Up Next

Uplift

Is Mattel’s release of a Rosa Parks Barbie doll too little, too late?

Opinions are mixed, but better late than never, right?

Rosa Parks just got a Barbie doll, and it’s cool and weird at the same time.

Mattel’s gesture to honor Women’s Equality Day by adding civil rights activist Rosa Parks and pioneering astronaut Sally Ride to its Barbie Inspiring Women Collection was very commendable. This series, which includes aviator Amelia Earhart, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and painter Frida Kahlo, is part of Mattel’s initiative to highlight empowering and courageous role models and inspire young girls. The collection was launched on International Women’s Day in 2018. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Barbie’s debut.

This is a great message, and Parks is totally deserving of a doll. But releasing it in 2019 seems odd. Parks died in 2005, and Johnson is now 101 years old. The contributions they are being honored for happened more than 50 years ago, and even predate the debut of the first black Barbie doll in 1968. The honor just feels very late.

When asked about the timing of this release, Devin Tucker, a spokesperson for Mattel, told The Undefeated: “Both Sally Ride and Rosa Parks made the world better for future generations of girls. By celebrating their achievements with dolls made in their likeness, we hope girls will be inspired to pursue their dreams.”

Still, the dolls were met with mixed reactions.

India Anderson, a graduate of Hampton University, questioned the collection’s marketability to young girls in 2019.

“The average little girl is not going to play with a doll like that,” she said. “I love that black leaders are finally getting honored the way they deserve to be, but I feel it’s a little late for [especially] Rosa and Katherine to be getting dolls.”

Leenika Belfield-Martin, a senior at Hampton University, is skeptical of Mattel’s motives.

“When they [companies] do stuff like this, it does not come from a place of wanting to support a movement or person. It’s them riding whatever wave is going to make them look good and get people to buy their products,” she said. “Barbie was around when both of these women were in their prime. Why wait until now to release the dolls?”

Maya Gray, a graduate of Hampton University, used to play with Barbies when she was younger. She added, “It’s unfortunate that it’s happening now, but better late than never. I’m glad that these women are being cemented in history in another way. Barbie is progressive in a sense, with different sizes and whatnot, but not social justicewise.”

Supporters of the new dolls have been vocal as well. Actress Yvette Nicole Brown tweeted her excitement to buy the dolls, and Alabama congresswoman Laura Hall tweeted about their educational value.

Johnson’s story was highlighted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which was based on a book of the same name. The film described how she and three other black women contributed to the development of NASA’s space program and helped John Glenn become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Her doll was released in 2018. Parks is best known for her participation in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. She later became a national symbol for the civil rights movement and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

According to Mattel, by the age of 5, many girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as smart and start to question their own competence. Mattel has sought to reverse this trend (what it calls the “Dream Gap“) by showing girls more role models, historical and current, and telling their stories.

Although the contributions of Johnson and Parks have been well-recognized for years, many other notable figures got Barbie dolls before they did. Celebrities such as Diana Ross (2004), supermodel Naomi Campbell (1996) and rapper Nicki Minaj (2011) also have Barbie dolls in their likeness. Barbie produced a “Shero” line in 2015 that includes Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, tennis star Naomi Osaka and British boxing champion Nicola Adams.

The look of Parks, Johnson and the other dolls in the Inspiring Women Collection is most certainly different from the typical hip and sexy Barbie doll. Much like the Holiday and 60th Anniversary Barbie collections, they are dressed in fashion from the 1950s and ’60s — the periods in which they made history. Additionally, each doll comes with information about each woman’s contributions to society.

The price of the dolls is also different. The average Barbie costs around $9.99, but Inspiring Women Collection dolls cost $30.99 each. Some parents, such as Sylvia Nelson, are opting to buy two dolls, one as a collector’s item and one as a toy.

Nelson, who lives in Cincinnati, has three daughters; two are in high school and one is in middle school. She said she’d buy the Rosa Parks or Katherine Johnson dolls. The positive image they provide is important to her.

“I would have bought the dolls [when my daughters were] at that age,” Nelson said. “We used to buy black Barbie dolls all the time. I think the price is a little high, but I would probably buy them.”

Cincinnati resident Ebon Wilder, who has a boy and a girl under the age of 4, said she would also buy the dolls. However, she has one stipulation.

“I would buy it to keep it as a collector’s item,” she said. “I would pay that amount to say that I have a Rosa Parks Barbie doll. For my child to play with, I don’t think I would pay $30. Even if it is Rosa Parks.”

Wilder was also disappointed that she didn’t see more marketing for the dolls and hopes Mattel will include the historical figures in its multimedia projects.

“Where is the marketing for all of these Barbies that people may not know about? Barbie has been around forever, and I would be happier if [the figures] weren’t just in the Barbie doll collection. Barbie has books, DVDs and movies, so why can’t these historical figures and African Americans be featured in those things as well?”

Despite the different reactions, Parks is finally part of Barbie’s glamorous and controversial history. Perhaps this is a case to celebrate as better late than never.

Whitney, a senior journalism major from Cincinnati, works at Hampton’s on-campus radio station, WHOV 88.1 FM. She is also a play-by-play commentator for women’s basketball games and a color commentator for football and men’s basketball.