'Black Barbie' documents how the doll of colour defined history

In the 70s and 80s, Shindana Toys began producing dolls modelled after powerful black women. Picture: INSTAGRAM.

In the 70s and 80s, Shindana Toys began producing dolls modelled after powerful black women. Picture: INSTAGRAM.

Published Jun 26, 2024


The new Netflix documentary “Black Barbie”, tracks the powerful story behind the creation of the iconic black Barbie doll and its impact on society.

With the tagline: “She’s black, she’s beautiful, she’s dynamite,” it captures the significance of introducing dolls of colour into a world which was dominated by white beauty standards.

Created by Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, the production house behind hit series like “Grey's Anatomy” and “Bridgerton”, this documentary highlights the contributions of those who brought the first black Barbie doll to life back in 1980.

This includes Louvenia “Kitty” Black Perkins, a US fashion designer who spent the majority of her career designing clothing for Barbie dolls as well as renowned doll designer Stacey McBride Irby and Beulah Mae Mitchell, who worked at Mattel, which manufactures the dolls.

Mitchell worked at Mattel for 44 years and started her career at the company’s production line in 1955. She had a lifelong love for dolls and dreamed of a day when black children could play with dolls that looked like them.

During her time, the absence of black dolls was glaring and even children of colour played exclusively with white dolls.

The documentary highlights how this trio sought to rectify this lack of representation and were instrumental in creating a diverse doll.

Set in a classic Barbie dream world, the documentary contrasts the pretty, stylish dolls with the deeper, more serious story of how black doll came to exist. It reveals the social and cultural changes that made this important shift possible.

An interesting test that was featured on “Black Barbie” was the Clark Doll Test from the 1940s which revealed that black children often preferred white dolls over those of colour. It explained that much of the reason for this was because of the internalised racism and prevailing beauty standards that excluded them at the time.

This highlighted the urgent need for representation and positive images for black children and prompted Mitchell and other factory workers to approach Ruth Handler, the creator of the very first Barbie doll who co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot, to propose the creation of a black Barbie.

This revolutionary request challenged the norms of the time. However, their initial attempts fell short, resulting in white dolls being spray-painted with darker skin tones but still lacking distinct black features.

Beulah Mae Mitchell. Picture: INSTAGRAM.

The breakthrough only came in the late 1960s when Diahann Carroll became the first African American woman to lead a television show in the hit series “Julia.”

Carroll’s portrayal of Julia Baker on the show inspired the creation of the first black Barbie and in the 1970s and 1980s, Shindana Toys began producing dolls which were modelled after powerful black women and their careers, offering new aspirations for black children.

“When I designed this doll, there was a need for the little black girl to have something she could play with that looked like her,” explained Perkins in the documentary.

“I wanted her to reflect the total look of a black woman.”

When the first black Barbie was introduced to the world in 1980, the documentary narrates how this milestone was far more than just being about a new toy on the shelf.

Instead, it went on to define modern history and was seen as a significant step towards representation and inclusivity.

The first black Barbie, designed by the fabulous Perkins, went on to be a bold celebration of black identity.

Rocking an afro, a stunning red dress and eye-catching gold jewelry, she was unapologetically herself. With a wider nose and fuller lips, this Barbie proudly showcased her blackness, making a stylish and powerful statement.

Meanwhile, “Black Barbie” also features notable contemporary figures such as Rhimes, Misty Copeland and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who are all recognised for their groundbreaking contributions in their respective fields.

Rhimes stands out as a prolific television producer and screenwriter who has been instrumental in reshaping storytelling and representation.

Copeland made history as the first African American woman who was promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, using her platform to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the ballet world.

Additionally, Muhammad has garnered attention as the first Muslim-American woman to compete in the Olympics for fencing, while wearing a hijab.

This trio recognised the importance of seizing opportunities to be "the first black woman" in their respective fields, understanding that their achievements would pave the way for future generations.

The first Black Barbie, designed by the fabulous Kitty Perkins, was a bold celebration of Black identity. Picture: INSTAGRAM

“Black Barbie” is an inspiring tale of history, representation and inclusivity.

It is also a celebration of black female talent, something that the black Barbie became synonymous for.

The documentary also pulls at the heartstrings as it details how the black Barbie was created to inspire young black girls who went on to mark their own marks on the world.

“Black Barbie” is currently streaming on Netflix.