Separate, Half-price, and Definitely Not Equal: Black Barbie Politics, ContinuedPop culture — By Adebe D.A. on March 31, 2010 at 06:59
It looks like the only way to discuss Mattel’s race politics is to forgo intellectual analysis for talking to these dolls in person.
In a recent Root.com article, Black Ballerina Teresa talks back not about her new look or set of friends, but about the fact that she’s being sold at a radically lower price than her white counterpart, Barbie. As Barbie’s Black friend quotes,
“… A lot of people were angry at the fact that I was being sold for almost half the price of Barbie. People wondered if it was some type of statement about the way African-American women are valued in this country as compared to white women… what hurts me the most is being carted down the aisle, hung up for display, and passed over time and time again by little Black girls who would rather have a doll with blonde hair and blue eyes than one who looks more like them.”
I wonder what would Barbie’s first black friend, Colored Francie™ – who consequently appeared during the Civil Rights era – would have to say about this.
The heart-felt letter, “written by” Teresa, dances around the racial histories that emphasized whiteness as a beauty standard, but also (thankfully) recognizes the scenario as a deeply racialized issue of supply-and-demand.
Walmart, which recently reported a quarterly profit of $4.7 billion, could have absorbed whatever loss it might have suffered had it kept Teresa’s price the same as that of Ballerina Barbie.
A photo of the recent Walmart “price discrepancy” was first posted to the humor website FunnyJunk.com, and later picked up by Guanabee.com, which showed packages of Mattel’s Ballerina Barbie and Ballerina Teresa dolls shelved side-by-side. The Black Teresa dolls are marked as on sale for $3.00, while the white Barbies to the right of the Teresa dolls retain their original price of $5.93.
Walmart spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien says the price change on the Teresa doll was part of the chain’s efforts to clear shelf space, and that the marking down of Teresa was due to her lower sales. “Pricing like items differently is a part of inventory management in retailing,” O’Brien said.
But critics say Walmart should have been more sensitive in its racialized pricing choice.
“The implication of the lowering of the price is that it’s devaluing the Black doll,” said Thelma Dye, executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development, a Harlem organization founded by pioneering psychologists and segregation researchers Kenneth B. Clark and Marnie Phipps Clark.
In 2009, manufacturer Mattel debuted “So In Style,” a new line of African American dolls designed to better resemble Black women’s facial features with wider cheeks, broader noses and fuller lips. But the discounted Teresa doll repackages the damagingly racist notion that whiteness will always be superior, will always have greater value – aesthetically and otherwise.
A new independent line of dolls by name of Mixis™ have recently come onto the Canadian market. Created by Debbie Goodland, the Mixis™ dolls seek to represent a kaleidoscopic fusion of races, ethnicities and cultures, in hopes of encouraging dialogue about race amongst the younger generations.
The line currently features four dolls: Houda Degas, who is French, Lebanese, and described as adventurous; Rosa Dominguez Katz, who is Latina and Jewish and known as a bookworm; Emerald Okada, who is a Black American, Native American, and Japanese woman whose friends describe her as energetic and passionate; and, finally, Opal Nkrumah, who is Ghanaian, British, and described as down-to-earth but adventurous.
Interestingly, the “down-to-earth” Opal, who sports a mane of beautiful curly hair, suffers from serious hair troubles. Her bio quotes, “Sometimes I wear my hair curly, sometimes straight, but often I find myself staring in my mirror, absolutely frustrated with what I see… let’s try to work out our frizz fiascos and tangled troubles together.”
Is curly hair still a curse? Or should we bypass this quasi-passing narrative and focus on the fact that young women and girls are finally being offered distinct, realistic, and unique-looking dolls who can fight against the miscegenation taboo and look good while doing it?
When catering to young consumers, celebrations of interraciality will almost always win over critical debates on race politics. As an interracial woman, I continue to remind the young women and girls I know that being mixed-race is not defiant in itself; just because race is compartmentalizing, being mixed-race is not automatically freeing. There are other tangled troubles we need to talk about, such as how whiteness, having evolved from the allocation of social privileges through legacies of slavery, colonialism, and race segregation, continues to define what mainstream beauty is supposed to look like. Still, the Mixis™ dolls mark a long-awaited attempt to create something new out of the largely destructive history of racial divisions in Canada and the U.S.
The quest for pop culture to approach race critically continues; but for the time being, these dolls sure are hip testimony to the ongoing need to rethink race and rewrite the notion that race politics is of the domain of academia and criticism alone.
Author: Adebe D.A. (11 Articles)
Race-Talk Cultural Editor Adebe D.A. is a Toronto-born writer and former research intern at the Applied Research Center, home of ColorLines magazine. A recent MA graduate in English/Cultural Studies, she writes on issues related to race, social justice, migration, and the phenomena of culture. She currently holds the honour of Toronto’s Junior Poet Laureate and is the author of a chapbook entitled Sea Change (Burning Effigy Press, 2007). Her debut full-length poetry collection, Ex Nihilo, will be published by Frontenac House in early 2010. Visit her blog at http://www.adebe.wordpress.com.
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