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Decoding Barbie’s Radical Pose

The “Barbie” movie glides over the history of dolls as powerful cultural objects.

In 1968, Mattel made a more dramatic move. As Goldberg recounts, the civil-rights activists Robert Hall and Lou Smith, leaders of Operation Bootstrap, a Black economic-development organization founded in the wake of the Watts riots and based in South Central Los Angeles, were invited to meet with the Mattel president, Elliot Handler, and other executives at company headquarters. They were the only Black people in the room in Hawthorne, California, which was historically a sundown town. Black consumers were seen as a growing part of the toy market, and, by the late sixties, most companies had at least one Black doll. In 1968, Mattel was the first company to introduce a Black fashion doll with its own character and name: Talking Christie, Barbie’s friend, who said things like, “Let’s go shopping with Barbie.”

Partly as a result of an influential study, Black families were encouraged to buy their children Black dolls. In the nineteen-forties, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed a series of doll tests which, in their interpretation, demonstrated the preference of even young Black schoolchildren for white dolls. This theory of “damage psychology” was popularized in mainstream publications such as Ebony, which, during the next decade-plus, published numerous images of playrooms full of developmentally appropriate toys, including dolls. At one point, the magazine urged parents to consider: “Do the toys contribute to [your child’s] physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social growth, or do they stunt his development by implying that only white is beautiful?” The Clarks’ research would be cited in footnote 11 of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as an example of the harms that segregation inflicted on the “hearts and minds” of Black children.

Mattel saw its talks with Operation Bootstrap as an opportunity to help the local Black community develop professional skills rather than just treat the demographic as a new market. Sponsoring a company that would create “brother and sister dolls made by brothers and sisters,” a tagline under which Operation Bootstrap’s dolls would eventually be sold, was also a shortcut to the kind of “authenticity” in facial features, hair texture, and clothing that doll buyers had begun to expect. (Lagueria Davis’s new documentary, “Black Barbie,” describes how long it took—until 1976!—for Mattel to hire Black women in-house to work on doll design. Mattel’s first Black fashion doll named Barbie came out in 1980.) Mattel offered to finance a new toy-manufacturing operation in South Central, owned and operated by Operation Bootstrap as a community-development project alongside the organization’s existing clothing-and-textile-import businesses. Mattel would donate training and equipment, but Operation Bootstrap would design, distribute, and profit from the dolls. And thus Shindana Toys was born.


Barbie and the History of American Childhood

The complex history of how Mattel's Barbies came to be the way they are depicted in the "Barbie" movie (2023): as representing and celebrating diverse, empowered, career-driven women.