A few weeks ago, we discussed that the Classic Barbie- white, blue-eyed, and blonde-haired- is not a realistic representation of most women, and that Ken-doll is not much better for men. We focused on society’s elevation of Classic Barbie’s appearance as ideal, and therefore the norm. This, however, is problematic because it not only makes beauty and race normative, but it also tells the countless girls who don’t look like Classic Barbie that they’re not good enough. As Jezebel puts it, “If we teach that long, straight hair is beautiful and fun to play with, and these are not representations of short hair, cropped hair, or kinky hair, what kind of message does that send to a child?” (1) With so much pressure on doll companies to make more realistic dolls that validate a wider community, black and Puerto Rican Barbies are now on the market.(2)
However, these alternative dolls are no quick fix for the companies, as the latter still face criticism for making “inauthentic” dolls. (3,4) If “black women, [for example], come in all shades, shapes, and varieties, there is just no way to capture everyone with three dolls.” (5) Following this logic, why not just make one thousand varieties of black women and please the whole community? Jezebel reminds us that there are economic constraints: “For the toy maker to turn a profit, mass production is usually the way to go. However, due to costs, these designs are limited.” (1)
Following this discussion, I felt trapped: Classic Barbie creates norms and deprecates consumers, but appealing to every consumer is just not economically feasible. Was there any good solution or would some consumer always feel inadequate next to her doll, always feel ugly? And so I got to thinking- what if Uglydolls caught on and became the next Barbie (in terms of popularity)? Uglydolls are stuffed cloth dolls of fantastical, unattractive, debatably cute creatures. The website welcomes viewers with the following message: “Welcome to the Uglydoll universe where ‘ugly’ means unique and different, and celebrating who you are inside and out is the new beautiful.” Dolls have names including Babo, OX, Ice-Bat, and Uglycorn.(6) So these dolls tell consumers that the genuine self is beautiful and being different is OK. They accept all consumers and are the polar opposite of Classic Barbie. I like them already!
While they look nothing like humans and have names beyond that of any normal human (or even animal!), each Uglydoll is personified through a set background and personality. (See countless amusing descriptions here.) (7) The Uglydolls have enough substance and identity that the consumer can relate with them on a real level. The casual tone of these descriptions and the fundamentally ugly aesthetics of these dolls make their image more approachable and accepting to the children who play with them. So the Uglydoll, the anti-Barbie, is the perfect solution, right?
Not so fast. By being entirely aracial and agendered, are Uglydolls actually taking a step backward in solving the problem of finding an inclusive doll? Are they so extremely unrealistic that they ignore these powerful problems of beauty, race, and gender? Are we being copouts by promoting Uglydolls as substitutes for traditional dolls? Or do Uglydolls in fact confront Classic Barbie’s social exclusion through the explicit emphasis of ugliness? And, furthermore, why do these dolls have to be ugly in order to represent the acceptance of difference and anormality? Why can’t they be beauty dolls and still serve the same purpose?
- Peterson, Latoya. “Black Barbies: A Question of Representation.” Jezebel. 12 03, 09. http://jezebel.com/5418165/black-barbies-a-question-of-representation (accessed May 26, 2013).
- Mattel Barbie Dolls: Barbie Basics, Barbie Mermaid, & Holiday Dolls, “All Barbie Dolls.” Last modified 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013. http://shop.mattel.com/family/index.jsp?categoryId=3748552
- Cisneros, Sandra. “Barbie-Q,” in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. (New York City: Random House, 1991.)
- Negron-Muntaner, Frances. “Barbie’s Hair: Selling Our Puerto Rican Identity in the Global Market,” in Latino/a Popular Culture, ed. Michelle Habel-Pallan and Mary Romero. (New York City: New York University Press, 2002.)
- “New Black Barbies Get Mixed Reviews.” CNN.com, 08 21, 09. http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/10/21/black.barbies.irpt/ (accessed May 26, 2013).
- Uglydoll, “Uglydoll: Official Online Store.” Last modified 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013. http://www.uglydolls.com/.
- Uglydoll, “Uglydoll: All Products.” Last modified 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013.