I worked in a toy store a few summers ago and observed the most fascinating gendered and racial dynamics surrounding customers’ reactions to our products, marketing, and even wrapping paper. (I’d be more than happy to go on my “boy paper,” “girl paper,” and gender-neutral paper rant another time…suffice it to say that I refused to wrap gifts unless customers actually specified which pattern they wanted, and not just that they wanted “girl paper.”) I’ve always been fascinated by some of what I observed, so I figured for my final post I would look more into the history of race and various dolls. Barbie, one of the largest and most famous doll producers, continues to have a fraught relationship with feminists of all stripes. The dolls reinforce beauty norms that privilege unrealistically-proportioned, very-made up, white bodies. Even the Black Barbie dolls that have been released more recently are, understandably, quite controversial, as they homogenize Barbie’s Black customer base into people who want dolls with lighter skin, more stereotypically white facial features, and long, straight hair (Peterson).
(Christie’s hair oxidizes to red)
However, when you go looking into the history of Black Barbie dolls, it gets weirder. I ended up in a part of the internet targeted to vintage doll collectors that I honestly had not known existed, and I’ve been reading about Christie, Barbie’s first African-American friend. Christie was the first doll in the Barbie collection to have not only darker skin, but to actually be made with a different plastic head model and therefore have vaguely different features than white Barbies (“Black Francie,” as collectors call her, was the first Black doll but was realistically just a white Barbie painted darker). I’m fascinated by a number of things here – later releases of Christie had darker skin than earlier releases, and were made with a hair material that doesn’t oxidize to red over time in collectors’ possession, meaning that Mattel had actually figured out what materials to use to make Black dolls. Yet perhaps most interesting to me is the decision by solidly half of the collector websites I browsed to refer to Christie not simply as the first Black Barbie doll, but as Barbie’s first Black or African-American friend. This probably just has something to do with the way the Barbie universe is centered in this conversation, but I find the continued trope of the “I have a Black friend, I’m not racist” here fascinating. Barbie will always be white, slender, and a beach-goer as well as a professional. There is no way around it. In true Barbie universe, the central character can never be Black. But to assuage feminist complaints, and to make sure that little Black girls become customers as well, there can be someone, backstory-less and with poor quality hair, that sits in the background and is sometimes released in a few of the other models (Twist’n’Turn, Malibu – not Dr. Christie, though) – and that is Barbie’s Black friend.
Peterson, Latoya. “Black Barbies: A Question of Representation.” http://jezebel.com/5418165/black-barbies-a-question-of-representation