A Philosopher's Blog

The New Black Barbie Dolls

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2009

Mattel recently released a new line of black Barbie dolls. Not surprisingly, the reactions have been somewhat mixed. On the positive side, some people approve of the fact that Mattel is doing more to provide a greater ethnic diversity in the Barbie lineup. On the negative side, some people have been critical that the dolls fail to be “black enough.” Interestingly, this is a criticism that was once made against Obama.

While I do understand the concern that Barbies should reflect ethnic diversity, it is somewhat interesting to hear people complain that a specific ethnic Barbie of type X does not look properly X or X enough (for example, that a black Barbie does not look black enough). After all, these are Barbie dolls-plastic dolls whose measurements and plastic perfection cannot be matched by real woman and girls. Obviously, the Barbie doll has been subject to numerous feminist criticisms over the years and these still seem to generally apply. After all, are there overweight Barbies? Short, stocky Barbies? Weight lifter Barbies? I suspect not.

This is not to say that the fact that Barbie exemplifies a stereotype of female appearance excuses Mattel from not creating ethnically diverse Barbies. Rather, it is just an observation that it struck me as interesting that people would be concerned that black Barbies don’t look black enough when Barbies generally look more like sculpted androids (or fembots) than human beings.

18 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on October 22, 2009 at 6:23 am

    I thought noting differences in physical attributes amongst the races made one a racist.

    • biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 8:15 am

      You’re writing that with tongue in cheek, I suppose. But just in case. . .

      Noting that my grandson’s skin is pale white and his hair is blond while his best friend’s skin is a rich mocha brown and his hair is dark black is not racist. It’s an objective observation.

      “racism–n.–1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and
      2.Discrimination or prejudice based on race.” The Free Dictionary

      To continue the example: When I start making judgments about the character or ability or “worth as a human being” of my grandson’s friend based on unfounded generalizations about those observations of physical differences–that’s part of being racist.

      The other big parts have to do with: the second part of the first definition–feeling “that a particular race is superior to others”– and the second definition “Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:31 pm

      It depends, it seems. I think there is a iPhone app that tells you when it is okay to note and when it is not.

      • biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:47 pm

        There is an app for that. It’s a person’s brain. And there’s still a portion of the population that needs an upgrade. . .

  2. biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:01 am

    The question of Obama “being black enough” to gain and maintain black support was put to rest in early November 2008.
    I suspect that if the Black Barbie is on the shelves next year and the year after that and . . . that the issue of the doll’s blackness will also be considered settled.

    Overall, I think most toy controversies are way overblown. When I was a kid, I had toy pistols out the wazoo and and I left a trail of expended red cap paper wherever I went. I had a toy Buntline Special and pretended I was Wyatt Earp. But I didn’t become Wyatt Earp or Seung-Hui Cho. Of course my parents weren’t hovering over me encouraging me to kill the mother-fu******[fill in the blank]. My father might have been, but in his free time he was usually what he described as “three sheets to the wind”. But that’s another story.

    I’m guessing that the typical little girl is most influenced by interactions with her family and friends at home and school, and the unique inner- workings of her mind on her feelings of self- worth. I doubt Barbie’s plastic perfection or relative blackness will have much effect.
    Note: That’s not to say that someone, white or black, young or old, saying “What’re you carrying around that n****r doll for?” wouldn’t have some consequences. . .

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:46 pm

      Ah, those red paper caps. I’m surprised that I didn’t go deaf from shooting off so many of those.

      I do wonder how much kids are affected by toys. Some “experts” make a big fuss over them, but I suspect that kids are far less influenced than these folks would suggest. After all, I recall that my toys typically “became” whatever I wanted them to be-that is, their physical reality was overlaid with my imagination. So, a stick could be a gun and my sister’s Barbie could become a monster.

      • biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 10:41 pm

        For a second there I thought you wrote “My sister, Barbie, could be come a monster.” 🙂

  3. T. J. Babson said, on October 22, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    “This is not to say that the fact that Barbie exemplifies a stereotype of female appearance excuses Mattel from not creating ethnically diverse Barbies.”

