Thursday, May 3, 2018
Christie@50 and the Power of Black Doll Love
By Riché Richardson
Views of my Superstar Christie and Golden Dream Christie fashion doll and styling head collection
The Superstar Christie series on display in my study at home
Superstar Christie on a book shelf
Superstar Christie Fashion Face
Supersize Christie, along with a wooden reproduction of one of my grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson's photos
Superstar Christie Fashion Face
Golden Dream Christie Fashion Face
Dominique Jones, New York, New York, as a little girl with her Golden Dream Christie Fashion Face on her birthday
Screenshot of Ebay auction this year pricing Superstar Christie at nearly $900
A Polaroid photo of my Barbie doll collection and Barbie Townhouse as a preteen.
My mother Joanne Richardson pictured with my Uncle Joseph and her doll on Christmas Day in Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1950s
My Aunt Pamela as a toddler on Christmas Day in Montgomery, Alabama with her doll in the early 1960s
“Your hair. It’s gorgeous.” “Reminds me of this Christie doll head I had when I was a little girl.” These were my words to another black woman sitting across from me at the drying station at the Le Nails nail salon in Ithaca, New York one Saturday a few years ago, as I noticed her healthy-looking, thick, full-bodied, barrel-curled dark brown hair, which was highlighted with patches of gold, though in her look and mannerisms, she had also reminded me a lot of one of my teachers. My description of my cousin Megan’s hair in the weeks before her debutante cotillion in 2006, when I told her that “You have that ‘Christie doll hair,’” had been similar.
She thanked me for the compliment and then said, decisively, “I had that doll, too.” She began to tell me a fascinating story about how determined she was to recreate its hair’s sunstreaked look. She described how long she had searched for just the right color. Her search for the perfect gold sounded like a veritable treasure hunt, which had, amazingly enough, even led her all the way to Germany, where she finally found the color that satisfied her at last. She then told me the name of it, though I knew even then as I admired her look that coloring my hair was not something that I’d likely try myself. It sounded as if it had to be in her own “Goldilocks Zone,” in the sense of being “not too light” and “not too dark,” to borrow the lingo linked to distant planets thought to be places that could sustain life someday because of their earth-like characteristics such as possibly having liquid water and not being too close or too far away from the sun in their solar system, but “juusst right.”
It amazed me that something as simple as our mutual memories of the same Christie doll head from our childhood had sparked such a rich dialogue and connection for us as black women in a public space where it would have been easy to remain silent strangers to each other as we sat facing each other for those few minutes. It’s also one of the moments in recent years that led me to reflect increasingly on Christie’s cultural impact, as well as her personal impact on me. More and more, I was inspired to reclaim her.
The truth is that like the two of us, there are lots of black women of our generation who were children during the late 1970s as Christie culminated her first decade and took on “superstar” dimensions in Mattel’s landmark series launched in 1977, which featured her with signature sunstreaked hair during that era. The glamorous Superstar Christie series, which made its debut alongside Superstar Barbie, is what most girls around my age best remember. And of course, there are those who were at the vanguard among the first wave of black girls who actually witnessed the introduction of Christie (O’Neil) as a friend of Barbie in 1968. This was a year marked by the tragic deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, when the Black Power movement was increasingly impacting the nation and slogans such as “Black is Beautiful” that reflected black pride were vocal. It is also noteworthy that Christie integrated the world of Barbie toward the end of the latter iconic doll’s first decade and during the same year that Diahann Carroll made her debut in Julia, the first television sitcom featuring a black woman.
M. G. Lord’s Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll quotes the journalist and doll collector Susan Howard as saying, “When you’re a kid who basically has no one to play with other than yourself and a few friends, this doll becomes your friend.” “You don’t know how much it meant to me that Barbie had a friend like Christie. Because that meant, well, Barbie likes black people. And it may sound silly, but it was important for me to know that Barbie liked someone like me.” That 2018 marks Christie’s 50th birthday is a monumental milestone. I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on what she means to me, along with others who truly understand how special she is, especially black women everywhere who love (and in some cases, still collect!) black dolls and who played with her as children.
