African-American Barbie: An Open Letter to Mattel
To the makers of Barbie,
Barbie is a legend. For more than 50 years girls have been playing imaginatively with the long-legged beauty. Barbie survives and thrives in spite of feminist opposition to her unrealistic body proportions. She remains popular because you at Mattel combat the notion that she represents the objectification of women by making Barbie a career woman who doesn’t need any man to provide for her. She is a veterinarian, a doctor, a computer engineer. Barbie can be anything! To your credit, you have even created multicultural Barbie dolls so that girls of color can see themselves as beautiful, independent career women (with fabulous wardrobes, cars, and mansions!)
You even made Barbie a major motion picture hero—fighting evil and sticking up for the underdog—in a series of animated films that bring her to life. My daughters absolutely love the Barbie movies! I watch with them and truly enjoy watching Barbie befriend the downtrodden, overcome significant obstacles, and end up happily ever after. Barbie is entertaining and inspirational in her movies and I love the way my daughters get the opportunity to see an animated example of such a strong young woman.
I want my girls to really believe that they can be as strong as Barbie is in her movies, and I always encourage them to engage in imaginative play. So, despite her unrealistic proportions, I agree to buy my daughters Barbie dolls. My girls are biracial (mixed–black and white.) I love the fact that I can find dolls with their skin tone in the Barbie aisle at my local store. I love the fact that there are multicultural versions of the Barbie heroes from the movies—African-American Barbie as Rapunzel; African-American Barbie as the Princess or the Pauper; African-American Barbie as the Sugarplum Princess in the Nutcracker. I look forward to a time when the Barbie movie dolls will be sold in Asian and Latina styles, too.
It was a pleasure to buy each daughter the African-American version of a Barbie from the movies as gifts. I really looked forward to them opening their packages, knowing that they would love the dolls because they love the movies so much.
When they opened their gifts, though, they weren’t jumping for joy. Instead they were confused. “This isn’t Rapunzel! Mommy, the box says Rapunzel but Rapunzel has blonde hair! This must be a bad version of Rapunzel! Is she evil? Rapunzel–the good girl–is white!”
Despite your best efforts, Mattel, you have not really succeeded in making Barbie a role model for all girls. Until you feature a Barbie of color in all aspects of your merchandising—including animated films—you are perpetuating an age-old stereotype; a stereotype that casts white people as heroes and black people as those who are either evil, in need of saving, or invisible. Until you feature girls of all races and ethnicities you are not really empowering girls; you are dividing them. And in some cases you are lessening their sense of self-worth, their sense of pride in their heritage. Please, help my daughters and other young girls of color to see themselves as heroes, too.
Jen Marshall Duncan