Mattel recently released a line of black Barbie dolls that is supposed to be more authentic. The So In Style by Barbie dolls, developed by Stacy McBride-Irby, have fuller lips, curlier hair, and three distinct skin tones. Some have criticized these dolls for not being authentic enough and having long brown hair, while others have praised them, saying they’re a step towards changing beauty ideals and giving black girls a positive representation of themselves. But this isn’t the first time Mattel has released a line of dolls to represent black women specifically. One of my favorite Barbie collections growing up was the Marvelous World of Shani & Her Friends, which featured three dolls in varying skin tones and hair colors (the straight hair texture, though, was similar to other Barbie dolls). Like Barbie, Shani was the ringleader of her crew, which included Nichelle (my favorite for her dark skin and jet black hair) and Asha (who I stopped liking after giving her a really bad haircut). Unlike Barbie, though, the Shani dolls seemed more cosmopolitan, moving in swanky yet artsy circles. They would never have been caught dead in a pink dream house, preferring a renovated loft instead.
Mattel continues to use the face molds of the Shani dolls for collectors’ Barbie dolls, especially ones by Byron Lars, so they haven’t completely disappeared. But what always sticks out in my mind with the old and new lines of black Barbie dolls is that they’re not really Barbies. The main dolls are never given the Barbie name and instead are called something slightly exotic. Are they not good enough to be Barbie? Is Mattel trying to preserve the white image of Barbie while at the same time catering to and profiting off black girls?