Happy-To-Be-Nappy Barbie

This week, a group of black women in Columbus, Ga., started a campaign to donate 40 black Barbie dolls to young black girls. And here’s the twist: Before gifting the Barbies, the women used boiling water and pipe cleaners to transform them into curly-haired “beauties.”

In my 32 years on this earth, I’ve owned a total of two black Barbie dolls: Brownie (named by me) and Christie (named by her Mattel box). Brownie and Christie gave good advice, performed medical procedures on other dolls and married white Kens (since my black “Ken” came many years later and was named Steven). They had brown cottony manes close to the texture of my own hair. After a session or two of “beauty shop,” Brownie sported a puffy mullet and Christie an afro bob, which became shorter and shorter over the years.

I don’t know whether owning black Barbies was one reason I had adequate self-esteem as a girl despite pervasive messages that black wasn’t exactly beautiful. The self-esteem-protecting potential of natural-haired Barbies appears to be the hope underlying the Georgia toy drive. “We wanted to show the girls that basically, it’s okay the way God made you,” says Jennifer Henderson, a member of the natural-hair-care meetup group Fro-lific that organized the drive.

One might assume that Fro-lific’s implied goal of teaching the girls self-love and self-acceptance should make me, a black mother of a black daughter, stand up and cheer like everyone else seems to be doing … right? But here’s the thing: As a feminist mom, I kinda hate Barbie, whatever her color. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Barbie represents everything I hate in the world: capitalism, sexism, racism, heteronormativity, white supremacy.

How does black Barbie reinforce white supremacy, you ask? Well, first, look at her facial features and body shape. Remind you of anyone? Down to every detail, black Barbie is standard-white-Barbie painted brown. I’m not suggesting Mattel add superficial “exotic” markers like full lips and a voluptuous butt. Rather, I’d echo a call made by scholar Ann Ducille in her 1994 essay “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference”:

Could any doll manufacturer or other image maker—advertising and film, say—attend to cultural, racial, and phenotypical differences without merely engaging the same simplistic big-lips/broad-hips stereotypes that make so many of us grit our (pearly white) teeth? What would it take to produce a line of doll that would more fully reflect the wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, hairstyles, occupations, abilities, and disabilities that African Americans—like all people—come in?

These are all questions we–and Fro-lific–should think about if we’re giving Barbies (nappy or not) to kids. Barbie may be too pervasive to ignore, but at least the dolls can be a starting point for important discussions about black girlhood. Hell, about girlhood, for that matter. Can we question Barbie’s big breasts and tiny waist as markers of True Womanhood? Why is Ken Barbie’s significant other? Why do these black Barbies have to wear Jay- Z’s “Rocawear” clothing line?

If you’re looking to empower girls, there are non-Barbie gifts better suited to the task. Various other dolls on the market can help kids explore racial and ethnic diversity without the toxicity. And one way I consciously empower my own curly-haired kid is to read children’s books with her about self-acceptance and self-love: Happy to Be Nappy by bell hooks, I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz are three of my favorites. These books do not reduce race to skin color or other stereotypical markers, and they let me and my daughter bond by relating the plotlines and pictures to our lived experiences.

Barbie’s not going anywhere—I’ve more or less accepted this. In fact, my kid has several Barbie dolls of varying shades and with varying hair textures (birthday presents from folks who didn’t get the feminist-mom memo). My daughter knows how I feel about Barbies, and she understands that I respect and accept her decision to play with them.

What I haven’t accepted is teaching empowerment to girls through Barbie dolls. Because black girls rock, and they deserve more.


  1. Growing up in the 60s, Barbie was the ideal my girlfriends tried to emulate. No wonder so many of us have/had eating disorders.

  2. Oh, Barbie. At least you’re trying, I guess.

    I would -love- Barbie dolls that come in different shapes and sizes. It’s not like Barbie’s body is the only attractive type. There are smaller girls, bigger girls, taller, shorter, different eye, lip and nose shapes… I guess making a bunch of molds would be too expensive, but they could at least try to add one or two more body shapes.

    And they did have a Barbie in a wheelchair. There were some accessibility complications: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090907195103AAhvc3j I wish they’d have just made, I dunno, a new Barbie dream house or something, rather than do away with the chair. It would have been a learning experience for the kids: sometimes the world doesn’t suit us, so we -make- it suit us.

