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Multicultural Barbies: A Changing World

Updated on August 22, 2014

Barbie Grows More Diverse

What's the function of Barbie -- besides old-fashioned play? Does Barbie allow us to see ourselves, and what we can aspire to be, or what we could never be (and should never want)? The question isn't that simple, because Barbie herself comes in so many forms.

Recently, I've come across photos of women from around the world, beaming out at the camera with Barbie-type dolls (not necessarily true Mattel Barbies) in hand. What does that doll represent to them?

I've also come across some Barbies that are very different from the ones I grew up with: different in their facial features and/ or body type, not just coloring. There have always been anti-Barbies, deliberately seeking to challenge Barbie stereotypes and foster different ideals in young girls. But as the debates rage on, Barbie herself steps out of the mold.

Here are some of the most intriguing fashion dolls I've come across, and also some notes about fair trade doll clothing and about using Barbie to role play diversity issues. Surprisingly, some of the more realistic dolls are a part of Mattel's Barbie line.

Barbie "So in Style"

Barbie "So in Style" dolls are different than traditional black play Barbies. Their face molds are more typical of African women: broader noses, fuller lips. They also come in several skin tones and hair styles, with hair ranging from auburn to true black. They were designed by an African American woman who wants her little girl to play with dolls that looked like the girls and women in her community. She designed them to be authentic, but also "cool". These new Barbies are made in the Barbie tradition. Their makeup suits their complexions, but its quite liberally applied -- and they have quite an eye for fashion. What's important -- and what may help us look past the glamor -- is that they are perceived as desirable by young girls of multiple races. Many mothers, too, are grateful for the representation.

The S.I.S line is not without its controversy. Some have criticized the hair. Several have long sleek tresses. Neither her hair nor her figure look like the average woman. Has Mattel gone far enough in teaching young girls to appreciate themselves as they are? I think, at the least, it's a step in the right direction. Little girls want Barbies, and they tend to want pretty ones with fancy tresses. Traditional Barbies probably look less like Caucasian girls than these dolls look like African American girls. If they looked like the average woman in the supermarket, they probably wouldn't compete with the white Barbie -- which don't look like the average woman in the supermarket either. I had to laugh at (or with) the Amazon reviewer who gave the dolls an overall favorable review, saying now her Barbie-obsessed daughter can get her unrealistic notions of beauty from a doll more like herself.

The SIS Line - New Line of Black Barbies

Barbie So In Style S.I.S Grace Doll
Barbie So In Style S.I.S Grace Doll

The line has evolved and changed. This Grace appears darker than the one I first came to know. Her hair is wavy; it's a style that I have seen out in the real world, but it's not quite natural. One thing I like about this particular model: The price is within reach of the average family.


Using Barbie to Teach Empathy and Understanding

This mom uses a very diverse set of fashion dolls to act out life lessons with her five-year-old.

Video: A Closer Look at SIS Barbies

The designer of the Mattel So in Style talks about wanting to create dolls that her grandmother would be proud of and that would let her little girl feel good about who she is. She says that it was important that the dolls be connected with the Barbie line -- girls feel good about having a Barbie.

Donate an SIS Barbie

SIS is the official doll of The Black Doll Affair. Donate a doll so that African American girls can have a doll to aspire to.

Face Molds: Creating an Ethnic Representation

This writer notes that the SIS faces are, in fact, not new, but appeared on dolls for adult collector's. (You can see the mold on Princesses of the World: South Africa -- a doll that I find absolutely gorgeous)

One way to get a realistic representation for a child is to look at what's being marketed to adult collectors!

Kenya Fashion Doll

The Kenya fashion doll is a newcomer to the 11.5 inch doll market. She comes in light and dark African skin tones. Her hair is also variable in styling. On the one end, we see long tresses that are ever-so-slightly wavy -- on the other, a full, proud Afro. Two dolls, Rock Star and Movin On, have tightly curled hair. It's the hair, more than the skin or features, that makes this doll unique.

Best friend Denise, who I recently saw offered online for the first time, has a different face mold with a broader nose. It may just be me -- but her face reminds me a bit of the Barbie fashionista line. (Yes, these gals, too, are fashion-savvy.)

The company also makes male fashion dolls.

Sometimes Barbie Represents Economic Opportunity - (In this case, perhaps we can overlook those blue eyes.)

Fashion Dolls from Maker Faire Africa
Fashion Dolls from Maker Faire Africa

Fair Trade Fashion Doll Clothing

It's far easier to sew doll clothing than to mold an authentic doll -- and there are women around the world making beautiful clothing. Would you rather give less support to Mattel... and a little more to to artisans in less wealthy areas of the world?

Barbie Touches Lives Around the World

Muslim Fashion Dolls

...And a Personal Recollection

Here is Razanne, one of two dolls that is sometimes called a Muslim Barbie... and here is my personal connection.

I've tutored (indeed, home schooled) children from a devout Muslim background. I remember the children's aunt arriving in head-to-toe black, with only her eyes revealed. I remember her bringing the children presents bought from a U.S. store. The kindergarten girl received something that many kindergartners would squeal with delight over. Her package held toy animals, not Barbies (puppies, perhaps?) but they were pastel -- a little girl's dream -- and came in a pink and purple box rather reminiscent of Barbie.

