Can Barbie's New Ida B. Wells Doll Live Up to Her Legacy?

The Ida B. Wells doll is Mattel's newest addition to Barbie's Inspiring Women Series, but skeptics wonder if the symbolic action is enough to prove the company’s commitment to social change.

Mattel's Barbie recently announced that journalist, suffragist, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells is the latest addition to their Inspiring Women Series.

The brand collaborated with Wells descendants on the doll, including her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, who is a public historian and author. "My brother Dan and I worked closely with Barbie to ensure the doll was sculpted in her likeness and that her accomplishments and legacy were properly reflected," says Duster noting the family was honored by the decision to commemorate Wells and inspire a new generation.

The Inspiring Women Series, which debuted in 2018, contains a collection of historical and present-day changemakers including Dr. Maya Angelou, Amelia Earhart, and Frida Kahlo. Releasing the Ida B. Wells doll is in line with Barbie's effort to spotlight more Black female role models and correct a history that failed to represent people of color.

Most agree Wells, who led an anti-lynching campaign, co-founded both the National Association of Colored Women Club (NACWC) and the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP) is certainly worth celebrating. But the doll—which will be available at major retailers by January 17—leaves some skeptical.

Mattel hopes that a new partnership with Girls Write Now, an equity-focused mentoring organization that uses storytelling to promote healing, and work through the Barbie Dream Gap Project, will help assure skeptics of its commitment to inclusivity. In recent years, the Barbie Dream Gap Project has supported Black Girls Code, Girls Make Beats, and the NAACP. More recently Barbie and her friend Nikki, who is Black, had a conversation about racism to raise awareness of how itimpacts Black people. On February 18, Barbie will sponsor a virtual Barbie Dream Gap event featuring Duster.

Historically, big brands have represented Black and nonwhite communities poorly or failed to represent them altogether. For many Black people, Barbie's blonde hair, blue eyes and unrealistic proportions were less relatable than alternatives like Bratz dolls. Even when Mattel produced Black dolls, Barbie was still the main character.

When asked what the brand is doing to directly support Black communities and honor Wells legacy of anti-racism, Mattel pointed to Barbie's 2020 commitment to the Black community and spotlight more Black role models. "Over the past year, more than half of the women honored in the U.S. have been Black and we continue to pledge that going forward, more than 50% of global role models featured will be Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color."

Ida B. Wells Barbie doll on a designed background

But some community advocates would like to see the multi-billion-dollar brand make a more actionable push towards anti-racism in the name of Wells's legacy. Harriett's Bookshop, an indie bookshop celebrating "women authors, women artists, and women activists under the guiding light of Harriett Tubman," suggested using the proceeds from the sale of the Wells doll to support the Ida B. Wells Museum, civic organizations challenging modern-day lynching, or resurrecting Wells's Memphis Free Speech newspaper, which the doll holds. The comments suggest many agree.

Keewa Nurullah, owner of Kido, a children's clothing and toy boutique in Chicago, says historical dolls offer a chance for children, especially for young girls, to focus less on beauty and fashion and tap into other attributes during play.

"Ida B. Wells is precious and not to be 'toyed' with," she says. "We're living through a time when voting rights are being taken away. It would be more powerful if a corporation like Mattel took a financial stand to defend voting rights, as opposed to mass producing a plastic doll."

Nurullah says that Black toymakers like Harper Iman Dolls, Kinfolk Dolls, Healthy Roots, Zuri and Dre, and Minikin Paper Dolls give Black families representation while financially supporting Black communities and efforts for positive change.

Still, many feel increased representation and the acknowledgement of history is a step in the right direction for a brand that is working to be more inclusive and Black children who are learning their history for the first time. Wells's great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, hopes the doll will help young girls—especially Black girls—feel empowered to speak their truths and make sure their voices are heard. "Hopefully, the younger generation will be inspired by my great-grandmother's courage, passion, and unwavering dedication to her cause – and follow her lead to speak up for what they believe in," she says.

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