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What Black Barbie Dolls Looked Like Throughout History

Aug 06, 2023 10:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho

The Barbie movie is a mega-hit with a stellar marketing campaign, raking in $360 million worldwide over its opening weekend, making it the biggest movie premiere of the year. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie features not only Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken but multiple Black actors playing alternate versions.

In the film, Issa Rae, a Black actor who is known for her entrepreneurial endeavors, plays President Barbie, a role that has yet to be occupied by a woman in the real world. There have been many notable Black Barbie dolls throughout Mattel's history as it sought to expand representation.

The original Barbie appeared in toy stores in 1959. She wore a black-and-white bathing suit with her blond hair in a ponytail. It would take Mattel one decade to introduce what many deem the first Black Barbie, Christie. 

Recently, Mattel released Christie reimagined for her 55th anniversary.  The orange mini dress is a nod to the Talking Christie orange bikini she wore under her swimsuit cover-up. Christie began to evolve transitioning to darker skin and afro hair in the later years before the mold was discontinued in 1978. According to Mattel, the creation of Christie was “in support of equal rights” during that time and was very significant.

While Christie is often considered the figure to come out of Mattel with a darker skin tone, the company released Barbie's friend Francie in 1967, before Christie would arrive on the scene. Francie Fairchild was introduced by Mattel from 1966 to 1976 and re-introduced in 2011. She was a spinoff of the original Francie doll, which debuted in 1966 and was meant to be Barbie's European cousin.

The Julia Barbie doll was one of the first Celebrity Barbie dolls. Julia was a hit TV show that ran from 1968 to 1971. This was the first weekly series to star an African American woman in a professional, non-stereotypical role, as Julia was a nurse. Diahann Carroll played Julia Baker, a widowed single mom and registered nurse. Carroll won a Golden Globe for her role as Julia.

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Francie and Christie were advertised as Barbie’s friends in an attempt to create a racially diverse Barbie world. Though they lived in the icon’s plastic world, they were just a shadow of existence compared to Barbie. Black girls would have to wait until 1979 before the first official Black Barbie doll would hit the market.

Kitty Black Perkins is renowned in the toy industry for designing the first-ever Black Barbie and was a pioneer who helped diversify the mega-popular doll franchise. Perkins created a bold, red bodysuit with a wrap-and-snap disco skirt, a modernist necklace, and hoop and dangle earrings. Black Perkins eventually became Mattel’s Chief Designer of Fashions and Coll Concepts and was credited for creating more than 100 designs.


Black Perkins received Mattel's Chairman's Award, the highest recognition bestowed upon a Mattel employee, twice in 1985 and 1987. She also received the doll industry's highest honor, the Doll of the Year Award, and was inducted into the Black Hall of Fame in 2001.

The Marvelous World of Shani, also known as Shani & Friends, launched in 1991, and it was Mattel’s first attempt to produce more ethnically correct black dolls with accurate Afrocentric features, varying shades of skin tones to represent the diversity of skin color in the black community, and varying hair colors and textures. The line initially debuted with three characters, Shana, Asha, and Nichelle. Nichelle was named after "Star Trek" actress Nichelle Nichols.

By the time 2015 came around, Mattel found more ways to be inclusive — this time introducing Barbies with different body types and characteristics to help people feel more seen in the toy industry. In 2019, the company came out with its first Barbie doll in a wheelchair and another that has a prosthetic leg.

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As part of Barbie’s Tribute Collection, which launched in 2020 to highlight cultural trailblazers, the iconic brand created a signature Barbie doll for Laverne Cox, a Black trans actress, to honor the impact she’s made not only in her pioneering career but also for the continued work she’s done to champion LGBTQ+ rights. 

In 2020, Barbie received a Black History Month revamp with costume designs from celebrity stylist Shiona Turini, the costume designer for Queen & Slim. A closer look at the Barbies reveals not just a range of skin colors and styles, but also a spotlight on different hair textures and body types.


In 2021, Barbie Roberts, also known as Brooklyn, was introduced as Barbie's friend. She is one of the main protagonists in the 2021 computer-animated Barbie film, Barbie: Big City, Big Dreams, and the 2022 TV serial, It Takes Two.


You can see a full collection of Barbie dolls at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.


Image sources: Mattel and respective owners.

 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies.  

She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content. 

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