Madam C.J. Walker’s beautiful legacy has inspired a Barbie

Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles speaks with theGrio about building upon the icon’s legacy with Barbie. 

Another Black female trailblazer has been honored by Barbie. On Wednesday, Mattel debuted a doll in the likeness of Madam C.J. Walker.

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to formerly enslaved parents, by the turn of the last century, Walker would become the first documented self-made female millionaire in the nation’s history, as well as a foundational figure in the Black beauty industry. Now, her incredible legacy is being recognized by perhaps the world’s most recognizable doll.

Madam C.J. Walker Barbie
Self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker is the latest honoree in Mattel’s Barbie Inspiring Women series. (Images: Mattel)

“As a pioneer in entrepreneurship, philanthropy and activism, creating the blueprint for the self-made American businesswoman and innovators of the twentieth century, Madam C.J. Walker is an embodiment of our Barbie Inspiring Women series,” said Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s executive vice president and global head of Barbie and dolls, in a statement. “We’re honored to welcome her into this group of trailblazing women and introduce more kids to her journey of becoming one of the nation’s first widely successful female founders.”

Walker is the latest icon to be included in the Barbie Inspiring Women series, which has previously honored Dr. Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, mathematician Katherine Johnson and more. In celebration of the release, A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and the author of the acclaimed biography “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” spoke with theGrio about developing a doll in tribute to her famed ancestor, as well as her ongoing work to preserve Walker’s legacy.

“I’m thrilled that Mattel reached out to me for Madam to be part of this Inspiring Women’s series,” said Bundles, explaining that she’d been closely involved in the process since the doll’s inception and throughout its development over the past year. “We talked about what should she wear and what’s the message that we should have,” she continued. “And so I was in those creative meetings in terms of figuring out hairstyle and skin color…Those things are very important, and that’s what this Inspiring Women series is about, is really to be authentic. So I was thrilled to be a part of that.”

To both Bundles’ and Barbie’s credit, the resulting doll features Walker’s dark brown skin tone as well as textured hair intended to evoke early images of the beauty pioneer, including as depicted atop tins of her signature product, Wonderful Hair Grower. Inside the packaging, which features a backdrop of Walker’s Irvington, N.Y., estate, Villa Lewaro, the doll holds a miniature reproduction of that product, which was the foundation of Walker’s real-life empire.

Barbie Madam CJ Walker
Wonderful Hair Grower, Madam C.J. Walker’s signature product, is represented inside the doll packaging. (Image: Mattel)

However, as Bundles reminds us, her great-great-grandmother’s ongoing influence extends far beyond the beauty industry.

“There’s so many dimensions to her,” she said. “We can talk about her as an entrepreneur, as a person who employed thousands of African American women, who helped them become economically independent; but also as a philanthropist and a patron of the arts and a political activist who was working for social justice. So there’s just a lot for a little girl to work with in Madam Walker’s story.”

The doll is Mattel’s latest effort to close the “Dream Gap,” encouraging little girls to recognize their full potential. Arguably, there’s a lot for us grown folks to glean from Walker’s legacy, as well, a legacy Bundles, named for Walker’s only child, A’Lelia Walker, works diligently to promote and protect.

The 2020 Netflix limited series “Self Made,” starring Octavia Spencer as Walker, was inspired by Bundles’ sprawling biography, which was a New York Times Notable Book. A former network television news executive and producer at ABC News and NBC News (among many other key positions), Bundles is also the founder of the Madam Walker Family Archives, the largest private collection of Walker documents, photographs and memorabilia. In that role, she has overseen the opening of the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, located in the former headquarters and manufacturing plant of Madam C.J. Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products. 

Today, Walker’s influence on the beauty industry continues through MADAM by Madam C. J. Walker, a hair care line launched this year that’s based on Walker’s philosophy. Bundles serves as brand historian. As she continues to ensure recognition of her great-great-grandmother’s groundbreaking impact for generations to come, the collaboration with Barbie was an incredible opportunity.

“Barbie has such a wide reach,” said Bundles. “I now imagine little girls playing and having Madam Walker and Ida B. Wells having [an imaginary] conversation, because they actually were friends. And then, you know, maybe talking to the next generation; talking to Rosa Parks or even [previous Inspiring Women honoree] Eleanor Roosevelt.

“That means so much to me,” she continued. “I know it’s so important for little girls to be able to have that kind of play and to imagine themselves as being some of those people or taking some messages from that.”

In a political climate where Black history, in particular, is under strategic attack by would-be revisionists, the creation of this Barbie and others like it holds even more significance for Bundles. “I love that Mattel is really leaning into this — especially at a time when there’s some people who kind of don’t want our stories to be told,” she said. “But we have to make sure those stories are told … With the Inspiring Women series for Barbie and with [sister brand] American Girl telling those stories, Mattel has really made a commitment to that … We have to keep that story alive.” 

The Madam C.J. Walker Inspiring Women Barbie ($35) is available now at Target, Amazon, and Mattel Creations, as well as Walmart, where the MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker brand is also sold.

Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s lifestyle editor, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, great books and aesthetics, and the brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor-author of Body (Words of Change series).

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