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Black Barbie Dolls Leave Much to Be Desired

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.

22 thoughts on “Black Barbie Dolls Leave Much to Be Desired

  1. I like that they’re trying to make more-authentic African-American dolls so black girls can see themselves in their dolls instead of longing for white beauty, but really, do we need to rely on Mattel to do that for us? According to one study from the Brown v. Board of Education era, black girls still prefer white dolls because they’re “prettier” — can Mattel actually change that thinking? Here’s the video and report on the doll study:

  2. why shouldwe change the way barbies look , because of fat ,nerds,or uglypeople if their self esteem is sensitive ,then whybother getting a doll that will offend them

  3. why shouldwe change the way barbies look , because of fat ,nerds,or uglypeople, if their self esteem is “so” sensitive ,then whybother getting a doll that will offend them but I understand them making black barbies ,but sometimes they use interracial barbies to substitute black barbies

  4. Charkera–

    If everyone who knew that they or their child would eventually be harmed by a Barbie simply didn’t buy one, then Mattel would be out of business if they didn’t make any changes. And I think that they are starting to see this, and therefore trying to diversify their dolls with this new line.

    This isn’t about “fat, nerds, or uglypeople”–this is about everyone is who not white with long, straight blonde hair, blue eyes, and body proportions and are anatomically impossible–so everyone.

    And we can’t directly change the way that Barbies look–Mattel can, and we can influence them primarily by our consumer choices. But while we can’t change the Barbies, plenty of people think that they can change the way that they look to be more like the Barbie ideal, which is virtually impossible for all women.

    We shouldn’t change the way WE look, but the way that Barbies look influence a lot of beauty standards. What makes someone ugly or beautiful, anyway? Are they more beautiful if they look more like Barbie, or less beautiful the less they look like the doll?

    We need to reevaluate what we want to see represented in our toys, because not having yourself represented can be an awful feeling, like you are not worthy of being represented or there is something wrong with you. And why shouldn’t we want change when a company has consistently done an awful job at representing REAL women and girls?

  5. Yes, I do realize that. But so are many African-American women. And while I included that photo of the four models, I meant my argument to mean that Barbies are looking more like Tyra, Iman, and Kimora, but I haven’t seen any that look like Alek, who is African, and not “mixed,” to my knowledge.

    You bring up an interesting point about black women and what it means to be “mixed.” When I say “The S.I.S. dolls are just another example of how America loves to see African-Americans: as white as possible,” that can extend to ancestry as well.

    There is a deep history of social, cultural, and political issues surrounding black people who are mixed race, and it is very significant. I’m not a history expert, and I can’t really get into this topic in a small comment, but it does relate a lot to the still popular idea that dark-skinned girls are not as attractive as light-skinned girls.


  7. Spare me! African American this, African American that. What about non African American blacks? Or do we not count?

    Tyra Banks is NOT mixed. Both of her parents are black. There is only mixed woman in that line up and that is Kimora Lee, who is Black and Japanese.

  8. Angel,
    I don’t think Sabrina is trying to say that African-Americans are the only ones that count. You have to understand with marketing they love categories. So when a doll is made with darker skin, kinky-curlier hair is it to represent darker people of color as a whole. So that African-American girl, or that Darker complexed girl for the islands, or darker “complexed” dominican, etc. can have a doll they can relate to themselves.

  9. No such thing as an “African American” maybe a dark skinned or black but sorry never heard of a country called Africa America. Sociology what garbage useless degree

  10. Michelle I agree. Black waste so much energy complaining.
    Their music is almost all complaining and cap this bitch and that. They even think they have their own country.

  11. Funny why don’t black people do something to clean up their trash music. Oh I get it they are too busy complaining about barbie not being blacksnd frizzy. Figures

  12. I wish the white barbie was more tan let’s all write Martel and ask them to represent everyone. Not

    This article was written in haste. They forgot
    To mention how Dumbo Obama the commie
    Has already said he would nationalize all toy companies
    Pretty soon all toys will be “fair” and available
    Even if you have no money

  13. By the way in case you really are taking
    Classes and not just hitting the bars

    Look how in other countries cartoon characters
    And dolls emulate the look of us oppressive
    White people

    Guess they think we are beautiful but that must
    Be wrong too

    You just can’t prove what is beautul so
    You article is just opinion without numbers
    Do some real homework ms sociologist!

  14. First and foremost, as a blog moderator, I would like to ask people to please keep their comments on topic and to respect the bloggers and other commentators.

    Also, while you can make up a fake name or remain anonymous when you post a comment, please do not pretend to be two different people just so you can make it look like someone else is responding to your own comment. While I cannot prove that anyone is doing this, there are comments from the same IP address and/or email address that use different names.

  15. Now I have some responses to the latest comments. I am really going to keep these brief and on topic. I know that this is a complicated issue, but while I could write essays on this subject, this is not the place for that.

    First of all, the African American vs. black issue. Black is a name given to a skin-color category. African American is a name given to a group of people who share a common history and ethnic background. They are not interchangeable. Not everyone who is black in America is African American–that is true. Some people believe that it is more polite, or politically correct, to refer to dark skinned Americans as African American, though this is not always technically correct.

    I don’t think that either term is right or wrong to use, it just depends on the situation. People should be able to identify themselves and what terms they would like to be described with, but, unfortunately, they don’t always get the chance to do that.

    And I really have to say something about the comments on “black music.” I’m guessing that those people were referring to rap/hip hop. Some of it certainly does have a lot of profanity, violence, and sexuality in the lyrics, but it really is an under appreciated genre. A lot of it focuses on social issues, and is a lot deeper and more creative than the stuff you usually hear on the radio. If you are interested, some artists I recommend are Run D.M.C., Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Del Tha Funkee Homosapein.

    Also, hip hop is not the only genre of music originated by black people in America. Funk, soul, doo-wop, jazz, gospel, blues, rock & roll and more were also created by African Americans. A brief history:

  16. Next, in response to Jen:

    The one thing that I can agree with you on is this: No one, not I or anyone else, can prove what is beautiful. It’s not a fact–it’s subjective. What is considered beautiful is always an opinion. And my blog IS my opinion–NOT a sociological study, and I never claimed otherwise.

    And you are right, many toys and characters around the world are white and have fair features. This is a complicated issue, and there are many factors to consider as to why this is the case.

    But because people are exposed to these appearances most often in the media, and these are the figures that most often represent beauty, it makes sense that people would recognize beauty of that type more often than other types that are not represented as much. That was the basic point I was trying to make in this blog.

    Why not have more representative figures in the media? Then people can be exposed to more kinds of beauty, and can better form opinions about their personal preferences.

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