MY BARBIE SERIES: HOTTENTOT VENUS TRIBUTE
For the first twenty years of her existence, black Barbie was merely a colorized white doll with no racially distinct physical attributes other than the obvious signifier.
Pondering this detail led me to think of the Hottentot Venus, a victim of racism and sexism during colonial times. In the early eighteen hundreds Saarjie, or Sarah, Bartman, a young South African woman, was made an object of sexual curiosity by the French. She was taken against her will from her African Bushmen home to France where she was displayed as an exotic attraction within a traveling exhibit. The French were awed by her appearance, because even though she was black, her facial features were “white”. Her body also intrigued them, because her legs and buttocks were voluptuous. White western culture during the Victorian era thought protruding buttocks of these African women signified hidden and temperamental sexuality. When Saarjie was presented to paying European audiences she was displayed in a degrading manner and asked to perform crude acts. This required behavior was thought to be revealing of innate sexuality of the culture from which she was taken. She died suddenly and mysteriously during her captivity at the age of twenty-four.
“I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.” — Malcolm X
Even in death she was victimized: her sex organs were harvested for study, and she was taxidermied for display in a museum. The Hottentot Venus is a mysterious figure, because conclusions of the studies tell us very little about Saarjie, but instead reveal much about French culture and accepted research methods of the early nineteenth century. Citing her remains as stolen property the Bushmen of South Africa won, in 2002 after several years of litigation, the battle for their ownership in an international court. After the ruling she was shipped back to Africa immediately. The Bushmen responded with a celebratory parade, followed by a proper burial.
As for Mattel, in 1988 they hired an entirely black staff to research, design, and create the black Barbie. The result has produced a wide range of physical characteristics in the black Barbie line. This includes the introduction of racially distinct facial features, hair texture, hair length, body style, and skin tones intended to reflect contemporary African American women. The precedent set by the current standards in producing black Barbie has led to manufacturing sensitivities regarding the production of all Barbies. The dolls now reflect diversity breasts, wider waists, and fuller hips. Currently, there are also athletic dolls produced that have flat feet—high heels are now optional for Barbie.