From Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference
Ann duCille has served as the chair and director of the Center for Afri- can American Studies at Wesleyan University. She has published widely on black women writers and on race and popular culture, particularly in her book Skin Trade (1996), which won the Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in 1997. The essay here originally appeared in the spring 1994 issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. In this piece about Barbie, you’ll hear one of duCille’s key interests in popular culture — the ways we all help establish cultural norms through producing and consuming goods and ideas.
A quick look through duCille’s MLA-style works cited list at the end of the essay shows that she draws on a range of academic conversations to frame her analysis of Barbie. She responds not only to scholars who write about Barbie but also to those who write about adolescent self-image,
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raising African American children, and various aspects of multicultural- ism and diversity. As you read duCille’s essay, keep track of when and how she draws on those she calls “Barbiologists” and those whose ideas give con- text to her broader analysis of culture. You will have to make similar moves in your own writing as you use various sources to help you build your own point.
While she draws on many other scholars’ ideas to help her build her point, duCille also invites readers to identify with her personal experi- ences, particularly in the opening and closing sections of the essay. How effectively do these personal anecdotes—her own and others’—draw you into the piece? How might they shed new light on toys you played with as a child, toys you may have forgotten about? Considering the way culture teaches us to pay attention to both race and physical appearance as we think about who we are, duCille ends her essay by asking, “Is Barbie bad?” Her answer: “Barbie is just a piece of plastic, but what she says about the economic base of our society — what she suggests about gender and race in our world — ain’t good.” DuCille’s essay invites you to reconsider your own experiences with “the ideological work of child’s play” (para. 5). If you ask the kinds of questions duCille asks of Barbie, you should discover similarly eye-opening answers.
The white missionaries who came to Saint Aug’s from New England were darling to us. They gave Bessie and me these beautiful china dolls that prob- ably were very expensive. Those dolls were white, of course. You couldn’t get a colored doll like that in those days. Well, I loved mine, just the way it was, but do you know what Bessie did? She took an artist’s palette they had also given us and sat down and mixed the paints until she came up with a shade of brown that matched her skin. Then she painted that white doll’s face! None of the white missionaries ever said a word about it. Mama and Papa just smiled. (Sarah Delany)
This is my doll story (because every black journalist who writes about race gets around to it sometime). Back when I started playing with Barbie, there were no Christies (Barbie’s black friend, born in 1968) or black Barbies (born in 1980, brown plastic poured into blond Barbie’s mold). I had two blonds, which I bought with Christmas money from girls at school.
I cut off their hair and dressed them in African-print fabric. They lived together (polygamy, I guess) with a black G.I. Joe bartered from the Shepp boys, my downstairs neighbors. After an “incident” at school (where all of the girls looked like Barbie and none of them looked like me), I galloped down our stairs with one Barbie, her blond head hitting each spoke of the banister, thud, thud, thud. And galloped up the stairs, thud, thud, thud, until her head popped off, lost to the graveyard behind the stairwell. Then I tore off each limb, and sat on the stairs for a long time twirling the torso like a baton. (Lisa Jones)
Growing up in the 1950s, in the shadow of the second world war, it was natural for children—including little black children like my
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two brothers and me—to want to play war, to mimic what we heard on the radio, what we watched in black and white on our brand new floor model Motorola. In these war games, everyone wanted to be the Allied troops—the fearless, conquering white male heroes who had made the world safe for democracy, yet again, and saved us all from yellow peril. No one, of course, wanted to play the enemy—who most often was not the Germans or the Italians but the Japanese. So the enemy became or, more rightly, remained invisible, lurking in bushes we shot at with sticks we pre- tended were rifles and stabbed at with make-believe bayonets. “Take that,” we shouted, liberally peppering our verbal assaults with racial epithets. “And that! And that!” It was all in fun—our venom and vigor. All’s fair in wars of words. We understood little of what we said and nothing of how much our child’s play reflected the sentiments of a nation that even in its finer, pre-war moments had not embraced as citizens its Asian immigrants or claimed as countrymen and women their American-born offspring.
However naively imitative, our diatribe was interrupted forever one 2 summer afternoon by the angry voice of our mother, chastising us through the open window. “Stop that,” she said. “Stop that this minute. It’s not nice. You’re talking about the Japanese. Japanese, do you understand? And don’t let me ever hear you call them anything else.” In the lecture that accom- panied dinner that evening, we were made to understand not the history of Japanese-Americans, the injustice of internment, or the horror of Hiro- shima, but simply that there were real people behind the names we called; that name-calling always hurts somebody, always undermines someone’s humanity. Our young minds were led on the short journey from “Jap” to “nigger”; and if we were too young then to understand the origins and fine points of all such pejoratives, we were old enough to know firsthand the pain of one of them.
I cannot claim that this early experience left me free of prejudice, but 3 it did assist me in growing up at once aware of my own status as “different” and conscious of the exclusion of others so labeled. It is important to note, however, that my sense of my own difference was affirmed and confirmed not simply by parental intervention but also by the unrelenting sameness of the tiny, almost exclusively white town in which I was raised. There in the country confines of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the adults who surrounded me (except for my parents) were all white, as were the teach- ers who taught me, the authors who thrilled me (and instilled in me a love of literature), and the neighborhood children who called me nigger one moment and friend the next. And when my brothers and I went our sepa- rate ways into properly gendered spheres, the dolls I played with—like almost everything else about my environment—were also white: Betsy Wetsy, Tiny Tears, and Patty Play Pal.
