dissonance.  Given Bullock’s recent spate of bad luck, I admittedly or perhaps cynically, found the timing of the People cover odd, if not convenient.  It’s a good news story with perfect timing, and fits nicely into the American sweetheart narrative Bullock has forged for herself.

Since the story broke, CNN.com and other news organizations have been stirring the transracial adoption pot.   I only find it interesting because of what it says about  characterizations of Black motherhood in cultural sphere.  Many comments on blogs and news website at once celebrate her choice to adopt a Black baby as selfless, and malign the ability of the Black community and particularly Black mothers to properly raise their own children.

I think these bigoted comments reflect an ignorance of what Black motherhood is and the historical struggle it represents.  I am not sure mainstream America gets a realistic picture of the Black family and particularly Black motherhood.  Instead, they get a continuum of constructs and caricatures: Claire Huxtable, Florida Evans, and Nikki Parker, for example.  Ironically, the reality of  Black motherhood is probably closer to the human reality of motherhood;  it has diverse incarnations.  It’s too bad more diverse and positive representations of black motherhood are not seen in Hollywood.

The film Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, was heavily lauded this year for its gritty, realistic portrayal of the Black experience.  The mother character, Mary Johnson, was nothing if not  nightmarish. She mentally, sexually, and physically abused her daughter and apart from that was largely a degenerate do nothing.   It’s a shame that no foil to Mary Johnson emerged in cinema this year.

The characterization of black motherhood in this film Precious connotes early cinema’s caricature of the Black mammy, who was portrayed as loving, maternal, and docile to her slave master’s children, but cruel and unloving to their own.  Accordingly, it’s hard to conceive that 200 years later that the social baggage of slavery and its modern day effects on the construction of Black families is in a way shifting this largely erred, but oft stated narrative.  In this case, Caucasian women are playing the loving maternal role.  What is not stated is that the need for the Caucasian surrogate, emerges from the degeneration of the Black family, which many argue is in turn due to the impacts of the peculiar institution that was American slavery:

In “The Ethnic Myth”, Stephen Steinberg writes, “ghettos are nothing less than the shameful residue of slavery.” Many scholars blame slavery for the pathologies in the Black community such as homelessness, single-parent households, and youth violence. Views that are more radical claim, “Slavery is a constant reminder of what whites in America might do.”  There is a belief that slavery stole their African culture. (The Effects of Slavery TodayDenisesArt).

I would argue that it is this idea  that gives some credence to those critical of White celebrities adopting Black babies both domestically and abroad.  Yet,  the statistics for Black children needing homes, and Black families stepping up to adopt them are deplorable.

The social baggage of slavery and its effect on the black family, as well as the construction of Black identity are certainly at play in this transracial adoption debate.  The extent to which you believe race matters and colors our perception  and reception in the world will contribute largely to where you come out on this debate.  Bullock named the baby in the center of  all this Louis, after Louis Armstrong the pioneer New Orleans Jazz musician.  What this says about cultural appropriation of Black jazz music is still up for speculation.

At the end of the day, Sandra Bullock is America’s Sweetheart.   Her down home good looks, humble spirit, self-deprecating humor, and perpetual smile has endeared Ms. Congeniality to a nation.  Suffice it to say, we—America—love ourselves some Sandra Bullock; she is right up there with Apple Pie and Rock & Roll.   We cheered when she won the Oscar, deserved or not; and given her recent spate of bad luck, this adoption and yes the magazine cover play like a narrative in American resilience.  Her against all odds come back is the stuff of fairytales.

I want to put The Kabosh on all those who denigrate Bullock for her selfless seemingly pure act of service; I am not prepared or inclined to question her motivations for adopting a Black child.  I can only bear witness to the fact that a child’s life will be made better, at least materially, by means of her decision to adopt him.  Kudos to Ms. Bullock for her brave choice.

..and for all those women who do “Motherhood”; God bless you and Happy Mother’s Day.

Thoughts.

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