    My husband’s in a wheelchair, and I doubt he’d really want a Barbie doll, but if -absolutely- nothing else, toys like that could teach kids about some of the problems disabled people are presented with on a daily basis. There -are- still a lot of places that are hard to get into with a wheelchair.

  3. MonsterHigh Obsessed says:

    Well I guess the closest you have with different races is the monster high dolls.I mean you have werewolves,frankensteins,vampires,sea monsters,mummies,son of Medusa,Jekyll/Hyde,and even a smart zombie,oh ya and,yetis,ghosts,headless headmistress,phantoms,banshees,whatever Heath Burns is other than his hair can burn but isn’t blue,and werecats.You have different races of monsters with different molds like lagoona has fins,toralei has a tail,Nefera is taller than the others.Deuce has snake hair,ghoulia wears glasses,and they all have different eye and lip colors.You have different eye and lip sizes also,plus there are different hair styles like 1 has pigtails another has bobbed hair,1 has curly,1 has straight hair,while anothers is in a ponytail.People say its stereotypical but it isn’t really.Each has a different personality and I think Barbie is no where near skinny unless its the head an feet.

  4. Great article. A friend sent it to me after i bemoaned the fact that my daughter’s (3.5 yrs) greatest desire is to have a barbie doll. And i chose to limit that to a black Barbie cos she’s already having issues about her hair. But could you believe, in a country (South Africa) where the population is 80% black, i could not find a single black barbie. Eventually i found a “fashionista” – a girl chum of barbie, with dead straight auburn hair.
    if she’s still into barbie next xmas i will definitely order one from the states – nappy hair n all.

  5. Martha McCaughey says:

    I love the happy-to-be-nappy Barbie. I am also waiting for Mattel to come out with a First Lady Michelle Obama doll. She is a gorgeous fashion icon and they do many Barbie dolls for collectors that are tributes to famous women. For instance, they just came out with a Grace Kelly Barbie. As a Barbie fan, I wait, and I wait, for the Michelle Obama Barbie!!!

  6. I too am so anxiously waiting for the Michelle Obama Barbie.

  7. Donna Dickerson says:

    While reading this article I am trying to remember how many African American Barbie dolls I owed in my lifetime. I can only remember one and that was Sasha from the Bratz collection. I am an Aunt to a 5 years old little girl and even though she is black she has a light-skinned complexion. My niece attends an predominately white school and because her skin tone matches her classmates she believes that she is white. When my family and I try to inform her of her black roots she will say that she is yellow meaning she is told by family that she is not white but she still does not believe she is black. One day I took my niece to Wal-Mart and attempted to buy her a black barbie and she said NO because the doll was too chocolate. In my opinion, young girls are told through advertisements that black is not beautiful. We are pressured to believe that light-skinned is better and that is why when black celebrities take photos their skin is also tighten by the photographers. Black is BEAUTIFUL! I’m power of the skin I’m in. After reading a United States Supreme Court case a Justice wrote that racism will end when everyone stops discriminating on the basis of race.

  8. My daughter was a little blonde white girl (her hair is brown now), but I bought her every different race of doll I could find. I am proud to say that her friends have always been a multitude of different races. In fact, in her 10th birthday photo, she’s the only “white” girl in the picture. Her friends were African-, Asian-, Indian-, and even Egyptian-Americans. I think this is the new normal for kids, and it’s a direction I really like.

  9. “Well, first, look at her facial features and body shape. Remind you of anyone? Down to every detail, black Barbie is standard-white-Barbie painted brown. I’m not suggesting Mattel add superficial “exotic” markers like full lips and a voluptuous butt.”
    that’s not really true…there are Afro Amercian Barbie dolls, with afro hairstyle and full lips, just not as popular as “white” Barbies are. Good example is So in Style serie (http://www.barbie.com/activities/friends/soinstyle/) , it’s made just of Afro Amercian dolls – http://www.angelicdreamz.com/assets/images/010Headers/NewSoinStyleHeader.jpg
    Unfortunately there is no many different types of bodies. There isn’t many Asian dolls too sadly. In every new line of dolls Mattel is making at least one AA doll, but VERY rarely Asian, and usualy those Asian can go as a AA too (Kayla, Asian doll from your photo, is great example).

    As for AA dolls, there was company who was was producing mostly in not only such dolls, Shindana Toys, which was financialy helped by Mattel.

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