by Shardae Jobson
“Black Barbie, life of the party...I love to party just like the white one." These sarcastic lyrics are from the song “Black Barbie” by the music duo Little Jackie. The song is featured on their debut album The Stoop, chockfull of witty statements like the one sampled above. Like much of the album, the song discusses the frivolities and intriguing nature of being beautiful and adored. Little Jackie sardonically use the iconic doll Barbie, in this case black Barbie, as its muse. The song, even with its sarcastic and laugh out loud lyrics, is an ode to the plastic home-girl who maybe was one of the first images of black beauty in the public eye, as later displayed in a more prominent human form in the modeling careers of Naomi Sims and Beverly Johnson at the time of black Barbie’s first appearance. The Stoop had been out for a year or so before the release and near preternatural semi-controversy of the new set of black Barbies from the company Mattel, under the title of S.I.S.-So in Style. In general terms of race, both black and white members of the media and comments on various blogs have voiced their “concerns” on whether the S.I.S. dolls are a step up from the old black Barbies. The main question has been if the dolls really emulate what are the supposed common, physical characteristics of the”average” black woman. While the dolls do have wider noses, bigger eyes and lips and higher cheekbones-general attributes of the “African-American” person--some complain that the doll's are still perpetuating a more Eurocentric than Afrocentric ideal of beauty--despite the dolls initiation and creation by Stacie McBride-Irby, a black woman.
I first heard about the dolls from websites and blogs I visit regularly. Some of the comments had merit, and observations from Jezebel.com and Racialicious.com were flat out hilarious. Yet, I felt overall frustrated by all the hoopla. When will the media and people just allow women of color to have some fun, whether plastic or made of skin and bones? The dolls are cute and appropriate for little girls. I saw the faults many pointed out. However, what intrigued me the most about these black Barbies in seemed nothing is ever good enough when representing black women (which has become a perpetual curiosity in my mind). When will being black enough be enough? It seems anything involving a black woman (apparently now whether real or fake) it seems everybody has an opinion on, though it would be really nice to see a show of hands if any of these opinionated individuals have actually heard of Angela Davis, Madame C.J. Walker or Nella Larsen.
(creator McBride-Irby with her S.I.S. dolls)
The release of Chris Rock’s comedic but half-truth documentary Good Hair, from its heavy promotion, brought women of color back into the culture spectrum and discussion--not just left to the pages of Essence, Vibe, Ebony and superstar Beyoncé doing most of the representation. The core of this discussion and how it relates to the new S.I.S. black Barbies is that while many liked seeing the array of skin tones and saw the dolls as reflections of a population full of multi and bi-racial children, in this new set of Barbie dolls, other features were deemed questionable. In plain English, some viewed the dolls as not black enough.
The way women of color have sometimes been presented others have seen as the results of inner self-hate, dissatisfaction or coercion and pressure from Western and European societies. Even something that should be ultimately viewed as mundane, like how a (black) woman wears her hair, has become the pinnacle topic of generalizing a whole categorical group’s self-esteem. Is this group continually influenced by and/or looking for acceptance from people who are nothing like them on the outside? That is a question that can only be answered on an individual basis, but let it be known that virtually everyone despite their coloring may essentially be multi-racial, especially if one was to research their hereditary history. “Issues” such as hair have always been a hot button issue in the “black community”, but from time to time the issues of this celebrated and often misunderstood community reaches the mouth and ears of those outside of it. Then along with accompanying questions and analysis, opinions and experiences become varied and interesting-and subjects becomes touchier than a hot comb.
The scrutiny that awaited the S.I.S. dolls has mostly been from online critics. Some examples of the S.I.S. dolls are Kara with a mocha brown skin color but blazing auburn straight hair; another has fairly dark brown skin and straight long dark brown hair; Grace has a lovely coffee skin tone…with blue eyes. There is also Trishelle with light skin and a head of big, curly hair, seen as the closest to imitating the “real hair” of black women.
“busted ass Celebrity Seaborn wig." And Kara’s little sister Kianna wasn’t left out of Slim’s irritation as written below the picture of the two was: “I don’t EVEN want to get into what’s off with her little sister…" I guess Slim wasn’t feeling baby girl’s amber hair, cappuccino colored skin and bluish eyes.
I found myself laughing out loud at much of the criticism. Again, I could clearly see the faults, but a lot of the people I was encountering through the Internet--by reading their words-could’ve used an extra strength chill pill. Come on people. Didn’t you play with Barbie back in the day? Barbie--whether black, white, Latina, whatever--always had crazy colored eyes. And their hair? Mattel is just keeping up with the times. Weaves and wigs and clip-ons and clip-outs are now out in the open, no longer so taboo. All kinds of women love to touch up with their hair with a little something something. Mattel is just being modern. Some felt that the dolls, though an upgrade in some areas, may give little girls low self-esteem because most women of color while of course can have naturally long hair, a straight texture is not the natural norm and few are born with light eyes, but of course both physical attributes as straight hair and light eyes are possibilities left up to genes.