Differences mask similarities. Ah, the allure of that purple box!

Image Credits

This page isn't finished yet. But first a message from our... well, not our sponsors... our benefactors.

Barbies of the World: The Princess Collection

I've mixed feelings about little girls and princesses, but there's no doubt they love them -- my little niece has two off-brand Barbies in showy princess-satin.

Are princesses all fair skinned? Of course not! This Cambodian doll, from the Mattel line that introduced princesses of the world, has 20 favorable reviews and a five star rating. One is from a woman who is half Cambodian herself.

Barbie Poll: I Want my Child to Have...

What Type of Barbie is Right for your Child?

See results

Video: Two What Extent Do Children Share Our Perceptions?

Do dolls represent the same things to children that they do to adults? It probably depends on the child. This video shows two sides of the issue. A nine-year-old expresses that it's important to have a doll that looks like her. Meanwhile a five-year-old (white, but short haired) explains how important long hair is on Barbie. She declares that the skin color isn't important, but that Ken's not much fun because of the short hair.

Creating Barbie's World

Multiethnic Barbies
Multiethnic Barbies

But who's not pictured here? Older characters? Children? Those who don't have Barbie figures?

Barbies of the World: Interview

The interview here is with a designer who is Burmese, but grew up in California.

American Teen

Barbie can have a diverse group of friends. Here is a doll that breaks the mold in more than one way. Like many modern Americans, she carries just a bit of extra. weight. The clothes she's pictured in here are far from glamorous. (Similar dolls are available in Caucasian and African American models -- male and female.)

Barbie Grandma

This is another one that's made by Mattel -- Happy Family Grandma. She has a slightly stockier figure, which makes her look more real. There is a black grandpa doll as well. Both are complete with quite a lot of baby accessories.

Mixis: Multi Ethnic Fashion Dolls

Mixis dolls are fashion dolls, comparable to Barbie. There are some important differences. Each one represents a woman of mixed ancestry and has features of two different ethnic groups (though not necessarily two races).

You can buy the dolls in denim or in sundresses. A limited collection of heritage dresses is available. If you click on the "Sunshine Collection" dolls, you can read about the ethnic background of each. Rosa Dominguez Katz has Latin American and Jewish roots. Emerald Okada is part black, part Native American. Opal Nkrumah has mixed British and African (Ghanaian roots), and you can choose curls or straight hair. Her story says that her parents met in Doctors Without Borders. As for Houda Degas, she's French/ Lebanese.

The dolls have natural (though slim) figures.

Yue Sai Wa Wa

Career Barbie may only come in black and white,but there's Yue Sai, shown here in physician outfit. Yue Sai was designed by a Chinese woman. Most of the dolls that I've seen have a glamorous look to them. You can find her set to head out into nature as protector of the pandas.

Only Hearts Club - Barbie Alternative... or Barbie Complement

The Only Hearts girls, with their wholesome little-girl look, are sometimes seen as an alternative to Barbie. They represent elementary-aged girls, though, not teenagers. At about nine inches, they fit well in Barbie scale -- as a younger sister, a daughter, a student.

This line portrays modern girls of different races. Two of the eight dolls are African American. (One has black hair, the other auburn.) They have sometimes been criticized for having European features, but I think they do far more good than harm. It looks to me like most dolls have been made from the same face mold. An exception is Hannah Faith, who is of Asian ancestry.

Child Dolls in Barbie Scale - In Varied Skin Tones

This mom shows dark toned dolls (infant to teenage) in approximately 1:6 scale. It's the same mom who wrote the post about using Barbies to teach empathy. She and her daughter act out scenarios regularly. I think it's very creative how she has incorporated dolls from different lines. She did, though, leave out a personal favorite: those beautiful Only Hearts Club dolls, who make very realistic stand-ins for children in the eight- to ten-year-old range. (I pictured the Asian Only Hearts Club doll, but there are also two African American dolls.)

Your Thoughts?

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    • profile image

      Chelly Wood 

      4 years ago

      I created a Lebanese Barbie for my cousin. My pattern is free to download on my website (just google my name if you're curious). It was fun to research traditional Lebanese costumes and come up with something on my own. But my favorite part was when my cousin unwrapped her gift -- the look on her face was priceless!

    • Jogalog profile image


      7 years ago

      I also didn't know there were such a wide selection of barbies. It's great that they are not all the same any more. I wasn't allowed a barbie as a child because my mum thought they were too unrealistic.

    • sudokunut profile image

      Mark Falco 

      7 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      I had no idea Barbie was so multicultural.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      7 years ago from Canada

      I had no idea that there were such a wide selection of ethnic and international Barbies. You covered this subject so well.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      7 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Good to see variety is being offered. Don't know of anyone who looked like or had a figure like the original Barbie.

    • nancyrowina profile image

      Nancy Farrell 

      7 years ago from Isle Of Wight

      Interesting to see how the ethnic Barbie dolls have changed, when I was young (in the 80's) the ethnic Barbies were the same face just in a different colored plastic. It's good to see they are making more effort these days.

