Traditionally, the needs of ethnically diverse consumers had been met by smaller companies—the equivalent, in movie terms, of independent filmmakers. In the seventies, Shindana introduced two Barbie-like fashion dolls: Malaika, taller and stouter than Barbie; and Career Girl Wanda, about three-quarters as tall as Barbie and as proportionately svelte. But in 1991, when Mattel brought out its "Shani" line—three Barbie-sized African-American dolls available with mahogany, tawny, or beige complexions— there could be no doubt that "politically correct" was profitable. "For six years, I had been preaching these demographics—showing pie charts of black kids under ten representing eighteen percent of the under-ten population and Hispanic kids representing sixteen percent—and nobody was interested," said Yla Eason, an African-American graduate of Harvard Business School who in 1985 founded Olmec Corporation, which makes dolls and action figures of color. "But when Mattel came out with those same demographics and said, 'Ethnically correct is the way,' it legitimatized our business." Some say that the toy industry's idea of "ethnically correct" doesn't go far enough, however. Ann duCille, chairman of the African-American Studies Program and an associate professor of English at Wesleyan University, is a severe critic. After studying representations of race in fashion dolls for over a year, she feels that the dolls reflect a sort of "easy pluralism." "I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say I'd rather see no black dolls than see something like Shani or Black Barbie," she told me, "but I would hope for something more—which is not about to happen." Nor is she wholly enamored of Imani and Melenik, Olmec's equivalent of Barbie and Ken. "Supposedly these are dolls for black kids to play with that look like them, when in fact they don't look like them. That's a problematic statement, of course, because there's no 'generic black kid.' But those dolls look too like Barbie for me. They have the same body type, the same long, straight hair—and I think it sends a problematic message to kids. It's about marketing, about business—so don't try to pass it off as being about the welfare of black children." Lisa Jones, an African-American writer who chronicled the introduction of Mattel's Shani dolls for the Village Voice, is less harsh. Too old to have played with Christie—Barbie's black friend, born in 1968—Jones recalls as a child having expressed annoyance with her white classmates by ripping the heads and arms off her two white Barbie dolls. Any fashion doll of color, she thinks, would have been better for her than those blondes. "Having been a little girl who grew up without the images," she told me, "I realize that however they fail to reach the Utopian mark, they're still useful.
M.G. Lord (Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll)