New black Barbies break the mold

OPINION - In the era of Obama and in the age of Oprah come three new potentially iconic Americans, who just may help in the long march towards gender equality...

(Photo from Mattel, Inc.)

In the era of Obama and in the age of Oprah come three new potentially iconic Americans, who just may help in the long march towards gender equality and racial diversity. Their names are `Grace,’ `Kara,’ and `Trichelle’ and they’re Barbie dolls.

Specifically, this glam trio of “best friends,” who each come with “little sisters” that they mentor, are part of a new line of African-American dolls from Mattel dubbed “So In Style,” or S.I.S. for short.

The brainchild of Stacey McBride-Irby, a longtime Barbie designer, who is African-American and a mother of two, these dolls are designed to more fully celebrate the full spectrum of black women’s beauty.

For starters, they all have varied skin tones. And as the company’s press materials point out, they have “authentic looking” facial features such as “fuller lips, a wider nose, more distinctive cheek bones and curlier hair.” The young ladies even have personal “bios” that showcase their interests, which run the gamut from math and science, to music and the drill team.

Black dolls and even darker-hued Barbies aren’t exactly new. But in my mind, this latest collection represents a breakthrough, in more ways than one.

I am told it wasn’t always easy at that time, to find toys that were racially and culturally diverse. But my parents – progressive types who might party one night in their Afros and dashikis, and suit up to picket the local school board the next – made it a priority to find the toys and games that enriched my intellect and creative imagination.

So on my childhood bookshelf next to the Afro-centric encyclopedias and Walt Disney albums, near the wooden shoes from Holland, alongside the instruments, skates, tap dance shoes, chemistry kits and art supplies, were a slew of different dolls, including one from Africa, clad in native garb.

Not far away, holding court in her own stylish outfit, was Barbie. Indeed, a portion of my bedroom resembled a veritable Barbie village, complete with a town house and elevator, convertible and other lifestyle accessories.

While some of my Barbie dolls were tanned and blonde, my favorite was a member of B’s inner circle who had brown skin and dark hair like mine. Actually, she appeared to have been dipped in sweet, dark Hershey’s chocolate. She possessed the requisite doll mane: long and glossy, which I would comb and sometimes plait. And she was undeniably beautiful.

Though I couldn’t fully appreciate what my pretty brown doll represented back then, I do remember that there was something uniquely special about her. In some ways, she resembled me. And playing with all my sepia dolls inadvertently helped instill positive messages about beauty and self-esteem, at a formative age.

Some may scoff at the relevance of a doll, but I am convinced that such things matter. I know because one of my cousins – who with her husband, is raising two bright, mannerly and lovely little kids – fretted one day when her daughter came to her in distress. She wanted to wear her hair “down” like the white girls in her ballet class, and not in the neat bun that her mother had lovingly fashioned.

I know it’s relevant because comedian Chris Rock, whose young daughters are presumably more economically privileged than most in the African-American (or larger) community, have also apparently raised some self-doubt as it relates to hair. So much so that it inspired his new documentary, “Good Hair,” which tackles black women’s hair issues, and their larger global context. And I have read about other black celebrities and normal folks alike, dealing with similar issues, involving their children and self-image.

As any good historian will tell you, the angst among some African-Americans about hair, for instance, dates back to slavery. Straighter locks have been associated with mimicking `the master’ in days past, and assimilation even now.

My only minor quibble with this Barbie line is that the dolls tend to have long, flowing tresses. I would have loved to see at least one, sporting a cute little `fro. But thankfully, we now live in a world where the beauty aesthetic is more inclusive, and African-American and all women have choices. We can wear twists, weaves, bobs, locks, braids, and every style in between. We can have curvy figures without apology, every skin tone under the rainbow, and walk proud.

Finally, we can not only buy dolls, we can design them. And just maybe, some of the little girls who play with these sepia beauties will one day grow up to be CEOs of their own toy conglomerates.

To me, that’s progress.