Lagueria Davis has been working on her documentary, Black Barbie, since 2011.

The idea came that year, when the filmmaker left Oklahoma—where she’d been studying—for Los Angeles. Once in California, she moved in with her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who she soon learned started working for Mattel in 1955.

“This documentary all started from a conversation with my aunt,” Davis says. “I’d only met her a couple of times before I moved in. Over a drink she told me her life story and how she worked on the first Barbie line in 1959.” Davis says her aunt mentioned asking Mattel, “Why not make a Black Barbie?”

In that moment, as a burgeoning young filmmaker, Davis immediately saw the potential to tell the history of Black dolls. Not just the struggle to get them made, but also why representation is so important when it comes to toys. Telling that history came to fruition this Juneteenth, when Netflix premiered Black Barbie.

Shonda Rhimes with doll
Shonda Rhimes, pictured here, appears in and is an executive producer of Black Barbie. Netflix

It took Mattel until 1980 to debut its first Black Barbie doll, which was designed by trailblazer Kitty Black Perkins, who appears throughout the film. “Getting a Black Barbie was a very important moment in mainstream doll history,” says Crystal Marie Moten, a historian and scholar of 20th-century African American women’s history, and a former curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “But it was not the starting point.”

Thirteen years earlier, Mattel had released a Black version of Francie, Barbie’s cousin. In 1968, Christie, Barbie’s best friend, arrived on shelves, and she is widely regarded as the company’s first original Black doll. But Francie and Christie merely cemented the idea that they were the sidekicks to the white and blonde Barbie. “This provoked the question that if Barbie is the ideal and the norm, what about the people who don’t look like that and who can’t dream and imagine themselves as Barbie?” asks Moten.

“At the time it felt very progressive to give Barbie a Black friend,” adds Davis. “But when you speak to the women who wanted a Black Barbie at the time, all they got was a friend of Barbie.”

It was these concerns that led to the founding of Shindana Toys in South Central Los Angeles. As one of the first toy companies to create and market Black dolls that looked like Black people, not just dolls that had been painted black instead of white, its goal was to improve representation in dolls and the self-image of Black children. In 1968, Shindana released Baby Nancy, a doll that became hugely popular in Los Angeles and was eventually sold across the country.

Baby Nancy’s success only highlighted what Mattel was missing. By this point, Barbie dolls had come to symbolize the height of beauty and fashion. Playing with the dolls allowed children to imagine themselves as adults and to start thinking about their own dreams and aspirations.

“That’s one of the things about Barbie that makes the doll different,” explains Moten. “It allows a young person to think about themselves as an adult and the possibilities. To really think, ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be?’ You can imagine yourself in a different context to the one you are perhaps in now.”

Mattel had debuted Barbie’s Dreamhouse and car in 1962. The accessories allowed the imaginations of those playing with the dolls to expand even further. “You can drive Barbie to places and put her in her own home, all of which just allowed kids to think even more about where and who they could be,” says Moten.

When the first official Black Barbie doll was finally released by Mattel in 1980, her box read, “She’s Black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” She was specifically a Black Barbie, unlike the other Black dolls from the company that either had a different name or the same design as Barbie just with a darker skin tone.

Perkins, who arrived at Mattel in 1976 and then became principal designer for Barbie in 1978, headed the push to diversify the doll line. Having never owned a Barbie doll until she bought one to prepare for her interview with Mattel, Perkins knew of the negative impact that the toy industry’s lack of representation had on children. In Black Barbie she explains, “There was a need for the little Black girl to really have something she could play with that looked like her. I wanted her to reflect the total look of a Black woman.”

Black Barbies in red dresses
Mattel debuted the first Black Barbie in 1980. Netflix

The famous doll experiments by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the late 1930s and 1940s strongly showcased that an environment of anti-Blackness could cause lasting damage to young children. In these tests, children were given a white doll with yellow hair and a brown doll with black hair. They were then asked a variety of questions that included which one is nicer, which looks bad and which one would you rather play with. The results showed a clear preference for the white doll from the children involved. The study also detailed that even by the age of 5, Black children were aware of white privilege and were being made to feel less than. (The dolls used in the experiment are now a part of the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

Because of their work, the Clarks would be called as expert witnesses in school desegregation cases, which in 1954 ultimately resulted in the decision from the U.S. Supreme Court to establish school segregation as unconstitutional. “I’m a civil rights historian by training so I usually think about their study in terms of Brown v. Board of Education. But it also had a huge impact on the toy industry and dolls,” says Moten. “It shows the ways in which seeing your race represented in the toys that you play with is really important for self-identity and self-concept.”

Davis’ documentary highlights the importance of the Clarks’ work before going on to explore how diversity in dolls goes “beyond beauty” and into other themes like “identity, politics and self-worth.” While making the documentary, Davis realized that a lot of Black women, like her aunt, collected Black dolls throughout their lives. “For me, that speaks to this idea that they wanted them to satisfy something that they didn’t have as a kid,” says Davis. The significance of getting to play with a Black Barbie becomes apparent in the documentary when several of the featured women break down in tears as they discuss the role the dolls had in their upbringings.

Over the decades, Mattel took steps to ensure that Barbie would be “the most diverse doll line on the market,” according to a statement from the company. Davis saw firsthand just how powerful the dolls can be as a teaching tool during production. As she filmed three girls playing with different Barbie dolls, Davis asked which one feels scary or like a bully. One of them pointed to a Barbie with vitiligo, a condition that causes loss of pigmentation in patches on the skin. This immediately led another participant to jump in and respond, “I don’t think she’s scary because I’ve met someone with vitiligo and she was very nice.” Davis saw the other girls taking in her explanation. “It was such a powerful learning moment for the other two girls. You could see them understand that just because someone is different doesn’t mean that they’re scary. It was an eye-opening experience to sit down with the kids and get a better understanding of how much they actually pick up on while playing.”

Moten acknowledges that “tremendous strides” have been made, as dolls and toys have finally started to mirror “the diverse human experience.” But she believes there’s still progress to be made in “helping young people see themselves in the toys that they play with.” For Davis, this is about understanding that one “person can’t speak for a whole” community.

The biggest personal lesson Davis learned while making the film: “Intergenerational conversations. Talk to your elders. There’s nothing like hearing about history and people’s life stories. It’s important to hear grandparents’ stories. Especially when it comes to our stories.” And while holding huge corporations accountable and making sure that their “approach to diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t performative or simply checking a box” might be beyond her, Davis is just happy to have brought more attention to the importance of Black Barbie, the people who made her and women like her aunt.

“I didn’t want their stories to just be in academic books and textbooks,” she says. “I wanted it to be told in a mainstream way. I wanted to put a Black woman lens on the Barbie brand.”

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