The Newsweek columnist
African American. “Barbie allows little girls to dream,” she asserted—to which the Newsweek reporter added (seemingly without irony): “now, eth- nic Barbie lovers will be able to dream in their own image” (Berkwitz 48).
Dream in their own image? The Newsweek columnist inadvertently 9 put his finger on precisely what is so troubling to many parents, feminist scholars, and cultural critics about Barbie and dolls like her. Such toys invite, inspire, and even demand a potentially damaging process not sim- ply of imagining but of interpellation. When little girls fantasize them- selves into the conspicuous consumption, glamour, perfection, and, some have argued, anorexia of Barbie’s world, it is rarely, if ever, “in their own image that they dream.”2 Regardless of what color dyes the dolls are dipped in or what costumes they are adorned with, the image they present is of the same mythically thin, long-legged, luxuriously-haired, buxom beauty. And while Mattel and other toy manufacturers may claim to have the best interests of ethnic audiences in mind in peddling their integrated wares, one does not have to be a cynic to suggest that profit remains the motivating factor behind this merchandising of difference.3
Far from simply playing with the sixty or so dolls I have acquired in 10 the past year, then, I take them very seriously. In fact, I regard Barbie and similar dolls as Louis Althusser might have regarded them: as objects that do the dirty work of patriarchy and capitalism in the most insidious way—in the guise of child’s play. But, as feminists have protested almost from the moment she hit the market, Barbie is not simply a child’s toy or just a teenage fashion doll; she is an icon—perhaps the icon—of true white womanhood and femininity, a symbol of the far from innocent ideo- logical stuff of which the (Miss) American dream and other mystiques of race and gender are made.
Invented by Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel, and named 11 after her daughter, Barbie dolls have been a very real force in the toy mar- ket since Mattel first introduced them at the American Toy Fair in 1959. In fact, despite the skepticism of toy store buyers—who at the time were primarily men—the first shipment of a half million dolls and a million
2Of course, the notion of “dreaming in one’s own image” is always problematic since dreams, by definition, engage something other than the “real.”
3Olmec Toys, a black-owned company headed by an African American woman named Yla Eason, markets a line of black and Latina Barbie-like dolls called the Imani Collection. Billed on their boxes as “African American Princess” and “Latin American Fantasy,” these dolls are also presented as having been designed with the self images of black children in mind. “ We’ve got one thing in mind with all our products,” the blurbs on the Imani boxes read: “let’s build self-esteem. Our children gain a sense of self impor- tance through toys. So we make them look like them.” Given their obvious resemblance to Barbie dolls—their long, straight hair and pencil-thin plastic bodies—Imani dolls look no more “like them,” like “real” black children, than their prototype. Eason, who we are told was devastated by her son’s announcement that he couldn’t be a superhero because he wasn’t white, may indeed want to give black children toys to play with that “look like them.” Yet, in order to compete in a market long dominated by Mattel and Hasbro, her company, it seems, has little choice but to conform to the Barbie mold.
DuCiLLE from MuLTiCuLTuRAL BARBiE 533
costumes sold out immediately (Larcen A7). The first Barbies, which were modeled after a sexy German doll and comic strip character named Lilli, were all white, but in 1967 Mattel premiered a black version of the doll called “Colored Francie.” “Colored Francie,” like white “Francie Fairchild” introduced the year before, was supposed to be Barbie’s “MODern” younger cousin. As a white doll modeled and marketed in the image of Hollywood’s Gidget, white Francie had been an international sensation, but Colored Francie was not destined to duplicate her prototype’s success. Although the “black is beautiful” theme of both the civil rights and black power movements may have suggested a ready market for a beautiful black doll, Colored Francie in fact did not sell well.
Evelyn Burkhalter, owner, operator, and curator of the Barbie Hall of 12 Fame in Palo Alto, California—home to 16,000 Barbie dolls—attributes Colored Francie’s commercial failure to the racial climate of the times. Doll purchasing patterns, it seems, reflected the same resistance to inte- gration that was felt elsewhere in the nation. In her implied family ties
to white Barbie, Colored Francie suggested more than simple integration. She implied miscegenation: a make-believe mixing of races that may have jeopardized the doll’s real market value. Cynthia Roberts, author of Bar- bie: Thirty Years of America’s Doll (1989), maintains that Colored Francie flopped because of her straight hair and Caucasian features (44), which seemingly were less acceptable then than now. No doubt Mattel’s deci- sion to call its first black Barbie “Colored Francie” also contributed to the doll’s demise. The use of the outmoded, even racist term “colored” in the midst of civil rights and black power activism suggested that while Francie might be “MODern,” Mattel was still in the dark(y) ages. In any case, neither black nor white audiences bought the idea of Barbie’s colored relations, and Mattel promptly took the doll off the market, replacing her with a black doll called Christie in 1968.
While a number of other black dolls appeared throughout the late six- 13 ties and seventies—including the Julia doll, modeled after the TV charac- ter played by black singer and actress Diahann Carroll—it was not until 1980 that Mattel introduced black dolls that were called Barbie like their white counterparts. Today, Barbie dolls come in a virtual rainbow coali- tion of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities—most of which look remarkably like the prototypical white Barbie, modified only by a dash of color and a change of costume. It is these would-be multicultural “dolls of the world” — Jamaican Barbie, Nigerian and Kenyan Barbie, Malaysian Barbie, Chinese Barbie, Mexican, Spanish, and Brazilian Barbie, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera — that interest me. For me these dolls are at once a sym- bol and a symptom of what multiculturalism has become at the hands of contemporary commodity culture: an easy and immensely profitable way off the hook of Eurocentrism that gives us the face of cultural diversity without the particulars of racial difference.
If I could line up across the page the ninety “different” colors, cultures, 14 and other incarnations in which Barbie currently exists, the fact of her