‘Black Barbie’ Doc is a Story of Legacy and Representation Told Through the World’s Most Famous Fashion Doll

Black Barbie

With the tagline: “She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” the first Black Barbie was released in 1980. The new Netflix documentary, 'Black Barbie,' follows the journey of her creation and evolution. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The elaborate “Naomi: In Fashion” exhibition celebrating Naomi Campbell, 54, opens this week at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, covering the iconic Black British supermodel’s career, fashion, creative collaborations, activism and cultural impact. 

At the Design Museum just down the street, curators are preparing the major “Barbie” exhibition to coincide with the Barbie brand’s 65th anniversary (it begins July 5). The latter explores the first fashion doll’s universe through a design lens, including fashion, architecture, furniture and vehicle design. Artifacts will include examples of the first Black, Hispanic and Asian dolls to bear the Barbie name. 

It’s a short walk between the two museums but it’s been a long road. As one half of last year’s juggernaut box office Barbenheimer summer, Barbie, the highest-grossing worldwide movie of 2023, featured Issa Rae as President Barbie alongside a diverse cast in which Kingsley Ben-Adir and Ncuti Gatwa played Kens. But a Black version of the iconic fashion doll and her posse didn’t arrive until more than 20 years after the 1959 debut of Mattel’s first improbably figured white, blond Barbie. With the tagline: She’s black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” the first Black Barbie was released in 1980.

Black Barbie
The first black Barbies, 1980. Photo: Courtesy of Netlfix

 

The new documentary Black Barbie (on Netflix, June 19) explores that journey, framed as a legacy story about how representation can work.

The engaging multi-faceted probe is written and directed by Lagueria Davis, who considers the first Black Barbie doll’s legacy in part through the lens of her 86-year-old aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell. In addition to being an avid collector whose spare room overflows with dolls, Mitchell began working for toy makers Ruth and Elliot Handler at Mattel in 1955 and, while working in production, asked Handler to consider incorporating a Black Barbie into the line. 

Although Davis and and her aunt are separated by generations and decades, they meet in the middle when it comes to understanding the cultural significance of having to play with white dolls as children. “What a perplexing thing,” she says, “to look in the social mirror and not see yourself.”

Davis also considers the impact her aunt and other Black women at Mattel had on the evolution of the Barbie brand through the story of generations of Black mentorship within the toy design world. When we meet Kitty Black Perkins, for example, the first Black designer for Barbie at Mattel, she wears a vivid red outfit that matches the body-conscious look she created for the original Black Barbie (taking cues from something Diana Ross might wear). Perkins recalls how a small group of Black creatives across the company collaborated to refine Black Barbie’s hair style (a short natural) and, later, subtly make her nose and lips fuller than the Eurocentric sculpt. The range of facial features, hair style and skin tone options would eventually diversify and become further representative of the African diaspora.

Using the personal point of view repeatedly pays off in powerful testimonials about the impact of dolls growing up. For instance, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, 85, who has served as a member of Congress for more than 30 years, explains how she collects Black dolls as an important way of affirming identity with something made in her own image. 

Black Barbie
Examples of some of the first Black, Hispanic and Asian dolls to bear the Barbie name. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

 

Notably, the documentary was brought to the screen by dynamo Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland producing partner Betsy Beers (Bridgerton, Grey’s Anatomy). Appearing throughout the documentary herself, Rhimes says that it’s no coincidence she “now tells stories about powerful interesting women living exciting lives” and credits Barbie with representing who she wanted to be at certain points in her childhood. “If Kerry Washington in Scandal is not a Black Barbie, down to the outfits and dress-up and the clothes, I don’t know what is, really!”

The powerhouse producer is joined by several other notable Black women – such as Olympic fencing medallist Ibtihaj Muhammad, Academy Award-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe and Misty Copeland, the first Black principal ballerina – who discuss how their experience of Barbie’s role in a white-centred world and history wasn’t built for them. Black Barbie also considers the future of the icon – and puts Mattel’s VP of diversity, as well as several former Barbie and Mattel marketing executives and designers, in the hot seat about the lack of sustained pace of diversity and representation both within its ranks and on the shelf. The most recent anniversary Black Barbie, for example, was designed by a white man.

Black Barbie
Olympic fencing medallist Ibtihaj Muhammad – the first Muslim American woman in Olympics history to wear a headscarf while competing – holds the Barbie styled after her. Photo: Netflix

 

There’s also context about the 15-year run of Shindana Toy Company, the pioneering co-operative manufacturer of Black dolls for Black children in South Central Los Angeles established in 1968. It was formed as a non-profit by Civil Rights activists Lou Smith and Robert Hall to create jobs in the Black community and had the financial and mentorship backing of the Handlers. Mattel’s Julia dolls (fashioned after Diahann Carroll, the first Black woman to lead a television series) appeared in 1969, as did other friends and relations of Barbie over the years. We learn about the S.I.S. (So In Style) dolls and the world of Shani & Friends, a short-lived line of Black dolls Mattel launched in 1991 as a sister brand to Barbie (En Vogue performed at the launch).

But the women on screen share a critical insight: Because it’s Barbie, not her entourage, who dominates, it’s crucial that she be the heroine; Barbie is main character energy and essential in promoting positive images of Black identity. The beauty and success of Black Barbie means possibilities.

Black Barbie
Black Barbies take the runway. The specific creation of a Black Barbie – as opposed to simply giving Barbie another Black friend – was essential in promoting positive images of Black identity. Photo: Netflix

 

Here, the documentary widens the lens to chart the quiet but persistent quest for true representation in the Barbie universe. It’s not just about the toy fashion dolls themselves: Even in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatter protests, the popular Barbie animated multiverse spinoffs – featuring the character Barbie “Brooklyn” Roberts – still centred whiteness as the default and have been slow to give its cast of Black Barbie characters anything but thin supporting sidekick roles. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the journey comes in the final chapter, bringing in early childhood educators and activists and working with casual focus groups of children to explore the importance of imaginative play. Davis revisits the Clark Doll Test for racial bias in children, the milestone 1950s study in which Black children mostly ascribed positive characteristics to white dolls. The results marked the beginning of understanding racial rejection and lack of self esteem – and sent shockwaves through the Black community. It also had a momentous outcome, influencing many of the Supreme Court judges in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools; they cited it as the single most powerful piece of evidence that pushed them over in their ruling.

Barbie is a complex phenomenon and our relationship with the cultural icon’s legacy is just as complicated. That makes Black Barbie’s celebration of the milestone laced with a pointed critique of insufficient representation essential viewing: Dolls can be crucial in forming identity and fostering a sense of pride and self-worth, and and a catalyst for social change.

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