Walmart and the Barbie Wars

I spent a couple of fruitless hours this morning searching for a small square pillow that Adorable Child had when she was small. I never did find it, so I guess it’s been tossed (not surprising, since the last time I saw it, it was fraying and stained from many years’ use).

This, though, is what set off the fruitless hunt (from ABC via memeorandum):

A photo first posted to the humor Web site FunnyJunk.com and later to the Latino Web site Guanabee.com shows packages of Mattel’s Ballerina Barbie and Ballerina Theresa dolls hanging side by side at an unidentified store. The Theresa dolls, which feature brown skin and dark hair, are marked as being on sale at $3.00. The Barbies to the right of the Theresa dolls, meanwhile, retain their original price of $5.93. The dolls look identical aside from their color.

The picture was apparently taken in a Walmart in Louisiana, and the store says that the black doll is marked down because it’s a slower seller — that they have to clear shelf space for the spring inventory.

I believe them. That’s how retail works. But even though the dolls do not “look identical aside from their color” to me, the visuals aren’t so hot in our highly race-sensitive world.

“The implication of the lowering of the price is that’s devaluing the black doll,” said Thelma Dye, the executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development, a Harlem, N.Y. organization founded by pioneering psychologists and segregation researchers Kenneth B. Clark and Marnie Phipps Clark.[...]

Other experts agree. Walmart could have decided “that it’s really important that we as a company don’t send a message that we value blackness less than whiteness,” said Lisa Wade, an assistant sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the founder of the blog Sociological Images. [...]

Now I’m no fan of Walmart, but expecting them to manage pricing, inventory, and profits based on the varying skin tones of the dolls they’re selling is absurd. If something isn’t selling, a retailer’s options don’t generally include marking down the higher-selling item to match. Leaving the pricing the same, I suppose, was another option… but eventually all the accumulated dust on the non-seller would tell the same story, would it not?

So yes, as an inventory item, the black doll is worth less to the retailer than the white one. But why is it that the white doll sells faster (my emphasis)?

Last year, Wade posted a blog entry on another case where a black doll was apparently priced less than its white counterpart at an unidentified store. Wade said that when white dolls outsell black dolls, it’s usually because black parents are more likely than white parents to buy their children dolls of a different race.

Most white parents wouldn’t think to buy a black doll for their child, even if they believe in equality and all those things,” she said.

That, right there, is what kicked off my hunt for that pillow — because the pillow had a picture of a black Barbie on it, while Adorable Child (AC) is white. And while I didn’t find the pillow, I did find a box that has the remnants of her Barbie doll collection.

Only two have survived the years:

Barbie Wars

I know for a fact that we’re not unique… so either many of my friends and I are not “most white parents”, or there are some questionable assumptions here.

I suspect it’s some of both.

Are there self-image problems with young black girls? Yes, absolutely — as well as with young white girls. But the source of these problems is not Walmart… and even if every retailer on the planet was willing to absorb inventory loss in favor of race-conscious visuals, retailers can’t solve the underlying issues.

Because the little girls who want Barbie dolls aren’t reading price tags; parents are. The little girls who like Barbies don’t react to side-by-side pricing or inventory management sales. Parents do.

It’s not little children who make judgments about ethnicity. It’s adults… and focusing on Walmart is merely a dodge for their own culpability.

Author: POLIMOM

6 Comments

  1. “Most white parents wouldn’t think to buy a black doll for their child, even if they believe in equality and all those things,” she [Wade] said.

    I really have to wonder if Dr Wade said this without actually thinking about what she was saying. I went to her blog, the one cited in the ABC story, and nowhere in that post does she say anything even close to her current comment. The closest she came:

    I’ve never seen any evidence, short of that anecdotal clip, that “white dolls sell faster to people of all skin colors.” I don’t know if it’s true.

    So she's either contradicting herself or doesn't know what she's talking about. That study cited in the ABC story was actually pretty insightful, but I'm not aware if it has ever since been replicated, at least in a scientifically valid way. But the overall point is that some people out there will do almost anything to look for racial overtones where none actually exist.

  2. Let's go through every store everywhere ever and investigate whether the pricing is fiscally motivated or could be accidentally sending the wrong message!

    *NEVER MIND the concept of teaching kids to think rationally, reasonable or thoroughly on matters of appearances vs. inner qualities – takes too much time!*

    I hate everything forever.

  3. Huh. I dunno, I'm pretty sure we didn't have any non-white Barbies in our house but I never thought of that as sending any sort of message (I never really gave it much thought one way or another.) Now that I am thinking of it, it seems that it would have felt rather forced to buy the African American Barbies when that wasn't what my daughter asked for. I remember when there was also a fuss over the dumb blonde image, so Mattel came up with a Math teacher Barbie which was supposed to help our girls gain the edge in math and science…that seemed rather silly and contrived to me too.

    I guess in general, I rather thought of the Barbie phase as something you concede to during a certain time in the life of daughters, and meanwhile round her out with lots of good real world experiences and sneak in some educational toys and lots of good books.

    It seems to have worked out for us so far, and the lack of racial diversity in my eldest's Barbie collection hasn't stopped her from developing a racial colorblindness which makes me quite proud.

  4. It's funny, CStanley, how kids pick toys sometimes. Giving too much weight to Barbies is (obviously) a bad idea.

    OTOH, there's something very sad about watching a little girl identify a doll as “the ugly one” or “the bad one”, and then associate that doll with herself. I have a video as part of another post at my blog (link) that made me cry the first time I watched it.

    That doll test has been run again, recently, btw — and the results are better. Somewhat.

  5. And if the Black Barbie was priced higher, they would be critisized for that.

    Walmart is an EVIL COMPANY, and so is guilty under any and all circumstances.

  6. I hadn't seen the 'doll study' before, and I agree that it's very sad. However, I still question whether parents choosing to give their kids black dolls would help at all- since it's clearly the kids who are (sadly) choosing that way. It seems to me that the doll effect is the secondary problem that has to be addressed in other ways to promote a more positive self image.

    Don't get me wrong though…I think it's absolutely a positive development that there are multicultural dolls available, and movies with positive role models, etc. I just tend to think that kids have to grow into the values involved in making those choices, and sometimes that can't be pushed.

    I tend to be this way across the board…for instance, my daughter went through, in her early tween years, the tendency to imitate the latest style in clothing and hairstyle (had to get the 'in' brands of clothing and had the uniform hairstyle of girls these days, long straightened locks.) I wanted to scream at times but let her indulge in it somewhat because that was her comfort zone during a very uncomfortable time of early adolescence. Through gentle encouragement and her own emerging self confidence, though, she quickly passed through that stage and began displaying her own style including a short pixie hair style that suits her so well.

    Anyway…another comment about the film clip on your other post is that a lot of what the girls were expressing seemed to me to reflect overall cultural body image stuff of girls and women today, though in the context of their African American experiences. I've seen other studies that indicate that African American and Hispanic women tend to be more comfortable with their curvy bodies, for instance, while white women have the biggest issues with weight and curves. So in that sense…it's still sad to hear the girls talk about the pressures on them but they seem to me to be just one variety of pressure which all girls in our culture experience in one way or another.

    I find the hair stuff to be interesting though…I do think that's a unique African American issue that must be tough. I've actually found it surprising (in a good way) that this hasn't come up more with Michelle Obama and her girls. I would think that she'd be getting some heat from some quarters for straightening her hair (trying to look more 'white') while obviously if she wore it more natural she'd be mocked by hateful bigots for a 'ghetto' look.

Submit a Comment