I was introduced to Christie by receiving Superstar Christie Fashion Face, with her signature hard yellow plastic tray base and blue combing accessories, when I was seven on Christmas day in 1978. Among my toys, the dolls that I received were this one alongside four baby dolls, including Dancerella, Baby Come Back and Baby-That-Away. But this Christie styling head was my first fashion doll, which had accessories like makeup, sunglasses, barrettes and hair rollers. I had also received Fashion Plates, a drawing and design kit. She stayed in the box for the first couple of years because she was still a little over my head.
However, I find it intriguing that the year of her arrival in my life was really the earliest time that I began to think seriously about what I wanted to be when I grew up, who I wanted to marry and to picture what I might grow up to look like someday as a woman. The image of myself as a woman solidly crystallized in my mind at age seven, likely an amalgam of beauty posters and ads featuring black women that I’d seen in the beauty shop. It’s interesting that a sense of being “fierce” in a way that only the signature stare from Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty can capture, was a top quality, suggesting my goal to become a confident, no-nonsense woman someday. It was also the first year that I began to dream about what I wanted for my life and family (of origin and by marriage) in the future. Superstar Christie, like my later doll in the Golden Dream Christie series, lived in Malibu, California. I suppose, in some unconscious way, they helped pave the way to California for me, which is where I got my first teaching job as a university professor and lived for a decade, from ages 27-36.
As Erica Rand notes in Barbie’s Queer Accessories (1995), girls rarely play with Barbie in the way that Mattel models and prescribes. As a girl, I’d rename the sisters in my doll family-the Golds who were from Orlando, Florida- in every linguistic variation of Christie I could think of. Their names were “Christen”(Golden Dream Christie), “Christiane”(Peaches and Cream Barbie), “Crystal”(Crystal Barbie), and “Christine”(Day to Night Barbie) My main Barbie playmate approached her naming strategy similarly. One of hers was named “Christina”(Pink and Pretty Christie). Similarly, I renamed my first black Ken “Kent”(Sunsational Malibu Ken).
The doll experiments by Dr. Kenneth B. Clark and his wife Dr. Mamie Clark famously impacted the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 illustrating the detrimental impact of segregated schools on black children who identified with and preferred white dolls and thought only they were pretty. Still, there have always been black girls who embraced, played with and loved black dolls. My mother Joanne Richardson bought mostly black dolls for me, just as my grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson had for her and my aunt Pamela during the 1950s and ‘60s (pictured above). (The earliest Barbies I saw in life were Pam’s). Indeed, my grandmother's Aunt Vinnie had bought black dolls for her and her sister Janie Mae as gifts for Christmas during the 1920s. It is a testament to how valued Christie continues to be that she is now so coveted by collectors and so rare, especially the Superstar Christie series. For example, it is astonishing that the pricing for Superstar Christie was listed in some auctions in recent months at selling prices ranging from $449-$875.
My grandmother never allowed me to take any toys to school because “You go to school to learn, not to play.” Yet, as an adult, I have found that some toys in my office space connect me to my past in ways that inspire and nurture me. In my office on campus at Cornell University, I display storybook dolls such as Cassie, Amazing Grace and a black Raggedy Ann, along with dolls that thematically link to courses I’ve taught in recent times, such as the Hasbro (2001) and Mattel (2005) collections of Destiny’s Child dolls, which I researched for my Beyoncé Nation course, and Mattel’s tribute to Misty Copeland, whose autobiography my students and I read last fall in my course on Black Women’s Autobiography in the 21st Century, the 2017 Rabinor Seminar in American Studies. However, my study at home, which includes another Cassie doll and a black Raggedy Ann and Andy, showcases the various dolls in the Superstar Christie collection from the late '70s. I spent last year rebuilding it by doing painstaking searches for mint versions of the main dolls from my childhood, which are incredibly rare now, and finding them was a great blessing. I decorate my closet with the Golden Dream Christie doll series, along with one of my prized possessions that I have had since my first year of college, the poster of Iman, Beverly Johnson and Louise Vyent from Revlon’s Unforgettable campaign.
