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  • Writer's pictureLinda Calvin

Hello, Barbie!

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Hello, Barbie!

It was a cloudy cold day in Indianapolis in 1999 and I was holiday shopping for nieces. I have several, and it was a labor of love to buy them all manner of girly things for Christmas. I invested hours and hours in selecting outfits with (of course) matching purses and shoes — And always a doll. However, on this day nearly 24 years ago, I realized I had missed purchasing a doll for one of my nieces, so I stopped at Walmart.

As I scoured the aisle for the perfect baby, I turned the corner, and my eyes darted around at the various dolls. I was stopped dead in my tracks! My breath caught in my throat, and I gasped. There was an entire wall of beautiful Barbies, and many wereBlack!

I stood in wonder at these stunning, glamorously melanated Barbies! Tears welled in my eyes, as they are now as I type this, and spilled down my cheeks. I just stood there, wide-eyed, tears falling, and a smile stretching across my face. I don’t know how long I stood there – seconds, minutes, hours – mesmerized. It was fantastical to me.

Behind the Reaction

I didn’t grow up with Barbies that looked like me. Indeed, there were Black Barbies in the 70s, but not many. My family never considered buying the Black Barbies for me. My mother is white and she married my father, a black man, years after she had divorced her first husband, who was a white man. From her first marriage, she had three children: my two older brothers and my sister. After my parents divorced, we moved to Indianapolis, where, years later, my mother would remarry a white man and have my little brother. Everyone in my family is white: siblings, aunts, uncles, third cousins, great nieces and nephews. Everyone. (My family, my church friends, my neighborhood and my school). Thus, it never occurred to my family to purchase a Barbie that looked like me. They purchased Barbies that looked like them. Every baby doll, Barbie, Dawn Doll, Skipper was white. My Mom once found a doll named Linda and gave it to me for Christmas. But my Linda doll had long blonde hair and blue eyes.

I grew up longing to look like these beautiful dolls. And to look like my friends and their dolls. I used to stand in front of a mirror, and use my fingers to sculpt my nose into a smaller representation. I lamented my features; larger nose, fuller lips, ugly brown eyes and thick black hair. My dolls, like my older siblings and their children, had porcelain skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair that flowed and moved in the wind. When I was seven years old, I swore that one day, I would make lots of money, shrink my nose with a nose job and change my name to Vicki (a beautiful woman at my church who embodied all I wanted to be). I would marry a man with blonde hair and blue eyes so I could bear children who had those same coveted features. One day I might look like my cherished dolls, or bear children who did.

My First “Me” Barbie

After I had concluded that holiday shopping trip two decades ago, I hurried home and shared my experience with my husband. He hugged me close. He seemed very moved by my story – both sad and happy. What I didn’t know was just how it impacted him. On Christmas Day at his mother’s, he and his mother looked at each other and shared that they had one last gift they saved for me. They were both wearing broad smiles. I looked at them suspiciously as I slowly removed the carefully taped paper. And there she was, Barbie!!

Working Woman Barbie to be exact, and she was BLACK! She came with a reversible, from the boardroom to the restaurant reversible suit, a computer bag with a computer, a Working Woman Magazine. And, wait for it, SHE TALKED! She said things like, “Making Money IS FUN!” “Don’t forget to check your email!” “I’ve got to prepare for a meeting!” and you heard a bling bell sound, “I’ve got an email.” Now Barbie, and I never gave her another name, was a bit too obsessed with Ken, as if you pressed the button too frequently, she kept building on her thoughts on dates with Ken. “I can’t wait to get ready for my date with Ken tonite.” However, I forgave her because, you know, sometimes that’s what gets you through a long day of meetings: a hot date with Ken. And with that, it began.

A Collection of the Beauteous

With that one Working Woman Barbie, I slowly began adding Barbies to my annual Christmas list. The next was a Black Catwoman Barbie, perched come-hither on a red-lipped shaped ottoman. I squealed as I unwrapped this magnificent creature. I couldn’t wait to pull her off the ottoman, stare at perfectly sculpted face and stroke her faux leather suit. I broke the rules of “collecting” and opened her plastic prison! It was glorious! The scolding was worth it, although I did slightly injure the ottoman.

