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) –

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 –

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.



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