Whether it’s the Ms. Universe beauty pageant or live-action Little Mermaid, in 2020 many African-descended women still celebrate when a Black woman or girl becomes visible in spaces long implicitly considered the purview and provenance of white women. Back in 1980 then, the emergence of the Black Barbie doll was truly revolutionary.
Inspired, according to doll collector Debbie Behan Garrett, by a man’s naughty gag toy originally manufactured in Germany named Bild Lilli, Barbie has always symbolized so much more than just a plaything.
Too provocative as originally rendered, Bild Lilli was toned down enough to be acceptable for American consumers. It’s creator, Ruth Handler called her version Barbie, after her daughter Barbara, and it went on the market in America in 1959. Weighing just 23 grams and standing 11.5 inches tall, Barbie overwhelmingly symbolized the power of ideal femininity. The coming of a Black Barbie meant that Black girls could finally see “their” version of a decades-old iconic symbol of ideal femininity in pop culture. That is, a category of femininity into which Black women for centuries, had no entree.
While Black women like any other race of women, had always taken pride in their appearance, especially going out in public, Black women had also always been conditioned not to take pride in their “looks”. The emergence of a Black Barbie signaled that was changing. It was an acknowledgement that Black women could be not just presentable, but desirable.
A Black Barbie symbolized that Black women and girls could also embody the ideal American woman, one who was free to be whoever she wished to be. As an American woman, and not just a Black woman, she could also finally be the type of woman who could (ideally) choose to work in the home; a choice denied too many Black women from slavery through the Jim Crow, and into the Civil Rights era. Or she could throw on a power suit and make her living in an office setting. She was equal in every way to any other woman.
Here’s the question though, why is it that forty years after the introduction of Black Barbie and numerous subsequent iterations of glamorous, outgoing, good-looking, Black characters in the Barbie-verse, do we still have four-year-old Black girls crying because they consider themselves ugly? Why is it that at that tender age they have already internalized from (you fill in the blank) in society that they do not measure up?
Are we being impatient? Maybe it takes a century of Black Barbies before Black girls can see themselves as pretty instead of four decades?
Strong counter-narratives which challenged, if not neutralized, the positive message Black Barbie sent emerged at the same time as Black Barbie. First came the “Welfare Queen”, then the “teenage mother”, the “crackhead” who was often not just portrayed as drug-addicted but also sexually promiscuous in order to support said habit. Much of these stereotypes played out in the news as well as fictional programs.
Is it HOW society is doing diversity that’s wrong? In the early aughts, Mattel responded to criticism from consumers that the Black Barbies were in fact not Black enough; that they had brown skin but the features didn’t reflect the primarily West African genetics common to most Blacks in the diaspora. Mattel had fixed the issue with regard to racism but had not addressed the issue as it pertained to featurism. Being taught that Black skin was okay but Black anything else not so much, was to a degree counterproductive.
Is it also because of how Black women are contextualized in popular media? Yes, the last ten or so years have made leaps and bounds in increasing the number of Black women in visual media. And yes, much of it is good. Credit should be given for good faith efforts made by every subcategory of media to be more inclusive. However, many Black women are let down on a weekly basis finding themselves sitting through shows and movies that consistently disappoint them in how the Black girl and women characters are written and developed.
Despite the great clothes and the advanced degrees of many of our most popular and admittedly beloved heroines of the last few years, they usually fall short of the feminine ideal. There aren’t any Rebecca Pearsons, Alicia Florricks, or Meredith Greys who are Black out there in diverse TV land.
As the saying goes, little things mean a lot. Viewers love to see Black women as main characters, they love that the Black female character is educated and has a great job but then she is consistently immoral. Much as we love us our Olivia Popes and Annalise Keatings, they left a great, great deal to be desired in the morals department. And neither had any genuine, heart-tugging redemptive qualities or experiences usually given to complex characters in these situations.
Black women and girl characters’ coldness is coded as “strong” or “tough”, which are ostensibly admirable traits. They are often seen as begging off of or out of intimate relationships. The strength rarely translates to saying no to sex, however. Then there are plenty of Black women characters who are simply written as bitches.
The overall impact then, isn’t nearly as significant as it could be and hopefully will eventually be.
Stereotypes are still subtly introduced and diversity is subverted in mainstream shows and films when a Black woman is part of the cast. She is the “best friend”, she has a storyline that causes the character to be alone or interacting with just one other character much of the time. She seems to have a storyline somehow isolated from the majority of the rest of the cast. If the character is relatively young, her scenes are with older men in a way that such a character usually wouldn’t be. Or her personal relationships are ultimately unsuccessful (except perhaps, with her father). She still isn’t often depicted as a successful mother in a traditional household setting.
Reality TV has other issues. Viewers love glamorous Black women in reality TV, we don’t love the vulgarity and the violence that detracts from the physical beauty and the femininity that the clothes, hair, and makeup are supposed to telegraph.
The age of media diversity also brings a new dynamic; much fewer people are consuming the same content. The viewer can choose to watch prestige TV only and be completely ignorant of what is happening on basic cable or anywhere else. They can choose to watch Netflix, they can choose to watch nothing but The Hallmark Channel or CBS etc. So just because shows are much more diverse doesn’t mean every household is being exposed to a diverse media universe.
If love is about character as well as looks, then the Black female characters we enjoy and have fun watching too often don’t translate into people we seriously date, fall in love with, or want to bring home to Mama. Beauty, after all, is more than skin deep and maybe no amount of pretty Black Barbies we play with in childhood can erase the still disproportionate inner ugliness depicted on our screens for our lifetimes.