Black is definitely no longer considered beautiful in the world marketed to us by corporate media. The Black aesthetic has been “Barbied” out of the marketplace. For example, implants, probable skin lightening, coloured contacts, and blonde hair have rendered songstress Nicki Minaj, physically, into another woman entirely.
Only two short decades ago, Black women graced both the charts and videos that provided the imagery for the country's biggest rap, hip-hop and R&B groups. Performers like SWV, En Vogue, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Zhane', and Adina Howard lit up airwaves, magazines, and television stations. Their visages represented the diverse colours of Black beauty. In the early twenty-first century, however, that sundry Black beauty has given way to a new crop of racially ambiguous performers representing the rise of the Pseudo-White Barbie.
The Pseudo-White Barbie look is now ubiquitous in popular music and the entertainment industry. Its symptoms range from the explosion of blonde hair on Black performers to the increasingly bizarre racial engineering that characterises artists like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and Lil' Kim. "Black is Beautiful" is long gone, at least in the media and in the entertainment industry; instead, we are witnessing a transformation that, I argue, is already leading to the blotting out of Black women in the popular imagination.
There is nothing racially neutral about the evolution of Barbie. Before we address the creation of the Pseudo-White Barbie, we must understand the roots of the Barbie phenomenon and the symbolic importance of blondeness as the symbol of white supremacy in the world of female beauty.
Barbie burst onto the burgeoning toy scene in 1959. Initially, both a blonde and brunette version was produced. In just a few short years, the adult-like Barbie took the doll market by storm. Eventually, the blonde version of the doll dominated the market, and Blonde Barbie has come to represent the gold standard of American beauty for generations of young girls. Blonde Barbie acted as a miniature "white goddess." And though Barbie is viewed today as quintessentially American, the doll's roots can be traced back to the racial imagination of Hitler's Third Reich.
During a trip through post-war Germany in the 1950s, American businesswoman Ruth Handler discovered an adult novelty that captured her imagination. Handler had come across a Bild Lilli doll. Modelled after a serial cartoon character, the busty and blonde Lilli, according to several authors, was essentially a sex doll. More than that though, Lilli represented the continued German fascination with Aryan/Nordic symbols of female beauty. Hitler's obsession with race and "pure blood" acted as the cornerstone of Nazism. The Teutonic blonde with blue eyes symbolized the very pinnacle of female German beauty, with renderings and pictures of such women adorning propaganda posters and beauty parlours throughout the Reich. Despite Nazism's fall, its beauty standards found continued expression in a booming post-war America.
From Aryan to American
Bild Lilli was easy to Americanise into Barbie for a number of reasons, chief among them being that blonde hair already carried powerful racial connotations in America. The "ultimate symbol of western femininity" belonged to the blonde. During the mid-twentieth century, Hollywood introduced "Blonde Bombshells" to a public increasingly weaning itself on popular media: Jean Harlowe, Marlene Dietrich, Brigette Bardot, Jayne Mansfield, and Marilyn Monroe all represented this sought after American ideal. Bild Lilli easily made the cultural crossover to Barbie in the fertile soil of white supremacist America.
Blondness carried powerful connotations in America, as it did in Germany during the early twentieth century. According to historian Julie Willett, "While the popularity of blondeness posed obvious contradictions, in that it signified purity in contrast to dark hair and dark skin and embraced a more sensual and sexual self, it also provided women with the means to break from a particular past."
With the later rise of the Black Barbie, a similar scenario seemed to play out. Was the spreading popularity of blonde hair on black women an attempt to break from the past? As we will see, it does not seem to be related to efforts to embrace "purity," but perhaps it is an effort to deal with the penetration of non-black women into spheres where black beauty used to be more accepted.
Efforts to "claim" Barbie reaffirm white supremacy, the blonde ideal and key tenants of consumer culture. For the Black Barbie persona is but one stage in the "disappearing" of black women from the popular imagination.
From Black Barbie to Pseudo-White Barbie
The actual Black Barbie appeared in 1980 as essentially a white Barbie dipped in chocolate. Incredibly, in 1997, another Black Barbie with the unfortunate name of "Oreo Barbie" arrived on shelves for a short time. It was later discovered that Black Barbie dolls were selling in stores for about half the price of white Barbie dolls. Black Barbie, while ostensibly representing "diversity," could not challenge the idea of white supremacy that is at the heart of the Barbie legacy itself.
By the early twenty-first century, the Black Barbie look and persona began to penetrate the ranks of African American artists. Several Black artists adopted parts of the Barbie persona, while also attempting to leave their own mark on the Barbie legacy. Atlanta rapper, Diamond, is known for her thorough embracing of the Barbie mystique-with a "Dirty South" twist. New York rapper, Azealia Banks, also toyed with the Barbie persona. Her song Barbie Shit, in many ways, encapsulates hip-hop's take on the Barbie lifestyle.
If Barbie embraced post-war consumerism, Banks' Barbie embraces hyper-consumerism: "What up? I fucks with all things monetary. My urge for the dough is involuntary. I need that cream like Ben and Jerry." If Barbie has long maintained a somewhat disguised sexual allure, Banks' Barbie fully displays her sexuality: "I like freaky-deaky shit, so a freaky bitch (keep uh...) Big-dick niggas at the top of my buddy list."
However, unlike Diamond and other hip-hop stars, Banks is dark skinned. Her embrace of Barbie also seems more illusory. Three other more prominent stars more fully realise the Black Barbie phenomena-and its metamorphism.
