Ann Ducille on “ethnic” Barbies

Crossposted from Sociological Images:Seeing is Believing

Ann DuCille, in her book Skin Trade, takes two issues with “ethnic” Barbies. 

First, she takes issue with the fact that “ethnic” Barbies are made from the same mold as “real” Barbies (though sometimes with different paint on their faces).  This reifies a white standard of beauty as THE standard of beauty.  Black women are beautiful only insofar as they look like white women (see also this post).  DuCille writes:

…today Barbie dolls come in a rainbow coalition of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities, [but] all of those dolls look remarkably like the stereotypical white Barbie, modified only by a dash of color and a change of clothes.


But, second, DuCille also takes takes issue with the idea that Mattell would try to make ethnic Barbies more “authentic.”  Trying to agree on one ideal form for a racial or ethnic group is no more freeing than trying to get everyone to accord to one ideal based in whiteness.  DuCille writes:

…it reifies race.  You can’t make an ‘authentic’ Black, Hispanic, Asian, or white doll.  You just can’t.  It will always be artificially constraining…

And also:

Just what are we saying when we claim that a doll does or does not look… black?  How does black look? …What would make a doll look authentically African American or realistically Nigerian or Jamaican?  What prescriptive ideals of blackness are inscribed in such claims of authenticity?  …The fact that skin color and other ‘ethnic features’ …are used by toymakers to denote blackness raises critical questions about how we manufacture difference.

Indeed, difference is, literally, manufactured through the production of “ethnic” Barbies and this is done, largely, for a white audience. 

To be profitable, racial and cultural diversity… must be reducible to such common, reproducible denominators as color and costume.

The majority of American Barbie buyers are only interested in “ethnicity” so long as it is made into cute and harmless variety.  This reminds us that, when toy makers (and others) manufacture difference, they are doing so for money.  DuCille writes:

…capitalism has appropriated what it sees as certain signifiers of blackness and made them marketable… Mattel… mass market[s] the discursively familiar–by reproducing stereotyped forms and visible signs of racial and ethnic difference.


Black Barbie and Hispanic Barbie, 1980

Oriental Barbie, date unknown

A later “Asian” Barbie (Kira)

Diwali Barbie (India)

Hula Honey Barbie

Kwanzaa Barbie

Radiant Rose Ethnic Barbie, 1996

There are many reasons to find this problematic.  DuCille turns to the Jamaican Barbie as an example. 

The back of Jamaican Barbie’s box tells us:

How-you-du (Hello) from the land of Jamaica, a tropical paradise known for its exotic fruit, sugar cane, breath-taking beaches, and reggae beat!  …most Jamaicans have ancestors from Africa, so even though our official language is English, we speak patois, a kind of ‘Jamaica Talk,’ filled with English and African words.  For example, when I’m filled with boonoonoonoos, I’m filled with much happiness!

Notice how Jamaica is reduced to cutesy things like exotic fruit and sugar cane and Jamaican people are characterized as happy-go-lucky and barely literate while the history of colonialism is completely erased.

So DuCille doesn’t like it when Black Barbies, for example, look like White Barbies and she doesn’t like it when Black Barbies look like Black Barbies either.  What’s the solution?  The solution simply may not lie in representation, so much as in actually correcting the injustice in which representation occurs.

(Images found here, here, here, here, here, and here.) 

Editor’s note: I actually think I understand both sides of Ducille’s argument. The Barbie’s offered in the examples are of two extremes: Half are dolls with Euro features dipped in brown and half are “othered” in “native” costume. The message seems to be: People of color can be Americanized (read nearly white) or foreign. Where is, say, the Korean-American or African-American or Mexican-American Barbie with identifiably “ethnic” features wearing jeans and a t-shirt (festooned with pink sparklies–cause it’s Barbie)? THAT Barbie would be a better representation of American women of color. Closest to this ideal seems to be Kira, the Asian Barbie pictured above. But Kwanzaa Barbie? Really?

Of course, do little girls WANT Barbies’that look like them? (See doll test) That’s an even bigger rub.

I have to say, I avoid giving little girls Barbies for many reasons besides the way Mattel portrays race. I haven’t spent much time recently evaluating those toys. So, I may be complaining about a problem that no longer exists. Readers?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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