Barbie: Why Your Old Friend Is Becoming Increasingly Diverse

You may have seen her summoning queens of past and present to serve up the regal pose featured on Elle Magazine’s November cover. Perhaps you glimpsed her filmmaking magic in the Academy Award-nominated film Selma. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re likely aware that director J.J. Abrams has expressed interest in tapping her as the first woman to produce a film for the franchise.

As if that’s not #BlackGirlMagic overload, add one more accomplishment to Ava DuVernay’s impressive scroll: This week, the filmmaker was immortalized as Barbie.ava-elle-cover

DuVernay’s doll, complete with director’s chair, was released in early December as part of Barbie’s Shero collection, a line started by a female entrepreneur and mother in order to "honor and encourage powerful female role models who are leaving a legacy for the next generation of glass ceiling breakers," according to the company. Other notable names in the collection include Lucky magazine editor Eva Chen and 5-year-old fashion designer Sydney "Mayhem" Keiser.

But this isn’t the first time the multinational toy-making giant has lept  out of their lane with a refreshing replica.

In September, social media feeds were abuzz with images of a miniaturized version of Bay Area-born model/singer/actress Zendaya, who was honored with a doll immortalizing her 2015 Academy Award red carpet look.

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This was, notably, a look shrouded in controversy after E! Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic made televised remarks associating the multi talented star’s dreadlocked hairstyle with “patchouli oil” and “weed.”

Though the company decided not to mass-produce the Zendaya doll, it's telling that Barbie is experimenting with replicas so outside its regular wheelhouse, even if they are special-edition only. A quick search in the “Hollywood” section of thebarbiecollection.com reveals that only two black Barbies — out of 42 collectibles produced since 2000 — are currently available for purchase; Tony award-winning actress Diahann Carroll and Ava DuVernay. Asian representation is even more scarce, with multi-talented Chinese actress, television producer and pop singer Fan Bingbing as its lone pillar. The last splash of ethnic acknowledgement goes to “70s Cher Bob Mackie Doll.” (Insert appropriate side-eye.)

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So what gives? According to Forbes, sales for the once-beloved doll have steadily declined in recent years, with little sign of improvement. Faced with competition from Hasbro (responsible for those Ana and Elsa dolls many of us can’t seem to escape) and a saturated market, Mattel is having difficulty connecting with young girls -- who are also increasingly ethnically diverse.

Data from the 2014 Census Bureau reveals that, by 2020, "more than half of the nation's children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group." It seems Mattel has responded in kind, if the company's decision to mass-produce and distribute DuVernay’s doll is a sign of things ahead. It's a choice in line with a shift in branding for the company at large -- see, for example, Mattel’s recent collaboration with Italian luxury fashion house Moschino, for a promotional ad featuring a multi-ethnic cast and — wait for it — a boy. (It has long been noted that boys play with Barbies, so it looks like Mattel has boarded the train many have been riding for decades. Welcome!)

Now that you know what you know, are you looking to get your hands on a mini version of Director DuVernay? Well, cool your credit card. Consider this Barbie the second coming of Tickle Me Elmo a la '96, as the New York Daily News reports the doll, which retails for $65, sold out in less than 20 minutes. As The Grapevine Editor and The Root staff writer Yesha Callahan recently wrote about the rapid sellout, it's something Mattel should take seriously.

“People want to see dolls in their image and in the image of those people they admire," writes Callahan. "If Mattel wants to continue to make an impact, someone in its R&D department better start doling out ideas about how to jump on this.” So Mattel — challenge accepted, or nah?

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Meanwhile: If we can’t have Ava, we might as well have fun dreaming up options for who Mattel should recreate next. Tweet @KQEDPop your Barbie nominee and we may share your suggestion in a later post.

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