The first of these three artists, rapper Lil' Kim, initially popularised the Black Barbie look. Like Diamond and Banks, Kim appropriated the Barbie image in her own way. As writers at Racialicous point out, "Lil' Kim is both a woman who calls herself Barbie and a woman who raps about going to jail and identifying with Malcolm X."
Like Beyonce and especially Nicki Minaj, Kim turns the white middle class respectability that Barbie represents on its head. In her song The Jump Off Kim drops lines like, "Black Barbie dressed in Bvlgari, I'm tryin to leave in somebody's Ferrari…. Our presence is felt like a Black Panther movement seven quarter to eights back to back with 'em (Back to back) And I'm sittin on chrome seven times platinum." This is a radical take on the Barbie legacy; however, far more radical is Kim's Barbie-like transformation from a recognizably black woman to a Pseudo-White Barbie.
Kim turns the white middle class respectability that Barbie represents on its head.
In a little of over a decade and a half, Kim physically transformed herself. Through a variety of cosmetic surgeries and skin bleaching, Lil' Kim became-not a Black Barbie-but a Pseudo-White Barbie. In 2011, Kim posed for a birthday portrait explicitly showing her as Barbie. The portrait is not that of a recognizably Black woman, but of a Pseudo-White woman-complete with flowing blonde hair, surgically altered facial features, pale skin, and crystal blue eyes. Kim's strange racial transformation prefigures that of the other two artists who symbolize the devolution of the Black Barbie phenomena: Beyonce and Nicki Minaj.
Beyonce, in her own way, also represented the early rise of the real-life Black Barbie. Initially, as part of Destiny's Child, Beyonce appeared very much as she was-a light-skinned black woman. Over time, however, she phased-out her dark hair in favour of a now seemingly permanent bleached blonde look. She also almost-certainly underwent surgery to narrow her nose. In recent years, Beyonce's skin has appeared increasingly lighter in a variety of advertisements and promotions-in many cases rendering her almost totally unrecognisable. Author Ben Arogundade writes that Beyonce's "racial ambiguity" has long been her "key selling point." He also states that her extremely lightened photographs do not offer proof of skin bleaching; perhaps lighting techniques or Photoshop are to blame.
This latter observation misses the point. Whether through skin lightening or Photoshop, Beyonce's radically changed appearance is the result of racial engineering. She is also far from the first or last Black celebrity to adopt the platinum blonde look or to become increasingly racially ambiguous. Among many others, Nicki Minaj represents perhaps the ultimate transformation from Black Barbie to Pseudo-White Barbie.
Nicki Minaj took the world by storm in 2010 with her debut album Pink Friday, which eventually went to number one on the charts. Minaj is known for her alter egos. Pink Friday features one of her most widely known: the "Harajuku Barbie." Minaj explains, "All girls are Barbies. We all want to play dress-up. We all want to put on lipstick and be cute and sexy…. I love the Harajuku culture. The way they dress is the way I feel inside."
Minaj's style is seemingly a combination of Harajuku fashion (as she understands it) and the pink and blonde world of Barbie. As time has passed, though, Minaj's own physical appearance has changed in way that has little to do with anything emanating from Japan. Implants, probable skin lightening, colored contacts, and blonde hair have rendered Minaj, physically, into another woman entirely.
"All the mainstream attention Minaj's self-proclaimed 'Harajuku Barbie' image has attracted is extremely problematic. Her Barbie-like small waist coupled with her Venus Hottentot backside and almost-always Marilyn Monroe blonde hair certainly sends mixed messages regarding black beauty values," according to Ronda Penrice of the Grio.
Brande Victorian of MadameNoire directly addresses the implications of Minaj's racial transformation into a Pseudo-White Barbie. "I know mainstream success and acceptance by white America is the Holy Grail for so many black artists, but when you get it this way, I have to question whether it's a triumph at all. Sure, deep down she knows she's Black (maybe), but does the audience? Or are they more comfortable with her being a pink girl with a blonde wig and an English accent that looks just like any other Barbie, rather than a threatening Black woman?"
There are now official Barbie dolls for both Nicki Minaj and Beyonce. Although the Beyonce doll is supposed to represent her look from the Destiny's Child era, it in no way resembles the way she looked during the group's existence. On Amazon's website, a gallery of customer images of the Beyonce doll can be viewed. Prominent among them is an image of the doll-almost undistinguishable from the white Barbie-with a blue- eyed white Ken doll dressed as Superman.This image perfectly captures the final packaging and selling of the Pseudo-White Barbie.
As the Black, and finally the Pseudo-White Barbie, rose in recent years, recogniSably Black women have become increasingly scarce in the media and the public imagination. Even in the realm of "Urban Literature," where depictions of Black women graced the multitude of the covers, the bleached blonde Pseudo-White Barbie has appeared. Charting this phenomenon is the subject of part two of this story.
On the back jacket of Toni Morrison's classic 1972 novel it reads: "The Bluest Eye is the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove – a black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others - who prays for her eyes to turn blue: so that she will be beautiful, so that people will look at her, so that her world will be different. This is the story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning and the tragedy of its fulfilment."
The destructive legacy of Barbie and the white supremacist beauty standard is now abetted by racial engineering, be it through physical "enhancement" or through the lens of Hollywood and the fashion world. Terms like "diversity" "inclusion" and "personal choice" cannot be allowed to close our eyes to the dynamics of racial power that make themselves felt, not only in the world of adults, but in the worlds of our children. The selling of the Pseudo-White Barbie is the selling of white supremacy. Understanding it is the first step in deconstructing it.
* Sean Posey is a photographer, activist, and historian. This article first appeared on the website of The Hampton Institute think tank.