Real Talk about Barbie: When experience and narrative don’t match up

Wow. Latoya, in the comments to this post at Jezebel, writes:

I am really starting to hate writing about racial issues for Jezebel.
To all the folks who point out that the white barbies don’t look like you either – we know. We know that Barbie’s measurements are ridiculous, that she puts forth a beauty standard toward white woman that is almost as unattainable as it is for black women and other women of color, we know that molds lend to standardization, we KNOW. …
Feminism is full of scholarship about Barbie’s impact on white women. It’s no fucking picnic for you guys either – we get it.
But it’s frustrating to have people keep deliberately inserting their experiences into a narrative that does not fit. It’s not the same experience. I can read about what it’s like to grow up as a middle class white girl, but I don’t live it, so I don’t know.
I do know what it’s like to grow up as a lower-class black girl whose parents gave her science toys and books to read, and I can only think of owning two Barbie dolls (one black, one Hawaiian) my whole life.
Did Barbie impact me personally? Not really – I wasn’t inclined to play with dolls, and I was conditioned to recognize when I was being sold something. I learned from a very early age that white beauty isn’t the only beauty and there was no reason to feel bad about some white doll thing when there were so many other cool things in the world.
But that was my experience.
My cousin, who had dozens of Barbies and their cars and their dreamhouses thinks Barbies are wonderful toys for her four year old daughter. My cousin jokingly describes herself as looking for a Ken (we are both moving into our late 20s) and keeps her hair long and relaxed.
Unlike my cousin, I never hid under a towel at the pool to keep my skin from turning darker.
And unlike some of my friends, I never felt that sting of being passed over to play with Barbies because there weren’t enough black one’s to go around. I didn’t walk around with a towel on my head swinging it around as if it was long flowing hair, and I didn’t (as described in a seventeen magazine article that was published when I was still in the age range to read it) pump out lotion and leave it on my skin pretending I looked white.
I never felt that pain that one of my friends felt when her classmates teased her about having dark skin and short hair, even though it was relaxed and she used a variety of products to try to make it grow.
And I never felt the kind of pain one of my other friends felt when she went up to her white crush and confessed her feelings, only to have him reply “But…you’re black.” All the parental affirmation in the world was not helping then.
When you have children, you are their primary example. For a while. And then they go to school, they socialize with others, they pick up words, ideas, actions that you never would have dreamed they would. Some of my friends had color struck parents. And some of my friends just got caught up in a glossy, aspirational, media saturated world that paints a very clear picture of who in our society is beautiful and wanted and who is not. Barbie is a part of that. Hollywood is a part of that. TV is a part of that. Advertising is a part of that. And it is relentless and endless.
It might not make sense to some of you who have not felt the sting of feeling entire pieces of your identity excluded from view and representation. Who take for granted that while you may not relate to Blake Lively or Lauren Conrad that you can always turn on the television and see someone of your race and your gender doing all kinds of activities and seen in all sorts of contexts.
If you felt like you could relate heavily to Daria and Jane but you were still thankful for the one time Jodie made a speech about being the only black kid at Lawndale, if you watched The Craft because it was awesome, but you always remember that it was Rochelle who got told that her “little nappy hairs” looked like “pubic hairs” or you just realized that the only “role”for black girls in society was as the silent/funny/pathetic side kick in a white girl’s story then you understand.

Thanks to Lauren for the heads up.

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25 Comments

  1. alixana
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure what “wow” means in this context? Because Feministing is no stranger to the sort of derailing that prompted Latoya to write that comment. Unless you simply mean “wow” as in, “Wow, Latoya wrote something really powerful and eye-opening, and I wanted to share it.”