On CNN.com, a short article was posted on October 21 about S.I.S., and the first sentence was: “Grace, Kara and Trichelle were created to fill a void for young black girls who for so long have been playing with dolls that don't look like them." Right away I thought--what they hell were they talking about? Was this based upon a new poll taken two weeks ago, or from a decade long evaluation? I had dolls that looked like me growing up. Had the doll and toy making industry gone so downhill, they forget about the little ones? Lately toys have become less of a pop culture fixture than they used to be, so maybe little girls, especially those of color, don’t have much dolls to play with…but still, I wasn’t sure. Reading further, what again got me going was the theory that Mattel never really cared or took notice of the black Barbie. This is not true.
Due to all the noise about the black Barbies online, I went in search of my own dolls that I still have and cherish. From the blog contributors to the comments, to an extent, I felt that many didn’t know what they were talking about. It didn’t take long to find my Barbies and when I did, I took a good look at them and again laughed. There they were. The crazy colored eyes that I don’t even think I give two cents about back in 1991.
The comments and blogs said that Mattel never really gave black Barbie her own look; she was just a literal "colored" version of the white one. I don’t think so. Well, yes, in the beginning when black Barbie first came out in 1967, she did have the same face as Barbie Millicent Roberts and her name was “Colored Francie”. Yet, I never knew this version of black Barbie until later by my growing interest in the dolls. When looking into the eight black Barbies I still have, each doll looks different from the other. There are slight alternations in nose; hair; mouths; even make-up. Maybe because I always saw my black Barbies as being different even amongst themselves (just like their white counterparts) while growing up I never had an issue with black Barbie and even being brown-skinned in America.
With fly black female role models like TLC, Salt N Pepa, Brandy and so many television shows and movies featuring black casts, I didn’t feel bad about who I was on the outside because I was being shown everyday I was capable and I looked fine just how I was. I would of found it hard to have such low self- esteem about being brown skinned because there was such a committed celebration of black culture in those days. It didn’t matter that every other black girl’s name in a show or cartoon may have always been Keisha. From the Magic School Bus, Rainbow Brite to Susie from Rugrats, the creators didn’t forget about me and I had unsung appreciation in being included. I acknowledge that some girls however do have this complex about in being black and female in America, which can extend even past childhood and I sympathize with their pain. This is a real issue for some, but please, this does not speak for all of us. We simply want dolls and characters that look like us because we walk this planet too.
(picture of S.I.S. doll posted on Jezebel.com)
I’ve actually found Mattel to be every respectful of the black Barbie. The images and features emulated have improved since “Colored Francie”, to Christie in 1968, and again re-launched officially in 1980. There was even an edition of black Barbie in which the doll not only had a great short Afro, written on the cardboard box in rousing words it said: “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” During the 1990s, Mattel had a “Dolls around the World” series with Filipino; Japanese; African and Swedish dolls, the list goes on. I give kudos to Mattel for recognizing all women around the world, unlike most drugstore makeup brands that despite hiring black models barely provide a color that would fit Beyoncé, never-mind the rest of us.
Based upon the blogs and the comments, people were giving way too much power to the dolls in breaking them down and treating Barbie as if she was some kind of pariah. She’s done more with her self than those awful Bratz dolls; it’s time to give Barbie some credit. The impression received was that strangely those who had something to say about the S.I.S. dolls were just pushing their own agenda, their militant behavior a little too unnecessary towards such cute dolls. Keep the pseudo theories on race and women away from the kids and let them have fun with their dolls. Would these same people who think Mattel is insensitive towards black women be as quick to discuss, let alone purchase dolls if they brought back the Barbie with a full and thick Afro?
The problem here (which acted as an undertone in the blogoshere) was another case of many victimizing themselves. Some argued that the dolls were going to give little girls low self-esteem because a majority of black girls don’t share the same features some of the dolls had. Yes, it would have been nice to see one doll with brown skin, black hair and brown or dark brown eyes, but have faith in the buyers and girls that will play with these dolls. While the dolls may not exactly look like every girl that holds them, it doesn’t mean they don’t represent them, or that they simply cannot play with them. As a girl grows up, hopefully she will have real, human role models to look up to, not just not Barbie--though we love her. Black Barbie is a Black American Princess because she is gorgeous, thin and seems to have it all and she doesn’t even have to work despite having been an astronaut, teacher and movie star. She’s always manages to stay employed which may be secretly why some women can’t stand her. She’s a princess because she belongs in a fairy tale and fairy tales are a part of childhood, even if this isn’t a reality for all children.
The S.I.S. dolls do represent women of color today, and may be by far some of the best and cutest Barbies I’ve seen in awhile. “These dolls are for girls all over the world,” McBride-Irby said in her CNN interview, which is a profound statement. So McBride-Irby, you're telling me that somewhere in suburbia there could be a little white girl playing with Kara and Kianna? Who would have thought? In December, the release of Walt Disney Pictures "The Princess and the Frog" (featuring the company's first African-American princess) follows a new day of continuing triumphs and existing questions about race, and it's time to take the racial baggage away from these dolls and influencing our kids. Let the kids play with S.I.S. as they are meant to be seen…as eternally positive pretty young things.