In September, Barbie released a doll modeled after Zendaya’s 2015 Oscar ensemble, a big win overall for increased representation in pop culture. While there have been Barbie dolls of varying races in the past, this particular doll is especially important as she sports dreadlocks.
If you keep up with pop culture, you'll probably recall the time Giuliana Rancic made racist remarks about Zendaya’s Oscar look on the show Fashion Police. Zendaya, best known for her roles on Disney Channel shows Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover, responded to her comments on her Instagram in an eloquent paragraph which called Giuliana’s comments “outrageously offensive.”
To me, Zendaya is an inspirational icon, and I look up to her – kind of silly considering she is only a year older than I am – for a variety of reasons. She has impeccable style and world views that are highly evolved for a 19-year-old – not to mention the grace of a queen. Rather than calling people out, she spends her time formulating an educated response. She’s not afraid to be herself – or to stand up for herself.
But this doll has importance beyond Zendaya’s cultural position as a positive role model. It's the way in which it increases representation overall. On the day of the release Zendaya crafted another insightful Instagram post about how important it is to her that there is a doll out there that looks like her, which I found incredibly inspiring. Zendaya is biracial, and so am I. While I don’t wear dreadlocks, those who do are often targeted with unfair stereotypes, such as assumptions that they are dirty or smoke marijuana. Zendaya commented on why she wore dreadlocks on the Oscar red carpet: to send a message “to people of color that our hair is good enough.”
It is hard for people to feel included in media if there is no representation. So yes, while it is just a doll to some people, others find it incredibly inspiring and immensely critical. I feel represented by this doll, but there are some groups that definitely do not.
“The beauty standards that this country values takes a toll on children of color who are told they are other, and not valued for their natural beauty,” said sophomore Gwendolyn Gissendanner.
A senator of For Members Only, manager of Soul4Real and a member of Out Da Box, Gissendanner spoke to the fact that the doll is still not wholly representative of the spectrum of women of color.
“Girls who are darker or who are fully black still may not feel represented by this doll,” Gissendanner said. “It would really be a shame if they stopped with her.”
Aymar Jean Christian, an assistant professor in Communication Studies, says he sees the importance of a doll like this but thinks its important to note that one doll does not change the entirety of representation.
“Large corporations tend to represent societal norms and ideals, not its realities,” Christian said. “There are some smaller independent doll and toy manufacturers with greater diversity and I think that's where we'll see change happening.”
When asked specifically about Zendaya’s impact on representation, Christian said, “Ultimately most Barbie dolls still conform to limited norms of representation.”
Another important issue the doll brought to light was the representation of various body types. Demi Lovato tweeted “Hey @Barbie, what about a curvy doll or one true to size measurements,” shortly after Zendaya’s doll was released. Immediately she received backlash from fans who were claiming that Demi was trying to steal Zendaya’s spotlight. While there are some dolls on the market that feature more realistic body types, Barbie is clearly the most iconic.
This is just another area where representation is lacking.
“If Barbie made efforts to represent different body types that would only make their efforts towards inclusion better,” said Gissendanner. “I believe that this step, along with diversifying racially, could help break down heteronormative standards that cause so many people pain.”
The United States is becoming more and more diverse every year. This is especially noticeable in the 2010 Census report and diversity maps by media outlets. Eventually, pop culture will have to catch up and have a much wider net of representation. Viola Davis said it best in her 2015 Emmy speech: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
In the future there need to be more roles. There need to be more dolls. There need to be more diverse novel characters and when those characters are later portrayed in the movie they need to not be whitewashed out of the film, because representation matters.
I have never worn dreadlocks, but I've often wished to have the perfect hair other girls had while being frustrated with my own. Now I’m 18 and I understand that my hair is beautiful. I fully believe the reason that I felt my hair was so horrible was because I was not as exposed to anyone else with hair like mine during my childhood. Not in my family, not in my school and definitely not on television.
While it is just a doll to some people, it raises awareness of greater areas of representation. It is the starting point for a conversation that is increasing in importance every day. I look forward to even more diverse dolls; more diverse rolls, especially those that don’t require people to play the obvious stereotypes; and more multicultural representation throughout pop culture in the future.