Kelly Motzko didn’t set out to court controversy when she entered a Target to find a gift for a four-year-old girl. Naturally she found herself in the toy aisle but she was not at all pleased by what she encountered. Among the many Barbies of various races in that toy aisle, there was a black Barbie that stood out for all the wrong reasons. Her dress was cut down the front to accentuate her noticeable cleavage. According to Motzko, a St. Paul, Minn.-based behavioral specialist, there were Barbies of other ethnicities on the aisle but the African-American Barbie was the only one that appeared highly sexualized.
“The only Barbie wearing such revealing clothing was the black Barbie,” says Motzko, who is white. “I found that upsetting. I was offended. It was just an offensive thing for the Barbie to be dressed like that [in the first place] and, then to be the only one of that skin color, I found that offensive.”
Motzko, who has worked with kids for over eight years, is very well aware of how such images can impact a young girl’s self esteem. “I have worked a lot with young girls to help build self-esteem and self-confidence so I know how many societal pressures there are and how they influence these girls’ self-image so, when I walked in this aisle and…I saw this Barbie, I got angry and I was just upset,” says Motzko.
The Minnesota native was so enraged that she contacted Mattel. They informed her that the Barbie was part of the Barbie Basics Black Label Collection, which is an assortment of 12 models, including three African-Americans, wearing variations of the black dress. The collection, they told her, was geared towards the adult collector and not little girls.
Still Motzko is unsettled because she found the collection in the toys section for kids and not for adults. “I’ve never had a problem with Barbie. I grew up with Barbie. I don’t have a huge problem against them,” says Motzko. “It was just that this particular doll just seemed so over the top.”
“I understand a parent’s point of view when they [criticize] the low cleavage but that doll was never intended for a three-year-old. It just wasn’t,” insists Dana Hill, founder of The Black Doll Affair, an Atlanta-based national organization of black women that works to promote positive conceptions of African-American beauty by distributing black dolls to impoverished youth during Christmas. “Barbie has had 50 years plus because she has 50-year-old women buying her.”
The Black Doll Affair was founded in 2007 after Hill watched teenage filmmaker Kiri Davis on Oprah discussing her 2005 seven-minute film A Girl Like Me where she reduplicated the famous 1940s era doll test by husband and wife team, Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, that was critical in the landmark Brown v. Board decision that legally ended school segregation.
During the infamous doll test, black children overwhelmingly refused to identify themselves with the black doll. They also assigned positive characteristics to the white doll and not the black doll which they most closely resembled. By demonstrating that segregation did indeed foster feelings of inferiority and self-hatred in black children, the doll test became a critical tool in dismantling the “separate but equal” doctrine that served as Jim Crow’s foundation. But more than 50 years after Brown v. Board, Davis, using children from a Harlem daycare as her subjects discovered that little had changed: black children still associated positive attributes with the white doll over the black doll.
For Hill, black dolls are critical tools in eradicating such perceptions. “A doll is more than a toy,” she says. “It’s a reflection of who and hue we are….The easiest way for us to relate to a child is through a doll. That’s the conversation that a child relates to.”
Recognizing that, members of The Black Doll Affair, known as black dolls, usually deliver the dolls in their respective playgrounds or areas dressed as living dolls. “We’re a social club whose mission is to remind a black girl of her beauty,” says Hill, who believes that seeing black women of varying hues glamorously dressed sends a powerful message to young girls.
But that beauty lesson isn’t just relegated to little girls. The Black Doll Affair facilitates conversations across various age groups mainly online through its “dollhouse”. Because black women are under such attack these days, Hill believes that The Black Doll Affair is more important than ever. She also believes in supporting Mattel, which is coincidentally celebrating the 30th anniversary of the black Barbie, and particularly its African-American designer Stacey McBride-Irby, creator of the African-American So In Style Barbie line, the first fully committed African-American effort in the Barbie brand by Mattel, by boosting sales.
“We have to be conscientious that we have the voice, the giant voice, listening to us. At the end of the day, Mattel is a retailer and they are not going to keep making these dolls if we aren’t buying them,” says Hill.