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Mattel’s New Black Barbie’s Hair Isn’t Offensive — It’s Just a Few Years Too Late

People were outraged by Mattel’s recent Instagram, but the style is more passé than objectionable.

Barbie’s new Fashionista collection
Barbie’s new Fashionista line features dolls of many skin tones and body types.
Photo: Mattel

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People are really in their feelings about a black Barbie doll’s hairdo. Last week, the Barbie Style Instagram posted a photo of three dolls enjoying a movie night. While the two white dolls, a platinum blonde and a brunette, wear their hair in simple ponytails, the black Barbie rocks a more avant-garde ’do: Part of her hair is black and cornrowed, and the other part is blonde and wavy.

Immediately, dozens of people replied to Mattel, saying that the doll’s hairstyle doesn’t represent black women. Some said that no black woman would style her hair like the Barbie in question. Others argued that it looks like the doll was mid-weave and forgot to sew in the remaining tracks. And a vocal contingent actually liked the hairstyle.

Barbie fans are so invested in the doll’s look that the Instagram post now has more than 850 comments, all with different takes on the style. But can any black doll represent all black women? Can any black woman?

If you argue that Michelle Obama’s hair is representative of black women, natural hair wearers may point to filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s locs instead. Praise a bottle blonde like Mary J. Blige or Beyoncé and someone may counter that a dark-haired black woman is a better example. There’s no winning this debate since black women are as diverse as their many hairstyles.

Shakira with part of her hair cornrowed, while the rest hangs loose.
Shakira’s hairstyle looks a lot like the black Barbie’s hairstyle that’s causing contentious debate.
Photo: John Parra/WireImage

The problem here isn’t that this particular doll’s hair doesn’t represent black women’s hair, it’s that the look she’s rocking is five years too late. Let’s rewind to 2013. That year, Rihanna, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cassie, Avril Lavigne, and Kesha all rocked the hairdo known as the Skrillex. Its namesake is the electronic music DJ who shaved one side of his hair and let the rest flow freely. Skrillex didn’t invent this hairstyle, which has punk roots; he’s simply the most recent high-profile person to wear it.

Rihanna’s hair took inspiration from DJ Skrillex
Rihanna performing with a side-shaved hairdo.

When Skrillex’s signature look took Hollywood by storm, some entertainers weren’t all in enough to shave off a third of their hair. Shakira, Kristen Stewart, and Carmen Electra replicated the Skrillex by cornrowing one section and leaving the rest loose. That’s likely this doll’s hairstyle inspiration. She’s a little bit Skrillex and a little bit Rihanna and Shakira. So much time has passed since the style’s heyday, however, that many people have simply forgotten it.

Still, a cursory search of “punk hairstyles” pulls the faux Skrillex right up. So don’t get mad at Mattel for purportedly misrepresenting black women. Get mad at Mattel for being a little slow — okay, a lot slow — on hairstyle trends. And if you hate this doll’s hair, it’s not as if she’s the only black doll available in its Fashonistas line.

Black dolls with Afros; Afro puffs; and a short bleached natural, à la Amber Rose, are part of Barbie’s new crew. Forty dolls of all races, with seven body types, 11 skin tones, and 28 hairstyles are featured.

Mattel launched the line of Barbies partly in response to years-long criticism that its dolls promoted unrealistic beauty standards. Now that it has an array of dolls, accept the fact that some of them you’ll dig and others you won’t. The important thing is that finally, you’ll have a few more options.