    Mike, do you believe Mattel has an obligation to create ethnically diverse Barbies? If so, why?

    • biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 3:18 pm

      Not answering for Michael here, and not, at this point at least, really answering your question. It strikes me that the new Black Barbie doll was a marketing decision, plain and simple. If Mattel didn’t think that blacks had enough discretionary income to waste on their crap, they wouldn’t seek to enter that market. After all, if online sources are to be believed, the company waited for 20 or more years to introduce special Black Barbie specials. Why wait until now to create a black version that they hope will have some wide, long-term market appeal? I think the answer to that is pretty clear, too.

      I Googled “black Ken dolls”. Apparently, like the Black Barbie variations, they’ve been available sporadically since the Seventies. Ken had two black American friends, Curtis and Brad. I bring this up because I believe Mattel marketing had best consider getting a black Ken out there on a regular basis so Black Barbie will have someone to know–in the Biblical sense. Otherwise they’ll have complaints from every quarter (mostly the hind quarters) that the company is encouraging miscegenation, or at least making it inevitable–unless, of course BB comes with a written and signed pledge of abstinence. That’ll work.

      Of course, beyond the very general distinction between male and female, dolls have normally been considered neutral in the sex department. But don’t be surprised if the usual bitching occurs. Tinky Winky succumbed to the attacks of Jerry Falwell. He–Tinky Winky, not Falwell– was purple (purple heart!!). He had a pink triangle on his head. It was point down–apparently a gay pride symbol.Presumably Falwell would have been satisfied if the triangle had rested on its base, as that, apparently, was the symbol Nazis used to identify homosexuals. And worst of all he carried a bag. A magic bag may be used in fantasy games. . .! Jerry Falwell succumbed to God eight years later, a few years short of the end of the world.

      TJ: To answer your question. The only real obligations companies recognize are to their bondholders and shareholders.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:50 pm

      One one hand, I’d say that Mattel has no such obligation. After all, they are in the business of making toys and their main moral obligation here is to make them safe for kids. Having diverse dolls would make pragmatic sense-they can probably boost sales a bit, avoid some bad PR and get some good PR/free advertising.

      On the other hand, I think that since Mattel is a major toy manufacturer, then they would have similar moral reasons to diversify the toy lines as they do to diversify their employees. Of course, this can be called into question as well.

  4. magus71 said, on October 22, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I demand that all races be replicated in Barbies, but that the numbers produced must match the percentage of demography.

    How about Illegal Alien Barbie?

    It’s only fair.

    • biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 3:52 pm

      We’re in a gray area (or is it black, or brown, or yellow?) here. Would an “Illegal Alien” represent a single *race*? Are all aliens, illegal or otherwise, non-Caucasian?

      How about a “Rapist Caucasian” doll? I wonder what costume he’d wear?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2009 at 9:52 pm

        Well, they would need a diverse range of illegal alien Barbies. After all, any ethnicity could be here illegally.

      • biomass2 said, on October 22, 2009 at 11:13 pm

        Even Canadians Barbies, eh . . . ? 🙂

        Yes, some Canadians do remain illegally in the US.
        “6% were from Europe and Canada”. . . Wikipedia, Illegal Immigration to the United States.
        And I thought the only illegal immigration between the two countries went the other way!

        Damn. I keep forgetting they’re not an ethnic group. Or are they?

  5. […] The dolls were created by Stacy McBride-Irby, an African-American who watched her daughter play with dolls and wanted to create a doll that looked more like her. Ms. McBride-Irby says: “My daughter loves the dolls. I’ve had dads thank me for creating this line of dolls that represent their little girls. These dolls are for girls all over the world.” […]

  6. liv dolls said, on December 14, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Having diverse dolls would make pragmatic sense-they can probably boost sales a bit, avoid some bad PR and get some good PR/free advertising.

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