The personal account given by Ann Ducille at the beginning of “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference” somewhat paints Barbie as well as other dolls as an icon of femininity. The question that arises is whether to condemn Barbie as a negative role model who embodies subsidiary femininity, white, blonde, Aryan culture and corporate dominance, because of the lack of cultural diversity. Barbie portrays the feminine masquerade by showing the manufactured reality of it: artifice, clothes, and props.
“Barbie is a role model for all of her owners . . . Barbie allows little girls to dream . . . Now ethnic Barbie lovers will be able to dream in their own image.” (Ducille, 50) “In their own image” (50), meaning the image of the white blonde, which would be difficult to replicate if one does not resemble it. The whole phenomenon became most interesting when Ducille introduced the reader to the “Shani” doll. Mattel’s making of this doll claimed to have the best interests of ethnic audiences yet in my eyes it seems like a disastrous strategy. The entire description given at the back of the “Shani” doll’s package was stereotypical. The description full with black vernacular like: hair braiding and twisting did not only play up cultural roles but it hinted to the term double consciousness coined by W.E.B. DuBois. The use of the name “Shani” which derives from African language shows the separation there is between being just an “American” (white) while an “African American” acts and wants different things. The fact that Shani is presented as a “top model” rather than a scholar feeds not only feminine scholar oppression but racial oppression as well. Shani: It is clear that Mattel has sought incorrect advice in creating Barbie’s African- American counterpart. Why can’t the girl be named Lisa, Mary, Jo-Ann, or any other wholesome American name? African-Americans are exactly that, American. There is a clear distinction between American and African, thus the name “Shani” doesn’t seem appropriate.
The making of diverse Barbie serves no purpose if the dimensions and features resemble to those of the original Barbie. Ducille uses the term “black face” to describe these multicultural additions because only their costumes show this “difference”. Ducille categorizes the doll as “difference incarnate—a novelty, a new enterprise or, perhaps, as the black female other so often is, an exotic” (54-
55). Ducille mentions that though “Barbie dolls come in a virtual rainbow coalition of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities” they quite often are “modified only by a dash of color and a change of costume” (51) to resemble the original white Barbie. As a man who generally ignorant to female celebrities and fashion, I feel this resembles Hollywood. If I were to open “People” magazine, I would most likely see more white faces than not; however, the black faces that do appear in the magazine do not exactly challenge the appearance of the white ones. However, the faces and bodies seen in “Essence” look nothing like those of People. Furthermore, take a starlet such as Gabrielle Union, if photographed in “People” she will most likely resemble that of her white counterparts; however, if featured in “Essence” she will remarkably transform into a glorified Nubian goddess.
Why are African-Americans still novelties in the eyes of America? It seems as Mattel struggles to find a proper name of their doll, it mirrors the struggle of the African-American female to earn the respect that is due to her. Moreover, it is quite interesting that though Mattel acknowledges the fact that African-American bodies are different than white ones: “‘to be truly realistic, one [Shani doll] should have shorter hair” (57) states Deborah Mitchell, the company has made limited changes to the Shani doll. Anthropologists from the University Of Massachusetts at Amherst point out “it is essential, after all, that all the dolls be able to share the same clothes, thus making any dramatic alterations in body type unlikely” (57). I feel this patterns society once more, as it clear that African-American and Hispanic women have much different bodies than that of whites, in a consumer world geared to cater to the needs of whites, similar to the doll representations of them, a Latin girl may be a size 2 or 4, but her hips don’t satisfy the white mold.
While it seems as though there is an attempt to integrate these Barbie’s into every aspect of life, it falls short. The closest Mattel has gotten to making something that would relatively resemble each individual person is the “My Size Barbie.” Mattel featured a special addition of Barbie’s that could be specifically made by submitting pictures of yourself, sample of your hair and details about the young girls features and preferred outfit. It was every young girls dream, but the portrayal was significantly off. It created a sense of still perfection that every other Barbie already represented. In short the representation of a worldly, multicultural Barbie is difficult to create as there are subcultures within cultures.