In my home space, my Christie dolls, and especially the tall Supersize Christie atop one of my art book shelves, have a sculptural quality that speaks profoundly to the artist in me, along with the woman as one who stands at 6’2” tall myself and who has so frequently been asked the “Are you a model?” and “Do you play basketball?” questions so familiar to many tall girls. While Superstar Christie Fashion Face, with her rooted eyelashes, seemed larger than life to me in childhood and looks much smaller through my adult eyes, she seems as mannequin-like as the elegant black wig mannequins at my beauty shop. The Superstar Christie dolls are another interesting thematic thread in my artist’s apartment and studio that I have cultivated over the years as a mixed-media appliqué quilt artist who also collects Southern folk art with an emphasis on Alabama. In building this theme, I have found my greatest inspiration in the Paris apartment designs of Claudia Strasser for supermodel Kirsty Hume in the Paris Apartment: Romantic Décor on a Flea Market Budget, which incorporate Barbie dolls, and in the apartment of Bjørn Amelan, the partner of famed black designer Patrick Kelly shown in Paris Interiors. Kelly, who was originally from Mississippi, had highlighted and decorated their apartment with various vintage black dolls.
My Superstar Christie Fashion Face fills my heart with memories of myself as a little girl at age seven sitting under the Christmas tree in 1978 surrounded by my family, taking me back to that special time at home again that I will also always carry in my heart. On her birthday this past January, Dominique Jones, Executive Director at The Boys and Girls Club in Harlem, posted a photo of herself as a little girl with her Golden Dream Christie Fashion Face on her Facebook page, which features her doll and her birthday cake (see above). One of her black women friends posted a picture in the comment box featuring herself as a little girl standing by her vintage Christie styling head. These adorable and sweet photos suggest what a cherished doll Christie was by some black girls, and how intricately she has been linked to some of their most special childhood memories and celebrations.
While Christie had been prominently featured as a companion doll to the new Barbie designs throughout the 1970s and into the early ‘80s, “Black Barbie” officially debuted in 1980. In 1984, Mattel launched its “We Girls Can Do Anything” campaign, words that rang out as an empowerment anthem in commercials as the company introduced dolls depicting Barbie as a businesswoman and in various other careers. As important as this message was, in some ways, Christie also helped instill such lessons in many of us, and inspired us to reach within ourselves, to aim to become our best, and to tap our "superstar" within. Christie was the toy with which I primarily identified and, like Barbie, linked to messages of empowerment. In my life, my grandmother has played a central role in teaching me to be confident, to love myself and to always aim to achieve my greatest possibilities in life. She taught me not to worry myself over what other people think about me, and to always walk by faith and focus on my goals. When we talked every morning during my years in California, her daily sendoff for me, besides "I love you," was always, "Hold up your head and strut."
In spite of her impact, Christie still had some clear limitations. Though she was a groundbreaking creation and Christie had dark brown skin, her features were typically cast from the “Steffie mold” used to make Barbie and many of her friends, mirroring Eurocentric aesthetics. In Skin Trade (1996), Ann DuCille describes the raced and gendered essentialisms related to the body and facial features that efforts to create ethnic Barbies inevitably re inscribe. It would have been great if Mattel had re-released Superstar Christie alongside Superstar Barbie on Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009. Because Christie still matters to and inspires so many of us, and especially who were children during her superstar era, it would have been nice to see this series modernized for the millennium and introduced to new generations of girls, including black girls. In all of this, I also wonder why we still have not seen the logical outgrowth of this doll dynasty given her national and global impact: Superstar Beyoncé.
Through the years, Mattel has reinforced and expanded its messages of empowerment and in recent times, released dolls honoring a multiplicity of extraordinary women, including Gabby Douglas, Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, and Katherine Johnson, among others. Such efforts make an important contribution and help to make a difference. A half century later, it is clear that Christie’s groundbreaking legacy at Mattel helped pave the way toward a broader and increasingly more diverse and dynamic repertoire of black and other ethnic dolls.
For more dialogue on black dolls, see my post on this blog from November 7, 2016,"®Made in Montgomery: Growing Up with Dolls and Honoring the Craft Work of Mrs. Essie Thomas": http://richerichardsonartquilts.blogspot.com/2016/11/made-in-montgomery-growing-up-with.html
While I am talking about Superstar Christie , I also wanted to mention the latest fashion doll styling head, which was released by Mattel this year: the black "Barbie Deluxe Styling Head - Color & Style Deluxe Curly Hair." I think that it is a beautifully designed and gorgeous doll that is also special for how it celebrates natural black hair. It is a Barbie but has the look of Superstar Christie and beautifully updates and revamps her for our time in the 21st century, replete with hands for manicure. This latest black Barbie styling head doll by Mattel, with all of her wonderful accessories, would be a great toy to purchase for girls to play with right now and so I highly recommend her: