Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's wrong with AKA Barbie? (It ain't what you think)


This year, the historically black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha--the oldest of the sororities founded by college-trained black women--celebrates it's centennial. The group was founded at Howard University in 1908--a time when membership in mainstream sororities (and the benefits of membership) were closed to black women. Over a century, the sisterhood founded by nine women grew to a roster of more than 200,000 members in 975 chapters worldwide, encompassing leading lights like Coretta Scott King, Toni Morrison, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Mae Jemison.

The organization, whose members have a history of stellar achievement and commitment to service, proudly mentions on its Web site:

[Alpha Kappa Alpha] has responded to the world's increasing complexity. It continues to empower communities through exemplary service initiatives and progressive programs.


Indeed, according to a press release, in the 1990s alone, the sorority:

Alpha Kappa Alpha expanded its international tentacles by founding its first Ivy AKAdemy in South Africa. These schools were built, with AKA funds, to provide schooling to children who had been denied access to education. Alpha Kappa Alpha also created the Ivy Reading AKAdemy to emphasize the Sorority's mission of teaching basic reading skills at an early age. Alpha Kappa Alpha also expanded and revised its Leadership Seminar and The Leadership Fellows Program during this period.

McKinzie pointed out that Alpha Kappa Alpha is attuned to the ever-evolving needs of its members and those it serves. Therefore, with her administration, the organization expanded its service focus to embrace Economics in recognition of its importance in our daily lives. The current programmatic theme, ESP—Extraordinary Service Program—reflects the importance of wealth building, entrepreneurship and forging partnerships that promote economic independence.

Some of the highly-heralded programs launched under this administration that reflect the economic dimension of its program focus include the "Keys to Homeownership" program, a partnership with Chase, and a technology program at over 300 colleges worldwide (11 beta sites) where seniors and community residents master computers skills so they can improve their economic lot.

Given all that, why in the name of all things pink and green (The sorority's colors), did Alpha Kappa Alpha partner with Mattel to "commemorate 100 years of sisterhood and service" with an AKA Barbie? Yeah, I know folks are all het up over the doll's caramel complexion, which brings to mind those rumors of back-in-the-day paper bag tests and Spike Lee's Gamma Rays. But that's not my beef. African American women come in shades from ivory to ebony. And while it's a little suspicious that AKA Barbie fits the black community's stereotypical view of the sorority's membership, that issue pales (no pun intended) in comparison to what I think is the larger issue: A women's organization celebrating achievement, service, empowerment and sisterhood with a Barbie. Barbie--whose teen version gleefully spouted insipidness like "Math class is tough!" and "I love shopping!" while AKA was setting up schools for South African girls. Barbie--of the 36" 18" 33" dimensions and permanent tip-toe. Barbie--the symbol of Eurocentric beauty standards that are a tyranny to women of color. Barbie--with her club makeup, stripper fabulous gear and ever more sexualized image. Barbie. Barbie. BARBIE? Really?

Yeah, I know Barbie allegedly has a pilot's license and at some point, between tooling around in her purple Corvette and riding the elevator in her Dream House, she earned a medical degree, too. But that's not what Barbie is really about, is it? Those things were just bones thrown to mouthy feminists. Barbie seems like such a symbol of retro womanhood--the look painted and pretty and maybe you'll find a (hopefully anatomically correct) Ken to get you nice things kind of womanhood. The kind of womanhood too often associated with sororities. The kind of womanhood that the nine black women attending college in 1908 who founded AKA were consciously or unconsciously rejecting. The kind of womanhood that this seriously inactive soror certainly rejects.

National headquarters probably doesn't care what my lapsed and opinionated self has to say, but in case I don't make the 200th anniversary, how about a Dr. Mae Jemison or President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf doll? Better yet, why don't we skip the dolls altogether and honor the very real and un-Barbie-like black women who are changing the world?

There must be a better way to celebrate sisterhood than with Barbie.

Raven Hill at The Root says "Lay off Soror Barbie."

12 comments:

Stuck in my head said...

I find it shocking as well that they would use the Barbie as a way to commemorate all the work they have done to advance women through 100 years. Color of doll is another issue given their reputation, but like you said, we come in different shades.

Brother OMi said...

some of us still have bouts of self hatred.

personally, they could have found a black owned doll making company with the right faces.

nineanais said...

brother omi,

They DID find a black-owned doll making company. Actually, it found them (www.sisterhoodboutique.com). One of their very own made her own doll FIRST, but they got in bed with Mattel instead. They CHOSE this allegiance. It's one thing that they didn't go with the sister (THEIR sister) but it almost flies in the face of their message of economic empowerment. The anti-feminist tones are just icing on an unappetizing cake.

Brother OMi said...

that's even worse.

if i had approached them, they could have said, "we didn't know"

now its too late..

shouldn't have told me that.

Anonymous said...

ugh, Barbie appears again. Thought feminists buried her at a funeral in 1968!

Anonymous said...

I am an African-American woman who collects Black Barbie dolls. I played with them as a child--designing new outfits and coming up with new hairstyles for them. I am one who suggested, along with some other women, that my sorority create an African-American Barbie doll. The sisterhoodboutique doll, a beautiful doll, is pitched as a Madame Alexander doll, a line of predominantly white dolls for collectors. It is also more expensive by about $90. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of black toy manufacturers out there and those few that exist don't have the resources to mass produce, none have the name recognition or collector's prestige of a 'Barbie.' Additionally, ever since I was small, vendors have sold dolls, dressed in pink and green, that weren't 'Barbies' at AKA conventions--I have one that my mom bought when I was around 7.

For those of you who question the image of the doll, let me point out several things: when I was young, my mother had to travel around town to find any black dolls for me. When she did they were typically dark dolls, as if all African-Americans are dark, and had European features. About 15 years ago, Barbie got a makeover and my collection of over 75 dolls now comprises dolls of many different hues and "African" features. A few years back I can recall reading that the image issue with Barbie was different for white girls than for black girls. White girls wanted to become Barbie--big breasts, no hips, no butt. Black girls simply wanted to play with her, dress her up and comb her hair. There was little desire to actually look like her.

If you have a serious comment, you can email me:
thenewmrsjones@hotmail.com--I'll try to respond

Anonymous said...

This is much ado about nothing. I got my first black Barbie in the early 70s and it had a striking reseblembance to Theresa Graves, the actess who portrayed crime fighter Chritie Love.

I love Barbie then and I love Barbie now. As a black girl I wanted to be Barbie, not physical looks, but to have a career. I spent hours in creative play not just dressing Barbie.

Womanhood has a broad spectrum and women define womanhood for themselves.


Signed: Not An AKA

Mshoney said...

Be advised that we do come in different colors. Most AA dolls have a darker complexion, not at all reflecting me, but I by them anyway for my niece. So when I saw Barbie who is still darker them me, I thought finally a doll that looks like me! See it goes both ways. If she was darker, all the fair complexion sorors would not be complaining that she was too dark. hat you can be sure of. As to an AA manufacturer, I understand from the business aspect and economic empowerment how you would want the business, but the point was to have a collectors item. I can promise you I would not have stood in line just for a Black AKA Centennial doll if it wasn't Barbie. They were free to become a vendor and Mass produce whatever they wanted just like all the other vendors. I just don't think having a partnership with the National office would have helped sales on a doll. I don't even collect dolls but I purchased the Barbie because of the connection to my childhood. Recognize that there is a difference and try not to be bitter about it.

Anonymous said...

We as AKA members can contract with whatever company we feel like, we do not have to ask anyone for approval. The doll is not light. It is dark if you every got out and bought it. The gamma ray things was based on the same ugly rumor you are using against this beautiful doll. AKAs have always welcomed women of any race and color, stop the hating is just so ugly.

Tami said...

Folks,

Do me a favor and actually READ the post before commenting. The essay is NOT about the lightness or darkness of the AKA Barbie. The essay is about a sorority devoted to the uplift of women celebrating an anniversary with a well-recognized symbol of the subjugation of women. Let's discuss, but let the "she's too light" straw (wo)man go.

Anonymous said...

This is soooo stupid. I collect dolls, I am an AKA. I am dark but there are people in my family of every different shade. I do not care what shade they made the AKA BARBIE because every shade represents my relatives. Some blacks have major problems. How come I am a dark skinned woman who has NO problem with the shade of the Barbie, I actually do not think she is that light or light at all.

Horoscopo de hoy said...

some of us still have bouts of self hatred.

personally, they could have found a black owned doll making company with the right faces.

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