"Black Barbie was different": Six fascinating details from Shonda Rhimes' Netflix documentary

Created in 1980, Black Barbie revolutionized what play and representation looked like for Black children

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published June 21, 2024 3:42PM (EDT)

Black Barbie (Netflix)
Black Barbie (Netflix)

Barbie is everything. She's everywhere. She's in a box-office billion-dollar smash hit directed by Greta Gerwig.

However, despite all her success — especially in recent years — the one question always brought up is if Barbie is regressive to feminism and to the young girls who play with her. Sometimes this question is brought up as a way to highlight the long-standing image of whiteness that Barbie has represented in the past. But "Black Barbie," Netflix's Shonda Rhimes-produced documentary directed by Lagueria Davis, answers the burning questions by taking audiences all the way back to the inception of Barbie and, most importantly, the inception of Black Barbie.

Through the creation of Black Barbie, Black women in the toy industry were able to change history, create a new generation of Barbie fans and pave the way for new, inclusive versions of Barbie that couldn't have existed in years past. These young children who never really were able to see themselves in their toys finally had something that represented their lives and conveyed that they were just as valuable and important as their white counterparts. 

Here are six of the most interesting details from the historic makings of the Black Barbie in the documentary:

Rep. Maxine Waters collects Black dolls
Black BarbieBlack Barbie (Netflix)
The California representative is featured in "Black Barbie" for her love of Black dolls. Waters shared her backstory in the documentary, stating that she had 12 siblings and lived in poverty. "We were poor and so we were given toys at Christmastime. We had to go some place that was designated for poor people to come and get their toys," she said. "For my sisters, I would always make sure they got a doll, and I would say 'Oh, I don't need one.'"
When asked if these dolls were Black, Waters responded, "There were no Black dolls. They were all white dolls."
Waters added, "We didn't know a lot or think a lot about it at that time. But as you get a better knowledge and understanding about yourself and people of color, I began to understand how important it was to have a Black doll and to have someone who looked like me."
She continued, "Collecting Black dolls became very important to us – to say that we liked them, we appreciated them, we could afford them, and we were gonna have them."
The Clark doll test revealed Black children's internalized racial rejection
Black BarbieBlack Barbie (Netflix)
While Black dolls existed before Black Barbie, they tended to look like caricatures of Black women, modeling stereotypical images like Aunt Jemima. These dolls weren't seen as desirable by the Black children who played with them. Black psychologists Kenneth and Mamie further proved this with the groundbreaking Clark doll test in 1940.
The couple did an experiment asking Black children what their dolls preferences were. "We put them on a table: two white and two brown dolls exactly the same in every respect except color. We asked the children a number of very simple questions," Kenneth said in an archival interview.
The questions ranged from which dolls were white and which ones were Black. Then they were asked preference questions like which dolls they liked to play with, which dolls were nice and which were bad.
Kenneth said, "We found that the majority of Black children at that time did in fact ascribe the positive characteristics to the white doll and the negative characteristics to the brown doll." He asked the children which doll looked like them, "Some of those children looked at me as if I were the devil himself. It was the beginning of psychologists' understanding of the terrible damage that's done to human beings by racial rejection."
Beulah Mae Mitchell was one of the first few Black Mattel employees
Black BarbieBlack Barbie (Netflix)
As one of the few Black employees at Mattel, Beulah Mae Mitchell is also one of the most important. Originally from the segregated South, in 1955 Mitchell got a job as a toy tester at the Mattel factory.
Mitchell even worked directly with Ruth and Elliot Handler, the founders of Mattel. "We worked for the original owners, and they called themselves the mom-and-pop shop. We just loved Ruth because she was such a strong woman."
Mitchell worked at Mattel during the birth of Ruth's creation of Barbie. Ruth and Mitchell would go on to form a close friendship. Mitchell recalled that as they worked in the factory Ruth would ask her employees for suggestions and ask questions about the dolls. Moreover, Mitchell told Ruth, "Well, we want a Black Barbie.'"
Ruth said, "Well, good. We'll see."

Kitty Black Perkins designed the first Black Barbie at Mattel

Black BarbieBlack Barbie (Netflix)
In 1976, nearly 20 years after Mitchell started at Mattel and was promoted to the corporate side of the business, Mattel hired their first Black designer, Kitty Black Perkins. Mitchell shared that Perkins was hired as a designer for Barbie's clothes. The pair were among the very few Black employees at the corporate level of Mattel.
Perkins said, "I answered a blind ad. I went for the interview, and I left there thinking, 'I have to have this job. I can't do anything else.'"
While Black Barbie didn't come out until four years after Perkins started, her position at Mattel as a Black designer for all Barbies was significant. When she would go on to create the Black Barbie, she said, "I wanted her to reflect the total look of a Black woman." The historic 1980 Black Barbie is known for her iconic afro. "I wanted her to be the complete opposite of Barbie," Perkins said.

Black Barbie finally gave representation to young children who craved it

Black BarbieBlack Barbie (Netflix)
Perkins had only one group of children in her mind when making the first Black Barbie.
"When I designed this doll there was a need for the little Black girl to really have something she could play with that looked like her," she explained.
Inspired by Diana Ross and the women of the '80s, the doll was made by a team of people of color who shaped the doll in the image of Black women and girls. They changed her clothes, jewelry, skin tone, the width of her nose and even the fullness of her lips. "I knew Black Barbie was different. I never realized the magnitude," Perkins said.

It took 21 years for Black Barbie to come to fruition

Black BarbieBlack Barbie (Netflix)
Twenty-one years after the original release of Barbie in 1959, Black Barbie was born. When the release of Black Barbie hit the streets, children and women everywhere finally had something for themselves despite how long it took.
University of California Los Angeles professor Patricia A. Turner said, "[Black Barbie] allowed the Black girl to be the heroine of the story. In all of the imagined play with Barbie, she's at the center of attention. She's the belle of the ball. She's who you'd want to be. I don't think in anyone's life you should want to be the belle's best friend."
However positive the intention of making doll was, there were some concerns. Perkins said, "We did do a focus group. Some of the comments from the moms were about the hair being short rather than long or the dress being slim rather than full. They didn't know whether this was done intentional. Mattel at the time invited a child psychologist to discuss the whole doll. It was about the same feeling the moms had had. But when the child psychologist found out the designer was Black — it all went away."
Even in its success, there were challenges that Perkins and others noted that had to do with its marketing and how whiteness still played a role in how popular or promoted the white Barbies were in comparison to Black Barbies.

"Black Barbie" is now available to stream on Netflix


By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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