It seems remarkable to me now, as I remember these childish things 4 long since put away, that, for all the daily reminders of my blackness, I did not take note of its absence among the rubber-skin pinkness of Betsy
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Wetsy, the bald-headed whiteness of Tiny Tears, and the blue-eyed blond- ness of Patty Play Pal. I was never tempted like Sarah Delany to paint the dolls I played with brown like me or to dress them in African-print fabric like Lisa Jones. (Indeed, I had no notion of such fabrics and little knowledge of the “dark continent” from which they came.) Caught up in fantasy, completely given over to the realm of make-believe, for most of my childhood I neither noticed nor cared that the dolls I played with did not look like me. The make-believe world to which I willingly surrendered more than just my disbelief was thoroughly and profoundly white. That is to say, the “me” I invented, the “I” I imagined, the Self I day-dreamed in technicolor fantasies was no more black like me than the dolls I played with. In the fifties and well into the sixties of my childhood, the black Other who was my Self, much like the enemy Other who was the foreign body of our war games, could only be imagined as faceless, far away, and utterly unfamiliar.
As suggested by my title, I am going to use the figure of multicultural 5 Barbie to talk about the commodification of race and gender difference. I wanted to back into the present topic, however, into what I have to say about Barbie as a gendered, racialized icon of contemporary commodity culture, by reaching into the past—into the admittedly contested terrain of the personal—to evoke the ideological work of child’s play. More than simple instruments of pleasure and amusement, toys and games play cru- cial roles in helping children determine what is valuable in and around them. Dolls in particular invite children to replicate them, to imagine themselves in their dolls’ images. What does it mean, then, when little girls are given dolls to play with that in no way resemble them? What did it mean for me that I was nowhere in the toys I played with?
If the Japan and the Africa of my youth were beyond the grasp (if not 6 the reach) of my imagination, children today are granted instant global gratification in their play—immediate, hands-on access to both Self and Other. Or so we are told by many of the leading fantasy manufactur- ers—Disney, Hasbro, and Mattel, in particular—whose contributions to multicultural education include such play things as Aladdin (movie, video, and dolls), G.I. Joe (male “action figures” in black and white), and Barbie (now available in a variety of colors and ethnicities). Disneyland’s river ride through different nations, like Mattel’s Dolls of the World Collection, instructs us that “It’s a Small World After All.” Those once distant lands of Africa, Asia, Australia, and even the Arctic regions of the North Pole (yes, Virginia, there is an Eskimo Barbie) are now as close to home as the local Toys R Us and F.A.O. Schwarz. And lo and behold, the inhabi- tants of these foreign lands—from Disney’s Princess Jasmine to Mattel’s Jamaican Barbie—are just like us, dye-dipped versions of archetypal white American beauty. It is not only a small world after all, but, as the Grammy award–winning theme from Aladdin informs us, “it’s a whole new world.”
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Many of the major toy manufacturers have taken on a global perspec- 7 tive, a kind of nearsightedness that constructs this whole new world as small and cultural difference as consumable. Perhaps nowhere is this uni- versalizing myopia more conspicuous than in the production, marketing, and consumption of Barbie dolls. By Mattel’s reckoning, Barbie enjoys 100 percent brand name recognition among girls ages three to ten, ninety-six percent of whom own at least one doll, with most owning an average of eight. Five years ago, as Barbie turned thirty, Newsweek noted that nearly 500 million Barbies had been sold, along with 200 million G.I. Joes— “enough for every man, woman, and child in the United States and Europe” (Kantrowitz 59–60). Those figures have increased dramatically in the past five years, bringing the current world-wide Barbie population to 800 mil- lion. In 1992 alone, $1 billion worth of Barbies and accessories were sold. Last year, Barbie dolls sold at an average of one million per week, with overall sales exceeding the $1 billion all-time high set the year before. As the Boston Globe reported on the occasion of Barbie’s thirty-fifth birthday on March 9, 1994, nearly two Barbie dolls are sold every second some- where in the world; about fifty percent of the dolls sold are purchased here in the United States (Dembner 16).
The current Barbie boom may be in part the result of new, multicul- 8 turally oriented developments both in the dolls and in their marketing. In the fall of 1990, Mattel, Inc. announced a new marketing strategy to boost its sales: the corporation would “go ethnic” in its advertising by launching an ad campaign for the black and Hispanic versions of the already popu- lar doll. Despite the existence of black, Asian, and Latina Barbies, prior to the fall of 1990 Mattel’s print and TV ads featured only white dolls.
In what Newsweek described as an attempt to capitalize on ethnic spending power, Mattel began placing ads for multicultural Barbies in such Afrocen- tric publications as Essence magazine and on such Latin-oriented shows as Pepe Plata after market research revealed that most black and Hispanic consumers were unaware of the company’s ethnic dolls. This targeted advertising was a smart move, according to the industry analysts cited by Newsweek, because “Hispanics buy about $170 billion worth of goods each year, [and] blacks spend even more.” Indeed, sales of black Barbie dolls reportedly doubled in the year following this new ethnically-oriented ad campaign.1 But determined to present itself as politically correct as well as financially savvy, Mattel was quick to point out that ethnic audiences, who are now able to purchase dolls who look like them, also have profited from the corporation’s new marketing priorities. Barbie is a role model for all of her owners, according to product manager Deborah Mitchell, herself an
1Mattel introduced the Shani doll—a black, Barbie-like doll—in 1991, which also may have contributed to the rise in sales, particularly since the company engaged the services of a PR firm that specializes in targeting ethnic audiences.