This past Sunday night, the Bravo network aired the third episode of the inaugural season of Married to Medicine: Los Angeles. The one-hour reality series follows the lives of several women whom either work in the medical field or are married to a spouse in the medical field.
In the episode, one of the wives Jazmin threw a “Barbie” – themed party and it sparked an interesting dialogue. The extent of the conversation was that despite Barbie representing the ideal image of beauty in Western culture, that image rejects notions of beauty pertaining to women of color.
Suggesting that Black women must adapt to the White beauty aesthetic to be considered beautiful.
Black women conforming to white standards of beauty is not a new phenomenon. Using dolls to measure these standards is nothing new either. Think back to the infamous “Doll Test” in which psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark revolutionized developmental psychology through their 1940’s study involving their use of dolls to measure children’s perception of race. Their findings were that despite the dolls being identical, all except for color, all the children, black and white, equated positive attributes to the white dolls.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Barbie doll. Invented by Ruth Handler, wife of Mattel toy company founder Elliot Handler, the then-43-yr-old came up with the idea after seeing her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls. During a family vacation in Europe, Handler came across the German Bild Lilli doll and used its likeness to create “Barbie,” named after her daughter.
Although slow on the rise, Barbie was on her way to becoming a household name for American girls. Now more than a half a century later, she still holds her place in popular culture, from television shows and films, to references in music such as the Danish-Norwegian pop group Aqua 1997 hit “Barbie Girl.”
Ruth Handler herself said she created Barbie with the intent that, “through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be…Barbie always represented the fact that women had choices.”
Still, the debate about the legacy of Barbie regarding her impact on the definition of beauty has continued. Viviana Camarillo writes in her 2017 Legacy Press article “Breaking Barbie Boundaries,” that “the doll has faced much scrutiny since its launch for the unrealistic beauty standards it has set for young girls…though she may be made of plastic, Barbie continues to uphold a skewed sense of beauty…not all girls have her signature look and no girl should feel pressured to have it…all girls should have the opportunity to see themselves represented in the material world.”
Black dolls had been around for quite some time by the mid-20th century. Nadja Sayej writes in her 2017 The Guardian article “From Controversy to Empowerment: the history of Black dolls,” that “Black dolls were mass-produced in the 20th century.” She goes on to reference important figures like Beatrice Wright Brewington, founder of B. Wright’s Toy Company, and Shindana Toys, as pioneers of the first “Black doll.”
Mattel credits Christie, the friend of Barbie, as their attempt to cater to a more diverse audience. Introduced ten years after Barbie was created, sources debate over whether this was the “first” Black Barbie, as later accounts argue in the 1980’s was when the first Black Barbie emerged.
Over the years, several Black Barbies have been produced, using the likeness of several important figures from singer-songwriters Brandy and Beyoncé to now even principal ballet dancer Missy Copeland and actress-activist Yara Shahidi. Hip hop artist Nicki Minaj even adopted the name “Black Barbie” during the early stages of her career.
The history of Barbie is one of both convolution and controversy. The story of Black Barbie is but a page in the long withstanding narrative of in the pop culture status of Barbie as a whole. What conclusions could be drawn from this in relation to Black beauty?