(Judge Barbie, Catwoman Barbie and Working Woman Barbie, under the gaze of “She”, a commissioned piece by Laura Laforge, a Black interpretation of Lady Justice)

After Catwoman came Judge Barbie, a statuesque dark-skinned Barbie, cloaked in a black robe with a Ruth Bader Ginsberg-inspired white collar. The description said “She comes with a gavel and round block that kids can use to help her call the room to order and make important decisions.” As soon as I saw the announcement of her arrival to Target stores near me, I ordered one immediately. A few days later, I drove through rainy, traffic-clogged streets, 30 minutes away, to welcome Judge Barbie to the Calvin Courtroom! It was even more meaningful to me as I had just started practicing law. She was an inspiration.

Today, I have 35 Black Barbies. I finally took my husband’s advice and I now refrain from freeing them from their plastic capsules. However, with each “collectable” I purchase, I buy one I can play with. Yes, I do play with them. I purchase clothing for them, dress them in seasonal fashion and pose them around my office. Working Woman Barbie now has a Bob and she lost her computer. That’s fine, it was a 90s model, no doubt well out of date and without all of the cool features we have today! I invested in a doll that’s supposed to look like me. I don’t think that anyone would clutch their pearls and be aghast at the likeness. But, it is cool to have a Barbie that sorta has a mohawk, and is donning a Black Lives Matter tee shirt!

The Significance of Barbie for Me

For me, having Barbies that look like me is about inclusion. That I matter and looking like me is special. And beautiful. If you grew up with baby dolls and Barbies that looked like you, then you may not necessarily understand the origin of those tears as I stood in the Barbie aisle in Walmart. But for me, seeing that representation was so meaningful. I belong.

In the 1930s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted studies in New York City. In the experiment, the Clarks handed black children four dolls. The dolls were the same except two had a dark skin and two had light skin. The Clarks asked the children questions such as which dolls were "nice" and which were "bad" and "which doll is most like you?" The results showed the majority of black children preferred the white dolls to the black dolls. The children would say the black dolls were "bad" and the white dolls looked most like them. To the Clarks, these tests provided proof segregation gave African American children a sense of inferiority. Never seeing representation of yourself as a pilot, or engineer or creative or beautiful or fashionable serves detrimental to self-esteem.

It’s important that girls see themselves: Latina, Native American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, in a wheelchair, with a prosthetic leg, androgynous, with Down’s Syndrome or Vitiligo. By seeing this representation in Barbie, children can see and know they belong. That they matter. It’s not only okay to be them, it’s also glamorous.

Something to Take Away

Next time you see a Barbie, I invite you to internalize these messages. Next time you hear the uproar over a Black Mermaid or a Colombian heroine (Encanto), pause for a moment and think what it means to the child to look up and see a representation of themselves on a screen. How wonderful that is! It’s not about being “woke,” or politically correct. The move to better representation in Barbie and Disney and everywhere is about the fact this is who we look like. We are porcelain, olive, black, brown, dark-haired, freckled. Why would we not want representation for all of us? And if you have a niece, cousin, godchild, daughter, why not buy her the spectrum of Barbies, so she can see how different, gorgeous and colorful the world is. And that everyone can and should belong.

Barbies and Coffee

Last year around the holidays I created an event for me and a girlfriend I dubbed, “Barbies and Coffee.” I invited her and her Barbie over for Mimosas (Mimos) and coffee. We discussed home life, holidays, family, Barbies and anything and everything. During our conversation, we sat with our Barbies, playing with hair, posing them to sit with us. It was a delightful way to spend a few hours on a cold Saturday morning.

Since then, we added another girlfriend, her Barbie and had a wonderful brunch. I’m also happy to share it was adopted by a networking connection in California, I mentioned my Barbies and Coffee experience with her and she hosted one with a large group of women at a brunch place, complete with Mimos, Barbies and laughter.

Interested in a Barbies and Coffee in central Indiana? Let’s talk. And hey, geography is no limitation to empowered women enjoying brunch with Barbie. Host your own! Take pix and please share with me on Insta @lindathegirlygirl. I’d love to hear about your event and your ideas!

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