Mattel is celebrating Rosa Parks and Sally Ride with Inspiring Women Barbie dolls.
Photo: Mattel
Photo: Mattel

AMELIA ROBINSON: Barbies, beauty queens and superheroes have changed

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, edition of the Dayton Daily News.

For the better part of what seems like the millennium, my mom has hassled me to claim my memories from her basement.

“It’s junking up my basement,” she said of the relics of my formative years — precious trinkets surely destined for the Amelia Robinson Memorial Library and Gardens.

I resisted, but my mom’s hounding did not let up. It was at an all-time fever pitch during my Thanksgiving visit and drove me down into the very pits of her massive basement — which, by the way, has plenty of room, so I don’t know why she’s complaining.

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After rooting through the final resting place of first newspaper articles, elementary school report cards and jigsaw puzzles, I hit pay dirt: my Barbie Doll collection.

There should have been glory. Instead, I shrieked.

A massacre had occurred.

There, in an Aviation High School duffle bag, were the 45 plastic beauties who acted out my imagination — now twisted and broken.

A head here. A leg there. Arms akimbo.

And no clothes.

Why were they naked? What in the world?

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Most of the treasures left in shambles had been presents unwrapped in a frenzy on Christmas mornings as favorite holiday melodies played, like Mabel Scott’s “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.”

Those Barbies were my first loves — and one day I assumed they would be worth millions of dollars on the black market.

There was my first real Barbie Doll, a classic blue-eyed blonde who led the Rockers.

I gave her an asymmetrical haircut, thinking it would grow back.

It did not.

Then there was my first black Barbie that was a real Barbie — not just a knock-off or friend of the real thing.

Now I realize my first black Barbie looked just like my white Barbie dolls with chocolate skin and brown eyes. My developing brain missed that. Back then in the early 1980s, my black Barbie was a marvel by Mattel.

Although I didn’t call her Barbie — my first Barbie was the only one called Barbie — she and the other “ethnic” Barbies that followed were actual Barbies.

They had all the rights and responsibilities that came with being Barbie.

She could be a flight attendant, a rock ‘n’ roll star, teacher, soap-opera vixen or a nurse just like Diahann Carroll in the reruns of “Julia” that I loved.

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ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Steve Harvey interviews Miss USA Cheslie Kryst onstage at the 2019 Miss Universe Pageant at Tyler Perry Studios on December 08, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

My mind drifted to my black Barbies when I saw a video of Toni Ann Singh of Jamaica win the Miss World pageant. In fact, black women also hold the 2019 crowns of Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe and Miss Teen USA.

They have a range of black skin and a range of black hair — natural to straightened, depending on choice.

This was unheard of when I was a kid and beauty was often in a box.

Like the notion of who can and who cannot be a beauty queen, the idea of what a Barbie doll looks like has changed as well.

Barbie comes in a range of skin tones and body shapes. You can even get a blue one that looks like Mystique from the Marvel Universe.

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There are still issues with Barbie dolls and beauty pageants, but it sure is delightful that they all don’t have to emulate white women to be considered attractive.

The box is unwrapped and today’s girls and boys know there can be black-female everything because they see black-female everything.

That everything includes superheroes, thanks to movies like “Black Panther” and characters like Sister Night in shows like “Watchmen,” played by Regina King.

My mother got most of her wish when I visited during Thanksgiving. I collected my dolls and some of those sacred documents. Before leaving, I asked about the atrocity that happened under her very nose to my cherished Barbies. She claims she didn’t know what happened to them.

This leaves me to assume some rough, Barbie-seeking little relative must have sneaked down to the basement the way I used to sneak into our living room on Christmas morning, hoping for Barbie.

I’m hoping she had fun, but I am still wondering what she did with the clothes.


Amelia Robinson is a reporter, columnist and podcaster for the Dayton Daily News and Amelia is an Oregon District resident who has been covering the Dayton community for 20 years. She covers topics including dining, nightlife, entertainment and the people, places and things that make Dayton a great place to live, work and play. She is the host of the National Association of Broadcasters Marconi award-nominated podcast “What Had Happened Was …” about the people and places of Dayton. She has been the author of the Smart Mouth column for the Dayton Daily News for 15 years. The column, which appears in Sunday’s Dayton Daily News Life & Arts section, was recognized as the best newspaper column in Ohio this year. Amelia appears on WHIO Radio’s “Miami Valley Morning News” every Friday and “Miami Valley Happenings with Jason Michaels” every Sunday. Amelia is also president and a founding member of the Greater Dayton Association of Black Journalists. She also serves on the boards of the Dayton Sister City Committee and Oregon Historic District Society.