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The World According To Barbie

Barbie gets a great shot of a little African American girl "full of hope, gazing at Dr. King."

We know the little girl's race not from the text, but from an illustration that shows her with her dad; the two are noticeably darker than anyone else in the book. The closest we get to finding out that Christie herself is black, however, is when she remarks that the bright-eyed girl "looks like me when I was little."

In "Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll" -- one of the first books in a series aimed to offer, as one of its creators puts it, "history through the Barbie filter" -- Barbie and her African American friend Christie are both illustrated with pink skin and long, straight hair, above. "There's nothing in the art that Mattel doesn't want there," says the book's publisher.

And given her Barbie-pink complexion -- well, it's easy to assume she's just talking about those hopeful, shining eyes.

'Whimsical Characters'

Asked how the decision to portray Christie this way was made, Barbie's handlers can be a bit defensive.

That's a question for Random House, says author Lowery, who suggests a call to Klimo.

Actually, it's a question for Mattel, says Klimo, who advises that Vicki Jaeger, marketing manager for Mattel Brands consumer products, is the person to ask.

"We felt that the illustrations were whimsical characters," says Jaeger, who uses the word "whimsical" four times as she explains the difference between the Barbie artwork and, say, portraits by the Dutch Masters -- the kind intended to be "an exactly true depiction of a person." Mattel public relations director Stacey Gomoljak steps in to suggest a talk with illustrator Ann Field.

Reached at her Santa Monica, Calif., studio, Field declines to speak for publication. She's an approved Mattel illustrator and would prefer to remain one. Back to Random House, then, for a last word:

"There's nothing in the art that Mattel doesn't want there," Klimo says.

What, then, are we to make of this corporate color scheme? By now it shouldn't be surprising that opinions vary. Or that, as with Barbie and women's rights, Mattel's history can support conflicting points of view.

"You're kidding!" exclaims M.G. Lord when told of Christie's whimsical pinkening. But then Lord comes to Mattel's defense. After the 1965 Watts riots, she notes, the company provided financial support and expert advice to a black-run Los Angeles startup called Shindana Toys. Shindana, as Lord wrote in "Forever Barbie," made "multicultural playthings before they were trendy." She portrays Mattel's effort to help as significant and sincere.

Occidental College anthropologist Elizabeth Chin, who teaches a course called "The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie," has a more skeptical view of the toymaker. "They're only as far into civil rights as is going to make them a buck," Chin says, adding that the company tries to "play it both ways" on race. Yes, there are non-white Barbies, and yes, she has multicultural friends. But in the end, "white Barbie is still the star."

The whole question of portraying different races with dolls is "deeply problematic," says English and African American studies professor Ann duCille of Wesleyan University, whose book "Skin Trade" includes a long chapter on Barbie. "It really can be done only through stereotypes." Then duCille tells the story of the "ethnically correct" dolls Mattel introduced in 1991.

As it geared up to launch its Shani line, the company hired as a consultant Darlene Powell Hopson, a psychologist who had done extensive work on children and dolls. Hopson recommended that the Shani dolls be produced in a variety of skin tones, not just one. Mattel went along with this. But when it came to the dolls' hair, which Hopson also wanted to make more realistic, the toymaker drew the line.

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