C'mon. Get Happy.

I somehow missed the news that Mattel has plans for a new line of black fashion dolls.

According to the story,

"Mattel Inc. (MAT) will launch its first complete line of African-American Barbie dolls, a company representative said Thursday.

(Presumably they're using "Barbie® dolls" as a term for fashion dolls in general - which is usually a no-no, although it does fit in with the Barbie is a noun thing [see the fourth paragraph on that page]. I wonder what exactly makes the So In Style™ line "complete"?)

It goes on:

"The line, which features three adult dolls, was previewed in a video at the Mattel and Fisher-Price Sneak-Peak Tour in New York one day after America's first African-American president, Barack Obama, took office. The "So in Style" dolls, expected to be released in fall 2009, come with little sisters as part of a mentorship theme."

Later, it says this:

"The line differs from the company's prior releases of African-American toys, in part, because of its facial features. As an example, the toys have fuller lips and different cheek bone placement and nose structure."

(Emphasis in the quotes is mine.)

Other sources mention that the line will feature "hipper, more colorful clothing than Barbie".

Of course, this isn't Mattel's "first complete line of African-American Barbie dolls"; anyone familiar with Barbie will instantly recognize it as essentially being a revival of Mattel's Shani® line from 1991, which also consisted of three black Barbie-size adult characters (Shani, Asha®, and Nichelle®) with new "ethnically correct" face sculpts and "hip", "colorful" clothes (many of them using "ethnic" [according to Mattel] prints and color combinations).

There was a lot of fanfare about the Shani line. And its marketing touted some of the same exact selling points mentioned about the "So In Style" dolls - including "realistic facial sculpting" (incorporating "fuller lips" and a "broader nose") and clothing styles designed to be different from what Barbie wore. The dolls were created with the input of black parents and psychologists, in the same way So In Style was screened by "prominent women in the African-American community". The similarities are too obvious to ignore - right down to the promotion of one specific designer by name! (In this case, it's Stacey McBride; with the Shani dolls, it was Kitty Black Perkins.)

It seems very odd that the Shani line would be so pointedly snubbed like this, and that the new line would be described as "a first" - as if people wouldn't remember Shani, or notice that this is (both at its core and in many superficial ways) the same thing.

Of course isn't not exactly the same - it does add that "little sister" "mentorship theme" deal. Maybe Shani and her friends weren't civic-minded enough or something.

Whether it's really "progressive" (or appropriate, or even wise) to create a racially segregated line of dolls in 2009 is arguable. Hopefully at least this time the dolls won't be named after their skintones. (The dolls in the Shani line were originally going to be called "Mahogany", "Cocoa", and "Cinnamon" after their differing complexions. Luckily, the names were changed before the dolls hit the market.)

You may be sensing a slightly bitter overtone. I've talked (repeatedly) about how much I dislike the fact that non-white playline Barbie-family dolls are still sometimes marketed as "Barbie" (have you ever seen a "white Christie®" doll? ) and the fact that Barbie's friends still aren't being treated as her equals. It's Barbie's name written in 80-point type on the other dolls' boxes, after all.

In my opinion, Christie, Teresa®, and Kira® (if she ever returns) shouldn't be viewed as "ethnic alternatives" to Barbie, and dolls with their features shouldn't optionally be considered "black Barbie", "Hispanic Barbie", "Asian Barbie", or any other permutation of "non-white Barbie"; they should be distinct individuals with their own names who are developed as fully as Barbie is. This approach is a cornerstone of the Bratz® brand and has played a significant role in its popularity.

So I find it disheartening that, rather than supporting and promoting the existing black characters in the Barbie line (or even bothering to bring back Christie®, Barbie's longstanding friend of over 40 years), they're being diminished and dismissed at the expense of a new "all-black" line. If the black dolls in the Barbie line are somehow perceived as being "lacking" or "insufficient" (which the articles about So In Style are basically stating point-blank), that's a problem which should be dealt with; it shouldn't be necessary to create an entire line of black dolls to compensate.

(And indirectly sending the message that the presumably "insufficient" black dolls in the Barbie line will continue to be "insufficient" since the new line will be "picking up the slack" seems a rather strange thing to do as well.)

I also find it disheartening that such a big deal is being made about the dolls having facial characteristics appropriate to their race - even going so far as to state that this somehow sets them apart from the black dolls Mattel has made in the past.

The oblique insinuation that Mattel has never created black dolls that "look black" before is, frankly, insulting. The new facial sculpting for Shani and her friends was one of the line's most-promoted features, but even then it wasn't a new thing - Mattel was a trailblazer in this area way back in the 60's.