  2. opinionated
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    When I was 17 I got on a train and just went – anywhere but here was my thinking.
    I left my “Chocolate City” and wound up spending a day in a very “Vanilla City”, Minneapolis.
    That marked the 1st time I experienced being a minority in actual number, not just by discrimination- in real time.
    Before that, I only knew the #s minority via TV and other media sources.
    Everywhere I looked (in real time) where I was growing up, were AA hair salons, AA owned and operated clothing stores, etc.
    And yes, plenty of Korean owned businesses too, but, the customers were predominantly AA.
    Years later, after living in a city that is culturally dominated mostly by European descendants/ “white” people I can understand why some want to relate, to share and be a part of the struggle or at least say, “Hey, I think I know what you mean”.
    But, when someone is venting or pointing out something atrocious, they just want to be heard first & understood.
    After that you can chime in about, “Well, I think I might have a glimpse of what your talking about in my life, though I can’t imagine it to that degree”.
    It’s humanizing and not meant to be offensive. Personally, I don’t take it as offensive.
    There is plenty of solid racist shit out there to get offended by, someone trying to relate?- not so much a crime in my world.

  3. Toongrrl
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Wow……LaToya has really
    created an eye opener

  4. desifeminists
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    i faced a similar problem when i was discussing the white-centric or racist standards of beauty in hollywood and other media. i pointed out how many of the colored actresses who get representation are still light skinned and often have features very similar to the common european features. she kept insisting that those features are not european as much as they’re “young.” seems like an absurd claim to me because almond shaped eyes and a pointed, dainty nose are not “young” features. they’re more prominent in the “baby” look (i.e. mary kate and ashley), but it’s not like they change completely with age.
    she also kept saying that she and many other white women don’t meet those beauty ideals and therefore they’re not racist. like Latoya, i know that beauty ideals aren’t kind to any group of women. but how far from the ideal are you? certain ethnicities have physical markers that are more common amongst them – eye shape, nose shape, lip shape, skin color, body shapes, and of course, HAIR. the beauty ideals in america, and most of the world is one that values features common to european descent.
    that’s why east asian women get eye lid surgery, persian women get nose jobs, black women get hair extensions, and dark women all over use skin whitening products. now of course it’s not any easier for white women who have to get tanned, dye their hair blonde, starve to skinnyness and then get implants to create fake curves. I UNDERSTAND THAT. all that doesn’t contradict the reality of eurocentric beauty ideals.
    i’m not saying that white women have it any easier than colored women when it comes to beauty ideals. but how many women have experienced being hateful of their entire ethnicity because they’re not light enough, their hair isn’t straight enough, or their bodies are too curvy, etc, etc.

  5. LindseyLou
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    *I’m going to recognize/warn straight up that this comment is going off-topic*
    I really appreciate hearting LaToya speak on that issue, because it needs to be said. But since she specifically calls out comments on Jezebel, I think what I want to say is fair game.
    Where she posted this complaint (however legitimate it is) shouldn’t affect how I view its legitimacy, but somehow it does. I was pretty appalled to discover that Jezebel requires you to “audition” to post a comment. From the start they are significantly reducing the viewpoints that are expressed on that site. So there’s a part of me that finds it kind of annoying that, even if you have the time, energy, and “wit” to pass their audition process, they’re still going to take issue with what you say if it’s not what they want to hear. I can appreciate that LaToya finds those kinds of comments frustrating, but I also can’t help but think, “Well, these are the people you deemed worthy enough to comment. Who knows who else is out there that would like to comment but was rejected.”
    I wish this wasn’t the immediate reaction that I had to her piece, but it was. Isn’t it possible that maybe Jezebel’s commenting policy is doing more harm than good if it causes someone like me to initially overlook the legitimacy of what was said?

  6. T-Monster
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I, too, am confused by the “wow.” Latoya is making a great and important point. This is where feminism lacks intersectionality; Latoya is frustrated, and rightfully so. I doubt Ann would perpetuate the stereotype of the angry black woman, but when you glance at the “wow” it totally reads that way. Clarification, please?
    Just a small aside (and this part isn’t at you alixana, I don’t think you did this at all!):
    I don’t like to jump down bloggers’ throats when they slip because I see posters do that over absolutely nothing and start calling them bad journalists and irresponsible, etc., when really, they’re not journalists; they’re bloggers. They may be very good at getting facts and investigating things that don’t make mainstream media, or just facts that aren’t popularly known, or cared about, but there’s always the opinion part of their writing that leaves them somewhere in between journalists and op-ed writers.
    That’s not to say when wording is not clear, or offensive, we dedicated Feministing readers can’t ask for some clarification. This is just a trend I’ve noticed around Feministing the past three years I’ve been reading.

