Black Barbie, The New Role Model?

 The Obama era post-racial debate, it’s safe to assume, will not die anytime soon. Scarcely has the bitter aftertaste from the Henry Louis Gate incident worn off, than the dodgy treatment of black folks is being put under the spotlight once again. Well, not so much black folks, per se, as black women.

Specifically Grace, Kara and Trichelle.

This trio is actually Mattel’s newest addition of Barbie dolls – black Barbies, to be exact – and debate is apparently raging about whether their unveiling in September is in fact a step forward or backward in terms of accurately representing black women. An issue, let’s not forget, that takes on heightened significance in the age of Obama – Barack and Michelle, and, if you think about it, Malia and Sasha.

Toymaker Mattel has, over the years, struggled with its line of black Barbie dolls, always drawing heat since Christie, regarded as the first black Barbie, made her inauspicious debut in 1968. The criticism is usually that Black Barbie isn’t ‘black’ enough, her milk chocolate skin only covering up the delicate features, eg the thin lips, straight nose and silky straight hair, of the white Barbie. So, it can only be assumed that when Mattel commissioned the ‘So In Style’ black dolls (Grace, Kara, Trichelle, and their little sisters, Courtney, Janessa and Kiana) from black designer Stacey McBride-Irby, who wanted black girls like her six-year-old daughter to have dolls which looked like them, that is to say, “with fuller lips, a wider nose and more pronounced cheekbones”, and their skin colours varied, the toymaker didn’t imagine the tempest in a teacup the new line would create.

The facial features of the So In Style dolls reflect real black women, even more so than their forebears, but the remaining bugbear is, apparently, their hair. (And people refuse to call Chris Rock a prophet!) Only one of the dolls has curly (albeit shoulder-length) hair; the others still have straight hair. And the colour seems to be off, as well. All in all, the dolls’ hair remains unrealistic. As one writer on the Black Voices message board lamented, “I would love to see a variety in the hairstyles of the dolls – some permed, some natural.”

Frankly, I think the criticism is misplaced. The issue is not so much whether little African-American girls will be confused about seeing their dolls with hair that doesn’t look like theirs. The truth is, they can become confused simply by looking at the hair of the real women around them: their mothers, aunts, teachers, pop celebrities. The black hair industry in America is a multi-billion-dollar one. If you don’t believe me, ask the Koreans. Or poor women in India who sacrifice yards and yards of their silky virgin hair to meet the weave demands of not only black women in North America, but increasingly their white counterparts as well.

“Black mothers who want their girls to love their natural hair have an uphill battle and these dolls could make it harder,” said Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. I’m not sure about this. Are these mothers not processing their own hair? Because, it would seem to me that this would be hypocritical if they’re straightening their own hair, which Chris Rock’s timely new documentary, Good Hair, suggests they’re doing big time

What the detractors should be arguing about is the unrealistic body-image ideals the black dolls might be reinforcing in little black girls. Now that’s something that might cause confusion. By and large, the women around them don’t possess the slim hips and pared-down tooshies these new dolls have. Why don’t they have Beyoncé booties? J-Hud boobies?

I’ll tell you why. Because Mattel, at the end of the day, is a company like any other that’s interested in the bottom line. They know, like all the companies that use slender, silky-haired nymphs to advertise their products, that sleek sells.

So, the woman interviewed for the Associated Press piece who opined that the So In Style dolls should perhaps have been designed with “a little short afro, or shorter braids” has completely missed the point. It’s not about spot-on depictions, it’s about what sells. What does a half-naked model have to do with selling a luxury car? In the end, everything. Because a potential buyer needs to believe he’s buying into not simply the luxury of an expensive car but also the fantasy of the idea that he will be able to attract the kind of girl advertising the car if he becomes the owner.

It’s a similar situation with those here in Jamaica who grumble every year, around this time, that our beauty queens don’t reflect how the majority of Jamaican women look. That may be a fact, but the thing to remember is that the organisers don’t put on the Miss Jamaica show to appease the masses. The contest is a business, like any other, with the aim being the maximising of profits, and for deciding on the best girl who, in their estimation, rightly or wrongly, will help them do so by copping the crown at the international level.

One can argue about the ability of a dark-skinned girl to go all the way to the top until the cows come home, well, as much as one can argue the latent sexism in the luxury ad with the female model. (Can’t women afford to buy high-end cars too? Where are their half-naked male models?) Personally, I think the girl who represents us should be the one most qualified to do so on a world stage, regardless of her colour. That said, though, why aren’t there more qualified black girls? If, in the end, it all comes down to mindsets, then how do we change them? Certainly the creation of a black doll with more realistic hair won’t do it. Girls have to be taught by the women closest to them to love themselves. Women like the barmaid in Nine Miles, here in Jamaica, who recently defied the accepted mores and reported the patron and bus conductor Paul Williams who reached out from the bus he was travelling in and squeezed her breast one day as she stood in front of the bar. Williams was subsequently fined $20,000, or six months in prison for indecent assault.

It’s a little thing, but a potentially huge lesson for young Jamaican girls of whatever colour about what it means to value themselves.