A DOLL FOR ALL
February 26, 1998
Essayist Clarence Page examines the history of Barbie and how her new generation is changing racial perceptions in America.
CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Like a rainbow, she comes in colors. Mick Jaggar sang that once. He might well have been singing about Barbie, the modern Barbie. There's a dark brown Barbie, a light brown Barbie. There's an Asian Barbie, and a Native American Indian Barbie. There's a Puerto Rican Barbie, complete with traditional dress and a brief history of the island on the box. And, of course, there's the original Barbie. She's pink and blond. She's the one who first captured the heart of Ken.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Browse other essays by Clarence Page.
When Barbie was born in the early 1960's, the pink Barbie was the only Barbie. The monochromatic Barbie reflected those monochromatic times when people of color were all but invisible on television or in fashion magazines. So today's Barbies of color represent a triumph of sorts for people of color.
They reflect our emerging visibility, a broadening standard for beauty. The power of this triumph became apparent to me when my wife bought a Barbie for herself. When I expressed my amusement, she explained that she was playing catch-up, putting closure to her childhood. She always wanted to have a Barbie that looked like her when she was a little girl, and she couldn't find one--at least not then. Apparently, she's not alone.
A Mattel spokeswoman told me at least 8 million grown-up women have bought at least one Barbie for themselves. Better late than never, I guess. Yet, the controversies continue. Critics have called some of the Barbies of color too Anglo, not quite as ethnic as they purport to be. That too is appropriate because Barbie always has been controversial. As much as most little girls may want to embrace Barbie, countless mothers want to throw her in the trash.
To them, she represents a narrow view of women, a bimbo, a fatuous airhead who wants only to acquire fast cars, fancy clothes, and a fine house in Malibu, perhaps to share with Ken. After all, Barbie historians note she was originally modeled after a German sex doll and looks just about as unreal in her ostrich neck and giraffe-like legs. Her broad shoulders and narrow hips help her clothes fit better but give her the proportions of a drag queen.
When Barbie began to talk, she said she didn't like math, and some people said she was too dumb. Not long after that, Mattel came up with up "Dr. Barbie." She wore a lab coat and glasses. Ah, Barbie, we hardly knew you. (Barbie Commercial Excerpt) Now, Mattel Toys, responding to public demand, promises a new line of Barbies a little closer to natural proportions.
But will it still be recognizably Barbie. One thing about the old girl, she was attractively risque in her own way. Other dolls were cute. Barbie had sex appeal. She was independent, living the high life, a sort of a Cosmo girl response to Hugh Hefner's playboy.
Gender differences begin here, with the love for dolls. It is one of many things most boys don't understand about most girls, which raises another question: Are children attracted to dolls that look like them, or is something else embodied in the Barbie saga?
A famous doll test in the early 1950's showed many black youngsters preferred a white doll over a black doll. This became evidence of the damage racism had inflicted to the self-image of black youngsters. It eventually became an important argument in winning the Supreme Court's landmark Brown Vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954. But, as black psychiatrists Alvin Poussaint and James Comer say in their 1992 book, "Raising Black Children," the truth is a bit more complicated.
While black children sometimes prefer a white doll, white children sometimes prefer a black doll if it looks like the hero they want to be like. Children want to be like their heroes, the doctors say. They don't care what color their heroes come in. It's us, the grown-ups, who put more value on some colors than others. Too bad--the kids have the right idea. I'm Clarence Page.