  7. paperispatient
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad this was posted here, I read Jezebel but not all of the comments on every post, so I don’t know if I’d have read it otherwise.
    It’s really made me think about the ways that I try to be supportive of and be an ally for people whose social location differs from mine (WRT race, sexual orientation, etc.). I do sometimes try to relate experiences I’ve had to experiences other people have had even if they’re not exactly the same; sometimes I think it can be beneficial but sometimes I do think it’s inadequate and can minimize other people’s experiences of oppression. I don’t think my doing this has ever made anyone react (understandably) negatively, but I’m going to try to be much more conscious and careful of the parallels I draw and ways I try to relate to and understand other people’s oppression.

  8. alixana
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    That process is used across all Gawker media blogs, though, not just Jezebel. I don’t think their goal is to create an echo chamber, but rather weed out trolls and the people on the internet who think “FIRST!!!1lol” is contributing something to the conversation.

  9. LindseyLou
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    It just seems to me that trolls can be weeded out without using some kind of subjective standard for what is a worthy comment. I feel that the comment moderation at this website strikes a much better balance. But I will stop with this topic because I don’t want to derail the post more than I have already.

  10. Vanessa
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    To clarify, what Ann meant was, “Wow, this is really well written” and wanted to highlight it.

  11. Phenicks
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree with Latoya!!! TOTALLY!!!
    Stop trying to relate when, well you can’t.

  12. Diana
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t begin to really take notice of how unrepresented African Americans are in the media until recently. I really hope that someday things will change. It is difficult enough to deal with the double standards of being a female and the explotation of being a female. I can’t imagine having to deal with this on top of that. I used to be very ignorant about this topic but your post has opened my eyes even further to what is going on. Thank You for speaking out. =)

  13. Comrade Kevin
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    At times there is a kind of highly self-conscious back-patting going on whereby one seeks to set out how much of a good liberal he or she is by means of personal experience.
    I set out a good bit of my own personal experience in an effort to make parallels out of the knowledge that anecdotes often join us together far easier than largely abstract concepts. I make a point, however, never to use them when I simply can’t relate to a situation at hand. I’ve never been black, or female, or Asian, or working class. But I do try to empathize with those who have faced challenges because of their circumstances.
    I have to say I can’t really fault the people who try and fail to be understanding but have a particularly pet peeve towards the ones who wish to be seen as holier than thou.

  14. Cola
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Oh goodness that line from The Craft stuck in my craw for years. It was just so hateful.
    As for dolls, I remember insisting that my mom buy me a black ken for my black Barbie and “Stacie” dolls. I had a lot of dolls, which amounted to a sea of “flesh tone” in my room back then, though I had token Aladdin, Jasmine, and “Native American” dolls. I’m not sure why, as a white girl, I felt the need to have a complete black family of dolls. There’s a chance it stems from the fact that my mom is brown, and I’ve always revered her.
    This isn’t to say that I don’t think I’m privileged, just that Barbie never made me feel inadequate, although she did play a role in my early awareness of race. Her lack of diversity never sat well with me.
    Anyway, I hope my kids are more like Latoya, and happier to play with legos and dinosaurs than dolls or guns. Thank you for sharing this.

  15. ladybeethoven
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    As a fairly regular Jezebel commenter, they approve accounts pretty quickly as long as it contributes to the conversation in some meaningful way. The people who don’t pass the “audition” are pretty exclusively the trolls and the “FIRST!!11!!!1″ people. If you make a few comments there that relate to the story in some way, you’ll probably get approved, although I dunno, because the commenting policy has changed a lot since I first joined up.
    It used to be looser, but the Gawker network (and Jezebel in particular, since it’s the most politically-charged of their blogs) has been hit by a lot of really sneaky, clever trolls. I remember last summer that somebody got banned after they suspiciously had some anti-choice “personal anecdote” to relate to pretty much every abortion-related story. It turned out they were sent to Jezebel by Operation Rescue deliberately to stir up shit. They had commented on enough other articles that they made it look like they were an ordinary commenter.