    • angelsigh profile image


      7 years ago

      I love your lens. I always love to hear others opinions about my fav doll. Barbie has come a long way from where she started.Not to many toys have molded themselves that way. Thank you so much for your insightful lens.

    • SmartyGirlRenee profile image


      7 years ago

      I also appreciate Samurai Ken as part of the Multicultural Barbie series. I saw Samurai Ken at a Los Angeles Target store. His shoulders are twice as wide as the original Ken and he has manly stubble. Ken is finally handsome!

    • fugeecat lm profile image

      fugeecat lm 

      7 years ago

      Great lens! I think it would be great to have a barbie doll from everywhere. I have to admit I never played with Barbie's as a child. My friends had them, but my mom just wouldn't get them for me. I think it had more to do with the cost of a barbie, she didn't think it was that practicle.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I have heard the discussions about black, and brown dalls, among my family members.

      Good lens.

    • jimbarnes lm profile image

      jimbarnes lm 

      7 years ago

      wonderful lenses

    • KarenTBTEN profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      @KeepsakeIdeas: Thanks. I do think that is a grey-haired Barbie in the group shot, but it rather looks like she went gray prematurely, doesn't it? There's a Barbie Grandma that has grey hair, but I don't think she's currently being made, so the ones that are floating around are a bit pricey.

      I will drop back in on the Brunette Barbie page...

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I love the variety of Barbie dolls. I'm glad they are moving to reflect the multi-cultural world.

      Beautiful lens!

    • KarenTBTEN profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      @KeepsakeIdeas: Thanks!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm not sure if my last comment went through but came back as there was a video I wanted to share with you. I don't want to leave a random link but if you type Black Doll White Doll the first two results are the videos I'm talking about. Makes for thought-provoking (and sad) viewing.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Fantastic! If you don't mind, this is the perfect page for me to link to from my Brunette Barbie page. I mentioned there that I was talking specifically about dark haired dolls with pale skin tones, as I knew the so-called ethnic Barbies deserved a lens of their own, and I'm glad to have found that lens and so beautifully made too.

      I think I did spot an 'older' Barbie with silver hair in that group shot above (or is she just a platinum blonde?) but she is slim, attractive and trendy so even if I'm right in thinking she's supposed to be an older lady she's not one that many 50+ women would identify with, particularly the long hair. I feel strongly that dolls need to be more realistic in both body proportions and facial features, they can still have gorgeous fashions and hair that can be styled without all looking like a very limited image of beauty taken to freakish extremes.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Excellent lens. Lots of information well presented.

    • BuddyBink profile image


      7 years ago

      It is good that there are the multicultural dolls now. It is an excellent way for young children to learn there are differences even though we are all basically the same. Thanks

    • dwnovacek profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens - Angel Blessings!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It's about time Barbie started representing the diversity of the world and not just white America.

    • victoriuh profile image


      7 years ago

      Very thorough! I love dolls of all kinds.

    • MaryQuinlin profile image


      7 years ago

      One of the nicest things about dolls is that you get to determine what your doll represents, individually.

    • MaryQuinlin profile image


      7 years ago

      I have always loved Barbie and saw her in a different way than some who opposed the doll. I'm curios if anyone remembers Barbie Bazaar magazine. You've shown some beautiful dolls --very nicely done!

    • SoniaCarew profile image


      7 years ago

      Fabulous! I would not mind a couple of proudly Namibian Barbies that represent the different Namibian tribes like Herero,San and especially Himba.

      Great lens!!!

    • BunnyFabulous profile image

      Erin Hardison 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      I'm glad that there are multicultural Barbies and representations of a wide range of ethnicities in other doll lines now too. American Girl dolls seem to have branched out too. I hadn't heard of many of the dolls you mentioned. Great to know about them.

    • bluefire1020 profile image


      7 years ago

      It is indeed excellent to have multicultural barbies, it doesn't only give fun to the little girls but it also educates them. Nice lens, thanks for sharing! =)

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 

      7 years ago

      Love these mutlicultural Barbie dolls, many thanks :)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very wonderful lens.

    • wheresthekarma profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens! I think it's important for kids to learn all about different cultures and that it's good to have friends of many races.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is a great representation on how far big brand companies have come to recognize all race and ethnicity through the products they sell. I think it is definitely a step in the right direction. Great lens, I did not know of many of these Barbie Dolls, thanks for sharing.

    • Shorebirdie profile image


      7 years ago from San Diego, CA

      I think it's cool to have so many different kinds of Barbies. I love the costumes and the hair.

    • Frischy profile image


      7 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      I enjoyed the beautiful dolls representing other cultures. Fun lens!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Heard over the weekend that Iran doesn't allow barbie's now in their country.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      While I don't like the idea of anorexic Barbie, I have to admit that some kids love her (and Ken) and other kids just don't take to her. The multicultural Barbie is definitely a step forward - is the next step, unphotoshopped Barbie?

    • katiecolette profile image


      8 years ago

      Great lens! A collection of multicultural Barbies sounds like fun and a good way to introduce kids to other cultures :)


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