About-Face BlogOn The PulseWomen of Color

Black Barbie Dolls Leave Much to Be Desired

By July 17, 2009 22 Comments

As we found out from The Root, Mattel is releasing a new line of Barbie dolls that are getting a lot of attention. The new line, called “So In Style,” or “S.I.S.” are supposed to be African-American and to have more “authentic” facial features. The S.I.S. dolls are sold in pairs, with one adult doll and one young doll, in order to model a mentor relationship.

What makes this new line of black dolls interesting is that each character has a different skin tone, representing the variety of skin tones that black women have. Also, the dolls have straight, wavy, and curly hair. Props to Mattel for including these differences, but while it may be a step forward in representing racial diversity, it is far from far enough.

The S.I.S. dolls are just another example of how America loves to see African-Americans: as white as possible. The women most regarded as beautiful, who likely serve as popular role models for young girls, have light skin, more Anglo features, and, of course, are very thin. Beautiful black women with darker skin, more “ethnic” features, or with curves or muscles get nowhere near as much attention or praise for their beauty. What kind of message does that give to black girls and the rest of society?

In terms of hair, the S.I.S. line includes one adult doll with curly hair and a young doll with afro-puffs (not pictured). The rest of the dolls have long, wavy or straight hair — just like white Barbies.

Of course many black women do have hair like this, but most don’t grow it that way naturally. There are six different dolls — why not six different kinds of hair? To me, this lack of representation just reaffirms the notion that “nappy” or “kinky” hair is bad, while promoting long, sleek hair as the most (or only) beautiful option.

African-American women have a variety of hairstyles, natural and otherwise, that should be represented in this line. How would dolls with dreadlocks or interchangeable hair weaves fly? Would they be marketable? Would they be offensive? I don’t know. But I do think that they would provide some much needed representation for the differences within black women’s hairstyles and practices.

In the range of skin tones for black women, I would say that these dolls come in very light, medium light, and medium skin tones only. The darkest one is actually not so dark at all.

It pretty much goes without saying that Barbie dolls are going to be ridiculously skinny with impossible proportions, but if they must be the supermodels of toys, I’d like to see dolls that look like Alek Wek too.

(Left to right:) Black supermodels Tyra Banks, Iman, Alek Wek, and Kimora Lee Simmons

(Left to right:) Black supermodels Tyra Banks, Iman, Alek Wek, and Kimora Lee Simmons

Seeing more representation of females with dark skin, natural hairstyles, and various facial features and body types on screen, in print, and in toys will not only help African-American girls and women feel more beautiful and appreciated, but will also provide a much needed additions to the set of characteristics our society holds as beautiful.


Sabrina is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying Community Studies and Sociology. Her area of focus is cultural politics and she is interning with About-Face for a field study. Sabrina is especially interested in women’s roles and representations in mass media.