Beyond “Barbie:” The Diverse Dolls that Defined My Youth

Diverse Doll collage

Now that we’re in the thick of awards season, Barbie is on the tip of everyone’s tongue again—but let’s be honest, did we ever really stop talking about it? Ever since the film was announced, we’ve been living in the blonde bombshell’s shadow, much like the little girls in the film’s 2001-inspired opening sequence. Love her or hate her (for the record, I happen to love her), you can’t deny her impact as the first “grown-up” (as opposed to the baby) doll to make a splash in the US, becoming an aspirational figure to generations of girls.

Director-screenwriter Greta Gerwig took great pains to ensure that Barbie was welcoming to audiences of all backgrounds rather than uplifting a narrow vision of beauty. We lauded America Ferrara, who is of Honduran descent, for her performance—and so did the Academy, granting her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Additionally, outlets such as The New Yorker and The Guardian praised the film for its inclusive approach—its cast of Barbies featured actresses of all shades, with talents like Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Ana Cruz Kayne, and Ritu Arya joining the fold.

While many critics characterized the inclusion of diverse dolls as a step forward for the franchise, the multiethnic ensemble felt like a familiar embrace to me. Growing up in the 2000s, I was fortunate enough to have a collection of dolls that looked like me—and in the wake of Barbie, I’d like to celebrate them.

Although Gerwig’s use of “Barbie” as a title more so than a name was clever, I found myself thinking that she didn’t have to create a new framework for diversity in the Barbie world. Although it never quite got its flowers, the franchise quietly served as a beacon of representation in the 1990s and 2000s, pushing back against the stereotype that only pale, flaxen-haired girls could “be who they wanted to be” thanks to its collection of diverse dolls and their ensuing product lines.

In 1988, Mattel introduced Teresa, the franchise’s first Latina doll and a best friend of Barbie’s. She quickly became a fixture in both the doll line and associated media. In the tragically underrated Barbie PC games that I held so dear, Teresa roller bladed, snowboarded, rode horses, worked in New York as a successful fashion designer, and stole the show as a figure skater—i.e., she did everything that Barbie did (alongside recurring characters like Christie, who was Black, and Becky, who used a wheelchair). She might have been absent from Gerwig’s version of Barbieland, but she’s still a movie star in her own right: later on, she would appear in animated films such as Barbie & the Diamond Castle and Barbie and the Three Musketeers in addition to web series Life in the Dreamhouse and Netflix series Dreamhouse Adventures.

Of course, no discussion of diverse dolls would be complete without a mention of the Bratz—MGA Entertainment’s infamous “girls with a passion for fashion.” The Bratz line had its own stylish blondie, but she wasn’t the center of the universe. Instead of relegating girls of color to best friend roles, MGA made them into main characters: ethnic icons Yasmin, Sasha, and Jade were just as important as Cloe. Yasmin, who had a tan and flowing brunette locks, was my favorite of the bunch given my resemblance to her. For years, Yasmin’s ethnicity remained unspecified—but in the 2006 live-action film, she was represented as mixed, with both Hispanic and Jewish heritage. This wasn’t MGA’s only instance of Latinx inclusion: the pop albums that went along with the animated Bratz films had Spanish-language versions of several tracks.

Amongst all the popular doll lines, American Girl (founded by Pleasant Company, currently owned by Mattel) has leaned into Latina representation most fully. In 1997, the franchise introduced Josefina Montoya, living in what is now considered New Mexico in the 1820s. Although her story takes place 200 years ago, her accompanying books describe cultural values and customs that many of today’s Latinas will find familiar: she treasures her relationships with her family (including tíos, tías, and her abuelita), speaks Spanish (a glossary was included in the back of each book), and wears gold hoop earrings (which are adorably included with the doll as well).

American Girl also made strides for Latina representation in their “Girl of the Year” line with 2005’s Marisol Luna, a contemporary character. According to the accompanying novel by award-winning Mexican-American author Gary Soto, Marisol is a Chicana who practices a variety of dance styles—including ballet folklórico, which incorporates traditional cultural dances and costumes. On top of that, the brand’s “Truly Me” line (formerly known as “Just Like You”) offers a range of skin tones, hair colors and textures, and eye colors, so that every girl can carry around a tiny twin.

The legacy of these diverse dolls is still unfolding today: in the summer of 2023, Purpose Toys’ “Latinistas” made headlines as the first all-Latina doll line, with Lola, Liv, Julianna, and Dani proving that there’s no one way to look or be a Latina legend. They might not have a film or book series, but surely plenty of girls—perhaps even the Greta Gerwigs and America Ferraras of the future—are using them to tell their own stories. The imagination of children is boundless; may we inch ever closer to a world that resembles the dreams they act out daily.

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