Huffpost Canada Living ca
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Rachel Décoste Headshot

Why We Need Better Dark-Skinned Dolls

Posted: Updated:
Print
Sean Gallup via Getty Images
Sean Gallup via Getty Images

Both American and Canadian media have showcased the new wave of ethnic Barbie-sized dolls. The culturally-attuned figurines fill the gaping void in a transforming consumer base.

For Queen Cee Robinson of Hamilton, ON, the search for "a doll that resembled her daughter" was futile. Robinson scoured every department store for the rare black pearl. It had long straight hair down to the buttocks. "There's something missing," she explains. "Skin colour alone does not make a black doll." Robinson also found a multipack -- with the Black doll as a sidekick to the ubiquitous white ones. She distills it succinctly as "Barbie's token black friend."

So, Robinson created her dream dolls herself.

With North America's gradual restitution to its white-minority makeup, savvy corporations expand their senior ranks to include a wider range of the population they market to. Global markets (such as BRICS and MINT) demand similar adjustments.

By all accounts, North American progress has been laborious.

"Clearly the needle has not moved with regard to the representation of women and minorities in the senior ranks."
~Christie Smith of Deloitte Consulting, Sept 2013

Winning With Women

One of the most famous seismic shifts in corporate culture occurred when a male-dominated toy company opened itself to a woman's vision.

Ruth Handler designed a different kind of doll with her daughter in mind. Handler aspired to give little girls a grown-up doll to aspire to. It took a woman's intuition and experience to fully gauge the innate appetite amongst young girls for an "adult looking" doll. The full-figured figurine idea was pitched to her husband, a co-founder of Mattel. He didn't "get it." Neither did the all-male Board of Directors.

With perseverance, Handler's doll eventually debuted in 1959. Today, Barbie is a social and cultural icon.

In "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll," author M.G. Lord explores the differences between male and female executives' in handling of the Barbie line, as well as prominent women in the doll's marketing:
  • Ruth Handler, Barbie creator
  • Charlotte Johnson, who designed her clothes in the early years,
  • Judy Shackelford, Mattel's first female vice president, and
  • Jill Barad, the marketing director & later Mattel COO, who pioneered the "We Girls Can Do Anything" advertising campaign in 1984.
Clearly, Barbie's success can be accredited to women who brought a fresh perspective to the art of making toys for girls.

A Black Barbie?

Initially, Barbie's universe was exclusively white. Mattel made sporadic attempts at widening its monochromatic dolls' appeal.

"[Barbie] acquired her first minority friend in 1967, a short-lived doll with the unfortunate name "Colored Francie." In 1980, Mattel introduced a black and a Hispanic version of Barbie herself. [source: Sarasota Herald Times, April 20, 2005]

Over the years, Mattel continued its tone-deaf attempts at expanding its doll domination.

In 2007, Mattel's American Girl introduced Ivy Ling as the best friend to blonde, blue-eyed Julie Albright. Nicknamed Poison Ivy, she was likened to a Chinese-American girl growing up in San Francisco during the 1970s... Minus the slanted eyes epicanthic folds.

Though she was a companion to another doll, Ivy represented a quiet acknowledgement of the rapidly growing Asian-American consumer population and their place in U.S. history.

Simultaneously, Mattel "archived" another doll of colour: Cecile Rey. Hypothetically African-American with French roots, the sole black doll in the historical line was set in 1850s New Orleans. We can only imagine how the Antebellum South theme would have resonated with Black buyers.

Still, some minorities clung to Mattel's heart-rending attempts at ethnic dolls because they had no other viable options. Were minorities adequately consulted in the doll's design? Simple pre-market adjustments could have prevented this discomfiture.

To many, [Mattel's] decision to discontinue Ivy and Cecile -- two dolls of color -- underscores the disconnect between corporate decision-making and potential consumer demand among minority communities, particularly in an era that finds the U.S. population becoming increasingly diverse.

In 2013, Mattel multiplied their ethnic abrasions by irking Latinos when it splashed stereotypes all over Mexico Barbie. The doll comes in a fiesta dress, with a pet Chihuahua and a passport. For a community struggling to shed negative labels (and to gain legitimacy in terms of immigration papers), Mexico Barbie served to reinforce them.

Dark Dolls, Dimmed Profits?

Anecdotally, non-white dolls fail to meet sales targets, which precipitate their discontinuation. And yet. Queen Cee's customizes afro-centric dolls have raised eyebrows. The success of Nigeria's Queens of Africa dolls is staggering. Nigerian entrepreneur Taofick Okoya's Black dolls are outselling Mattel's classics.

The secret is simple: diversity.

When minorities are included at the incubation and marketing stages to create dolls in their own likeliness, their contributions bear fruit. For Corporate America, the same notion applies to any product designed to reach unfamiliar markets. Just as Mattel's all-male Board of Directors failed to recognize the genius of Ruth Handler's idea in the 1950s, the next generation of Fortune 500 leaders seems out of touch with its complementing demographic.

Judging from Mattel's corporate "leadership," visible minorities are invisible at the head table.

[At Mattel], we understand that a culture rich in diversity is key to business success. It allows us to better understand the business opportunities in various markets around the world, and develop products that resonate with consumers in diverse cultures.

Though their "diversity" statement hits all the right notes, it is hard to fathom how this lavish language translates to cultural atonement of Mattel's awkward ethnic figurines. Dark-skinned dolls with Aryan noses, Elizabethan hips, and Caucasian hair fail to capture the magic that Barbie has brought to little white girls for over 50 years. Ditto for Asian dolls with wide eyes and deleterious designations. Teasing Hispanics with tired tropes, también.

If this is how North American corporations do business with and for people of colour, it does not bode well for the pending wave of emerging world markets, nor the growing minority market share here at home. Queen Cee Robinson echoes our sentiments: "We live in a world that everything is pushed towards exclusivity and multiculturalism. Get with the times!" Now more than ever, it is time for Corporate America to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.