First, I have to explain something. The cheapest and easiest way to create "ethnic" (read: non-white) (read more commonly: black) dolls is by avoiding the time and expense needed to create unique sculpts and molds altogether. Instead, an existing white doll is cast in brown vinyl, rooted with black hair, painted with brown eyes (usually...), and accordingly marketed as black. These kinds of dolls are (perhaps distastefully, but nonetheless appropriately) referred to as "dipped dolls".

Whether or not there's something inherently problematic about these types of dolls is a matter of personal opinion. In any event, taking a close look at the Barbie brand would reveal that Mattel hasn't done this very often with adult-bodied dolls during the line's 50-year history. It's true that Mattel's first test of a black fashion doll, which collectors usually call "Black Francie" or "Colored Francie" (Mattel referred to her as the "colored" [meaning "black"] version of Francie), was a "dipped" version of the existing white Francie doll; however, the first black Barbie-family doll with real muscle behind it, 1968's Christie®, wasn't just Barbie cast in brown vinyl - she had her own unique face sculpt (with features traditionally associated with women of African descent), short, curly black hair, and a completely separate personality. She wasn't just a "colored version" of another doll - she was Christie.

(Actually, she did share her head with the Diahann Carroll as Julia dolls - another example of 1960s Mattel's initiative in creating high-profile non-white dolls for children to play with.)

I obviously can't speak to the motives behind the creation of these dolls, but the fact remains that they existed, they were significant, and they shouldn't be forgotten or ignored in the interests of new lines.

Of course, over the years black dolls have been produced with heads originally sculpted for white dolls. Barbie's friend Cara used Steffie's face in the late 70's, for example, and Christie used Barbie's face in the late 70's and Steffie's in the early 80's (before getting her own new head in 1987). It's also very common with non-adult-bodied dolls, such as Kelly® and Skipper®, where a small number of sculpts (in many cases only one) are used for all the dolls in the line.

Again, whether this is a less-than-desirable situation is up to the individual. However, it's still relatively uncommon to find an adult doll identified as black in the Barbie playline with a head sculpt originally designed for a non-black doll. (I can only think of a few cases in the last 20 years where this has happened.) It's done occasionally in the adult collector line, but almost always to produce a specific look - not as a "cost-cutting" measure (despite what some consumers may believe).

Of course, the opposite happens, too. For example, quite a few white (and Asian, and Hispanic) dolls have been produced with the 1998 "Goddess" head, which was originally used on Bob Mackie's Fantasy Goddess of Africa™ Barbie doll.

The last part of the article adds a bit of insult to the injury:

"In 1968, Mattel introduced an African-American doll named Christie, according to the company's Web site."

Apparently, the writer had to to go to Mattel's website on their own to even find a mention of Christie. As far as I'm concerned this should be common knowledge, not a piece of trivia relegated to a list of "factoids". Christie is something to be proud of.

Of course, I feel very strongly that the Christie character should be revived in the Barbie playline. It would be "nice" if she were at least included in the "So In Style" line (I'd be very surprised if that were the case) - but, as I've said many times (and yes, my family is tired of hearing about it), Christie is as important to a lot of people who grew up playing with dolls as Barbie is. The "Christie" name isn't just some old trademark with no cultural significance. It needs to be used. There are parents out there who played with Christie dolls when they were little who would like to give their children Christie dolls, too. (The same goes for Midge®, Skipper®, Teresa, and so on.)

Plus, the fact that many of Barbie's friendships have lasted for decades (Teresa, Christie, Midge, Steven®, etc.) is something very few other toy lines can claim.

Incidentally, according to the article (here's the link again), the So In Style line was "conceived prior to [Barack] Obama's announcement that he intended to run for office". This is entirely possible; Mr. Obama announced that he would be running for President of the United States in February 2007, and work on a line this complex might very well have started before that. (However, it's interesting to note the use of the word "conceived", which only indicates that the idea existed; it doesn't rule out the possibility that Obama's presidential campaign had something to do with the decision to move forward with producing it.)

It's important to mention that there's no guarantee the "So In Style" line will make it to market. As with any new toy line, it depends on whether or not retailers are willing to purchase enough product to make it worth producing. I haven't seen a mention of the line in any Toy Fair reports; in fact, I can't find any mention of it at all since January, which seems strange.

I also want to point out that none of this is intended to be an insult to the people who worked on the "So in Style" line. It obviously has nothing to do with the dolls themselves (I haven't even seen them yet). It just brings up some issues in regards to the toy industry in general (and our culture in a broader sense) that I feel very strongly about. I'm not a big fan of many aspects of the Shani line for the same reasons, but I still appreciate those dolls because a lot of thoughtful work went into their creation. (Not to mention the fact that they were very nice dolls.)

I'd just hoped we had moved beyond the perception that it's necessary to create racially segregated toy lines in the pursuit of "equality".

Filed Under:
Topics: So In Style®
Doll Diary 04 March 2009