“When I Didn’t See What I Wanted I Made What I Wanted” Black Barbie on Netflix

If you have ever taken a Psychology, Sociology, or even a Law class, you have probably seen a clip of the Clarks’ Doll Tests (The tests were used to win Brown vs. the Board of Education, proving that separate is never equal.) Over 14 years in the 40s and 50s, Black Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented Black children, ages 3–7, to choose between Black dolls and white dolls. The children overwhelmingly preferred the white dolls, ascribing to them all of the positive attributes, while choosing a Black doll when asked which doll was “bad.”

Black Barbie, directed by Lagueria Davis, uses this research as a springboard for a discussion on white and Black Barbie. The documentary tells the story of three women who worked at Mattel and were not only the inspiration for Black fashion dolls they were also designers and creators. The director’s own aunt, Beulah Mitchell, was one of the first group of women of color employed at Mattel to work the toy assembly line who asked the owner to make a Black doll. The revolutionary doll Francie,” soon followed by “Christie,” was created in the mid-60s, but the first dolls were just “friends” of Barbie’s. Barbie was always the main character.

Finally, in 1980, Black designer Kitty Black Perkins was hired to design the first Black Barbie, heroine of her own story, with Black features, hair, and some seriously awesome outfits. Since then, Stacey McBride-Irby designed dolls in a range of skin shades, there have been Anniversary Black Barbies, and there have been dolls based on a wide range of successful women and celebrities. Eventually the documentary takes a hard look at the Barbie-centered animated shows, in which only white dolls are involved, with the occasional Black “friend” who doesn’t speak much. One of Barbie’s vlogs was used to address Black Lives Matter, in which they hired a Black writer to allow the Black Barbie, named “Brooklyn,” to tell stories about some of the racism she had faced.

The fact is, none of the Black dolls, including Brooklyn, got much if any promotion or commercial exposure. The movies also need to catch up, although Brooklyn and Barbie did co-star in one of the recent movies. A current executive at Mattel made things worse by making inadequate excuses to the camera, like “change is slow. Things happen incrementally.” But he did announce that Brooklyn would soon have her own line and show. Another need pointed out is for more dolls that represent Asians and other under-represented groups.

Towards the end of the film there is a study “inspired” by (but not repeating) the Clark Doll Studies, in which children were asked to choose which Barbie they preferred. For the most part kids focused on the ones wearing clothes they admired. But when asked which was the “real” Barbie, every single one chose Malibu Barbie with her long, blonde hair.

Black Barbie is a beautiful story of pride and progress, a necessary story in the Barbie canon. It is intended to be a love letter, a celebration. But as in the real world, we still have a long way to go. We can start with making Maxine Waters a Barbie…

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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