The unmaking of a social murderer: The reason behind the rise and fall of the Sara Lee doll and the African American Barbie Trio; not a marketing failure, but a mental health reality and social danger.

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In the past century, research has been made around the lack of racial representation in Children’s dolls and how that affects their self-esteem. Results from experiments such as “The Doll Test” have shown that it is very important for black children to have access to attractive black dolls so their self-esteem can be boosted and there is a positive reflection of their own race seen in the objects they play with.

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“Our children gain a sense of self importance through toys. So we make them look like them.” – Yla Eason, founder of Olmec’s

In the 1950s, the toy industry then initiated a movement towards the production of a line of dolls that were seen as “ethnically correct”. This movement was seen as a progression towards a solution to the lack of racial representation in children’s dolls. Thus giving birth to the Sara Lee Doll; the most noble and biggest failed attempt at creating something black children could play with and develop a sense of pride in their race from.

SaraDespite the honor and pride that Sara Lee offered to the African American race, despite the symbol of equality that it was, despite its honorable intentions; the Sara Lee doll still failed, but why? Why have the African American
people rejected this doll when, for the first time, its intentions as a doll was not to mock them or to form part of the Caucasian imagination, but to honor them?

The Sara Lee Doll failed not because it was not good enough, but rather because, in the words of Gordon Patterson (Supporter of the “ethnically correct” doll):

“The Sara Lee Doll not only was assigned the role of healing racial wounds between White and Black citizens but also was expected to do the work of challenging the derogatory features of traditional Negro dolls and brokering racial acceptance from White citizens.”

The Sara Lee Doll had failed to change the racial prejudice that is already so deeply ingrained in society. The problem with the doll was not that it was disrespectful, it was that people were unwilling and couldn’t change what society had created: white beauty standards that could never be meet by a black doll simply because it is black.

Etta.jpgThe Sara Lee doll had indeed failed, yet it seems like it would be possible for more than fifty years later to have designed and manufactured a toy that for once was not the image of a black person in a white person’s mind: A caricature with horrifying big pouty lips, with obscenely sized body areas such as thighs and rear-end, and eyes that will steal your soul like voodoo dolls.  Or a doll that for once was not Barbie simply painted black. Yet these dolls are still being made. What is going on? People don’t want to change. People don’t want to let go of symbolic racial norms.

Now, fifty years later, scholars such as Sabrina Lynette Thomas continue to argue that the creation of another Sara Lee doll, another “ethnically correct” doll is required to solve the bad self-esteem black children have and the lack of a positive sense of racial identity they have.

“She was a messenger of race pride for little colored children. She was an “ambassador of peace” to little White children whose lives she would influence by promoting an acceptance and respect for Negro people that would be present throughout their adult lives. The Sara Lee Doll was a symbolic lobby-ist against the racial status quo. – Thomas”

But the problem is that she holds on to the single belief that black children are more alike to each other than white children are. That there exists a doll that can possible represent a whole race and that this solution is not something that was already tried fifty years ago, and for some reason she expects it to work fifty years later

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She fails to recognize that these dolls have not changed anything. Instead, they continue to force to develop a black beauty standard through this “ethnically” correct dolls that attempt to represent a whole race ideally, a one and only way to look like in order to be seen beautiful in a beauty standard that is still below white people. If any doubt still remains or for those who still don’t find this problematic, then ask yourselves why the line of African American Barbies: Asha, Nichelle and Shani and the other black Barbies out there look exactly like a white doll but with a black skin tone. In the end, can one truly say these Barbies represent African American women? Those are not their bodies, their life, or their culture. This is what an Eurocentric white beauty standard looks like.

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Acknowledging this is important because it points out these beauty standards/stereotypes that attempt to sanitize and categorize America and bury the effects that years of racial prosecution has had on black children’s psyche, especially through children’s toys. It could also potentially present a step towards brokering racial acceptance and challenging the roles individuals take in society through their race.

Furthermore, acknowledging this is important because these dolls are carriers of ideality, of white beauty standards. Scholars such as Thomas are wrong to say that a single, “ethnically correct” doll can fix years of racial injustice and racial identity destruction because it has been more than fifty years since the first “ethnically correct” doll and it has not changed. These Barbies are symbolic of internalized oppression; of standards that continue to compare two clearly incomparable, different races.

Finally, and most importantly, acknowledging this IS important because these Barbies are murderers. These dolls are murderers. Murderers of identity, of self-esteem, of pride. It has been more than a century since these white beauty standards have spread through these dolls (both white, demeaning black dolls, and “ethnically correct” dolls) like a societal disease across the world and it is truly ignorant of people in society to not notice this or to simply deny recognizing the years of racial injustice that America carries with stick and blindfolded ignorance. Years that have only taught children to hide from this silent assailant, to hate their race and to feel insufficient.

 

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3 comments

  1. reedmelchionda · January 11, 2016

    I love this blog! As a self-proclaimed expert in the field of gay men’s representation in media, see my blog, “Queer Eye Should Not Be Praised for its Representation of Gay Men,” I could not help but notice the similarities between the failed attempts of enhancing societal acceptance of traditionally discriminated against minority groups. When you commented that “Scholar such as Thomas are wrong to say that a single, ‘ethnically correct’ doll can fix years of racial injustice and racial identity destruction” I immediately connected this to how Queer Eye tried to enhance the image of gay men by promoting them on the television series, yet constrained them to a “single” type of gay men. Thereby, rather than serving its purpose, the show constrained all gay men to this feminine persona just as these dolls served as “murders of identity” for African Americans. I would love to get together sometime and discuss these comparisons in person!

    Like

  2. lswar4 · January 12, 2016

    First of all, I found this topic really interesting. It’s something I never really considered or thought about because, although racial inequality is a major issue today that most people are aware of, racial inequality in the representation of dolls doesn’t get as much attention as other issues in the media. I think your blog really showed why it is such an important issue to discuss because there’s inequality and a lack in the representation of minorities. (quick sidenote: I liked your use of the repetition of “despite” in your third paragraph!) It really does sound like the Sara Lee doll was a failure, but I think it could help as a starting point in moving towards making more African American dolls in the future that aren’t created by and don’t fall into the “white beauty standard”. I definitely agree with your stance that the Sara Lee doll is “murdering identity, self-esteem, and pride” and that something needs to be done to change this. It’s a major issue that black dolls look exactly like Caucasian dolls, with nearly the same features, just painted black because African Americans should have a say in how their dolls are represented so that they feel comfortable using their dolls. Overall, awesome job! I really enjoyed reading your post and your opinion on this issue!

    Like

  3. jadakassandra · January 12, 2016

    This blog was very detailed and showed your argument clearly. I particularly found the part about the “Doll Test” very interesting, as it brought a means of evaluating the stigma that you argue is so ingrained into society. This also does a great job of contributing to your motive for the blog. In terms of your argument and content as a whole, I must say that I found your article to be very attention-grabbing. Considering that I did a research paper similar to this topic (evaluating how “whiteness” is seem as the standard of beauty), I was able to follow many of your arguments and thought that you did a great job contributing to this debate by clearly showing white beauty standards throughout the wide spectrum of dolls that are advertised in our society. Likewise, your ability to show how this perceived company failure is actually a demonstration of a societal “failure” to be racially inclusive was clearly seen in your title and the content of your blog. Great job!
    -Denay Richards

    Like

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