We’re Living In Barbie’s World. So What Does Black Barbie Mean?

By Helena Andrews-Dyer
Washington Post
Netflix's 'Black Barbie' documentary looks at the history of the doll. Photo / @blackbarbiedoc

A new documentary on Netflix examines a doll that’s become so much more.

On the way home from the splash pad recently, my daughters — 4 and 7 — ran damp and carefree down the sidewalk, beach towels draped over their heads and dripping down their backs. “How do you like my ha-air,” they sang, stroking the long terry cloth as if it belonged to Rapunzel.

I groaned.

If these were different children and I a different mom, the scene would have been sweet. What little girl doesn’t want Disney princess locks? But my babies are black, and their hair does twisty acrobatics when it’s wet. Their beauty is not the standard in the United States. So it’s up to me to make sure they find joy in their own reflection.

Imbuing your children with main character energy is tough. But it is especially daunting when society does its best to relegate them to the wings. So I have mini-lectures on the magic of their coily hair at the ready. We stream Ada Twist, Scientist nonstop in this house. My girls think Misty Copeland basically invented ballet. And our Barbies? Every single one has skin and hair like ours. The significance of that is covered by a Barbie movie of its own: Black Barbie, a documentary that premiered on Netflix this week.

The film was written and directed by Lagueria Davis, whose aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell worked at Mattel, first in the factory and then for decades as a receptionist. The executive producer is famed showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who has three black daughters of her own and two Black Barbies in her image. Their documentary unpacks Black Barbie’s relationship to the original iconic doll and black children’s relationship to both toys.

“I don’t think they were dolls,” Rhimes says in the film. “They were representations of what I wanted to be.” In a way, she made her own Black Barbie. If Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington’s character in Scandal, wasn’t the epitome of Barbie, Rhimes doesn’t know what is.

The first Barbie dolls came out in 1959. In the ensuing years, Mattel did make several dolls with black skin. There was Francie in 1967, Christie in 1968 and Julia in 1969. They interacted with Barbie, but they weren’t her. They were the “friends of”. The also-rans.

Black Barbie hit toy store shelves in 1980 — the same year I was born. She was the brainchild of Kitty Black Perkins, Mattel’s first black designer. Inspired by Diana Ross, Black Barbie’s outfit was a sleek red “disco skirt” with a slit up one side. Her hair was short and curly because Black Perkins had a short ‘do at the time. The pink box she came in practically shouted her arrival: “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” By naming her Barbie, Mattel made her the centre of attention.

“When I designed this doll, there was a need for the little black girl to have something she could play with that looked like her,” explains Black Perkins, who recruited and mentored other black talent at Mattel before retiring in 2003 as chief Barbie designer. “I wanted her to reflect the total look of a black woman.”

But while she was an official Barbie, Black Barbie still had a qualifier — a name with two words, not one. The distinction — Black Barbie — was at once revolutionary and reductive. The documentary spends a considerable amount of time wrestling with that tension. Who gets to claim full Barbie-hood? Will the Black Barbies always be second-class citizens with the same name? And does it matter? Because in the end, we’re talking about dolls here. But are we really?

“Black Barbie” feels most impactful when it lets the children answer those questions. We adults complicate things. We heap all the hurt and hero-play of our own childhoods on Barbie’s tiny shoulders. Kids see things through clearer microscopes. And they also tell it like it is.

Inspired by the “doll test” carried out in the 1940s by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to measure the impact of segregation on black children, the documentarians assembled groups of children to play with Barbies of all kinds.

When asked who’s the prettiest one, a young girl picks out Brooklyn, a Black Barbie with long braids, “because she has black skin like all of us.” A little boy in a different group immediately chooses the blonde Barbie “because of her dress.” When asked about race and racism, the kids are either blissfully ignorant or eerily tuned in. One girl says that when she hears the word “race” she thinks of actual running, but she also knows what a Karen is. Another boy explains police brutality.

“I’m a teeny tiny bit sad that kids just can’t be kids,” says actress Gabourey Sidibe (now the mom of twins) in the documentary. She’s right. This is what it’s like being a black mother to black children. So many of us want to parent carefree children who live without the gravity of racism. But parenting also means preparing, arming our children with the tools needed to survive in a world that doesn’t centre them. Weighing one against the other is a battle as constant as bedtime.

The movie’s most eye-opening moment is the children’s response to a simple yet loaded question: Who’s the real Barbie? Every single child points to the White Barbie. More than 40 years after Black Barbie’s debut, the kids still know who everyone’s rooting for. They might not be able to spell “hierarchy” yet but, oh, do they understand it.

It was chilling. So much so that I called my older daughter into the room to interrogate her, gently. Would she like a White Barbie? And if so, why?

“Because I’ve never had a White Barbie in my life because you never buy them!” she said, scandalised and fascinated. The dolls were cute and flexible, she added. Plus her friend had brought a White Barbie to the splash pad. “So now I want one,” she explained matter-of-factly.

Fair enough. She’s still not getting one, though.

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