Will Mattel's Shani win the hearts of little black girls?

November 07, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

She has long, beautiful hair, a perfect figure and clothes to die for.

Sound like Barbie? Almost: Meet Shani -- the newest Mattel invention for little girls.

Shani is an 11 1/2 -inch doll with black features, including a broader nose and fuller lips. Her name means "marvelous" in Swahili, and Shani (SHAW-nee) already is earning that description among kids and retailers; early sales have been strong.

But not everyone is enthralled. To some, Shani is reviving unresolved debates about what defines beauty -- especially for black women.

The doll looks like a starry-eyed young woman with mocha skin and crimped black waist-length hair.

And her friends are equally attractive: Nichelle who has a light complexion and miles of long, brown wavy hair, and Asha who has the darkest-skin and black hair.

In an ad in this month's Ebony magazine, Mattel says the African-American dolls, at $19.99 each, have "features that reflect your child's natural beauty."

Mattel's first black doll, Christie, came out 23 years ago. But she looked just like a dark-skinned Barbie.

Shani looks "more like us" says Darlene Powell Hopson, a Middlefield, Conn., psychologist who helped create the dolls. Ms. Hopson, who is black, says the dolls help promote self-esteem among young black girls.

But Dr. Nickole C.J. Scott, director of testing and counseling in the psychology department at Howard University in Washington, says, "Like Barbie has done for years, this new doll is sending the message that if I don't look like this I won't be accepted."

Still others say Shani may have black skin, but her body is still too reflective of a fantasy white woman's.

But Mattel product manager Debrah Mitchell says the only criticism the company has heard about Shani's ethnic authenticity concerns her long hair -- and Mattel doesn't plan to make any changes soon.

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