  16. ladybeethoven
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    To clarify, the voices you’re worried about not getting their fair hearing would not be the ones who are shut out of commenting by Jezebel’s policy. It’s the people who have absolutely nothing to contribute to the discussion who are shut out.
    In short, the “audition” policy is not so much about proving that you’re worthy to comment; it’s more about NOT giving them reason to believe that you’d be a nonconstructive troll.

  17. LindseyLou
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Ugh, I really didn’t want to keep this topic going because it is off topic, but I just have to say this. In full disclosure (and maybe this makes me biased), I’ve had more than one comment fail to appear on Jezebel, and they were certainly made in a good faith effort to contribute to the discussion. So I feel like if my voice isn’t being heard, then there are others voices not being heard who want to say something other than “FIRST!” That is what contributed to my initial reaction to LaToya’s complaints about Jezebel comments.

  18. roxie
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Exactly.
    It’s either that sort of derailing or lack of comments.

  19. Clix
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    I’m not entirely comfortable with this, myself. I don’t want people to stop TRYING to relate… to understand.
    But I think that it’d be helpful to acknowledge that trying to understand doesn’t automatically lead to understanding. (If that makes ANY sense.)

  20. Ann
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I apologize for the brevity of my intro. I read this while I was on a train, and just wanted to share it with everyone here immediately.
    By “wow,” I meant, “I really loved this comment, for so many reasons. It names and clarified a fundamental and long-running problem with conversations within feminism. Perhaps the experience/narrative gap is felt most acutely with race, but there are many cases in feminism where the dominant narrative does NOT mesh with the lived experience of actual women. This comment from Latoya articulated this for me in a way nothing else has. It helped me get it. And will certainly shape my future blogging and thinking about almost everything, from race to sexual assault to sexism at work.”
    Also, Latoya dropped me a note and asked me to explain to folks here that “auditioning” is a term for how Jezebel moderates its comments. Auditioning just means registering and being checked to make sure you’re not a spambot.

  21. TigerLily
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Ann, Jezebel’s comment policy makes auditioning sound like, well, an audition. They “only approve the comments we love” and explicitly state that people will be banned for being “boring”, which is obviously completely subjective. In fact, being boring is worse in their eyes than being obnoxious or self-promotional.
    http://jezebel.com/262123/jezebel-comments-faq
    As the Jezebel community often reminds me of the girls I went to middle school with, I’ve never auditioned.

  22. paperispatient
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    That makes complete sense to me. Someone relating a different experience while also acknowledging that the comparison isn’t completely accurate/adequate is totally different than someone saying that they understand what it’s like to experience racism because they have freckles (to pull an example from the post).

  23. sammylif
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I just met her on Wednesday! She is awesome.

  24. Katie
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Latoya, thank you so much for this post. I am currently taking a feminist literature course and we were having a disucssion about this exact topic earlier this week. All but two of the students in our class are white, as well as our professor. She said that throughout her academic career, she has struggled with figuring out her role in the feminist movement while recognizing that as white women, we can be the oppressed or the oppressors. We got into a discussion of the intersections between all different forms of oppression and the best conclusion we could come to was that we would continue to bring visibility to the issues to which we may not necessarily be able to relate directly. Additionally, we decided that it would be beneficial for us to focus on the universal aspects of oppresion that we all experience; however, it becomes difficult to focus on universal components without marginalizing the experiences of an entire group. I guess the struggle comes down to this: How can a classroom full of mostly white women coming mostly from upper-middle class backgrounds avoid imposing our opinions onto experiences we have never had without rendering those who have had these experiences invisible in our discussion?
    I really enjoyed your post, Latoya, but what I would like to hear next from someone who has brought such insight to the discussion is what the role of the “priviliged feminist” should be in this movement? How can we navigate all of the different forms of oppression without undermining other social movements which don’t affect us directly?

  25. ladybeethoven
    Posted December 7, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Okay, I didn’t know that. I had just assumed that it was to keep out trolls because I got approved rather quickly and that’s what most Jezebel users and staff say. I apologize.

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