There’s a new black Barbie in town

Call it the Michelle Obama effect, but Mattel’s ‘authentic’ new line is flying off the shelves

There’s a new black Barbie in townIt took Mattel some time to get it right. The behemoth behind the Barbie brand made its first black doll in 1967: “Colored Francie,” a version of Barbie’s white cousin that did not sell well and was soon discontinued. A black friend, “Christie,” was introduced a few years later, but it was not until 1980 that a black Barbie—not a friend or a relative, but a Barbie in her own right—hit stores. Mattel has since produced a steady stream of the dolls, including missteps like 1997’s Oreo Fun Barbie, the fruit of a partnership with Nabisco, inadvertently named after a slur for African-Americans. The question of how “black” these Barbies really were has remained contentious. Early critics charged that black Barbies were simply “dye-dipped versions of archetypal white American beauty,” with Caucasian features. Later dolls like “Soul Train Shani” drew fire for promoting racial stereotypes.

This time around, Mattel wanted to nail it. And if early buzz over its new So In Style Barbies is any measure, they may have. Collectors are in a tizzy over the new line of black dolls, which launched in the U.S. this summer, and sport wider noses, larger lips, curly hair and a range of skin tones. Barbie bloggers are lauding them. A fashion supplement in July’s Vogue Italia features them in place of human models. And stores are scrambling to buy them up. “We don’t usually bring in playline Barbies,” says Margaret Matsui, owner of Mississauga, Ont.’s My Favourite Dolls, which specializes in high-end collector models. But “this one’s really unique.”

Matsui thinks 2009 is “the year for African-American dolls.” It’s not just Barbie; Disney will introduce its first black princess, Tiana, in November’s The Frog Princess, complete with doll. Charisse Jones, author of Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, thinks she knows why. “Michelle Obama’s ascension has radically changed the idea of what is beautiful,” she explains. The fashion industry is charting the first lady’s every move, and models like Liya Kebede say simply having Michelle “out there” has boosted demand for black models.

Mattel says the So In Style dolls are flying off the shelves—even though Barbie saw global sales drop 21 per cent in the last quarter of 2008. Stacey McBride-Irby, the black designer behind the dolls, says that’s because Mattel put months of aggressive market research into the collection. She says the firm was committed to releasing, at last, a line of black dolls that is ethnically “authentic.”

But Barbies have had “authentic” features and skin tones in the ’90s. So why the fuss about Mattel’s newest “BFFs”? A lot hinges on hair. “Hair is to black women what weight is to white women,” Charisse Jones explains. “Meaning that it is an aspect of our beauty that is fraught with all kinds of emotions and neuroses and anxieties.” Jones says there is pressure these days on black women to conform to a Eurocentric beauty ideal—straight hair and all. The politics of black hair pop up in places like The Tyra Banks Show’s “Hair Evolution,” especially after a now-infamous incident in 2007 in which a Glamour editor dismissed natural African-American hairstyles as “political” statements that had no place in the corporate world.

Much talk about So In Style centres on “fun and funky” Trichelle’s curly mop and little Kianna’s Afro puffs. Black Barbies have had short, curly hair before; Kenyan Barbie, for instance, sports a hairdo that some have dubbed “Afro turf.” But mass-produced playline dolls traditionally have long, combable locks. In fact, McBride-Irby says that when she first designed her dolls, they had straight hair. But in December, a high-power focus group—which included the wives of Magic Johnson and Denzel Washington—pushed her to consider more authentic curls.

Still, what’s really new, perhaps, is the way these dolls have been received. When Mattel announced its intention to “go ethnic” in 1990, explains Ann DuCille, an academic and author of Skin Trade, which explores black Barbie’s development, the goal was to target ethnic consumers. But in 2009, the So In Style dolls haven’t been branded as black dolls for black girls. They’re simply fashion icons who happen to be African-American. Of course, not everyone is convinced that the new dolls amount to much of a change. DuCille—who dismissed the first black Barbie she saw as an “anorexic Aunt Jemima”—says she would be more impressed if Mattel, instead of focusing on Barbie’s skin, had focused on a more pressing problem: her size.