For decades, Barbie’s blond hair, blue eyes, wasp-thin waist and improbable curves have embodied American culture’s ludicrous yet deeply harmful beauty standards. These beauty standards are grounded in racist notions that associate whiteness with virtue and loveliness. When Mattel debuted black Barbies in the late 1960s, the dolls were essentially replicas of the original white Barbie with darker skin. Barbie’s idealized Anglo-Saxon facial features remained the same: a barely-there nose and rosebud mouth. The company would not update the doll’s features for another forty years. When they did, the Europeanized look of the new black Barbies remained problematic to some.
Given this history, the lure of Barbie for black female rappers might seem to reflect an internalization of white beauty standards. Barbie embodies the European appearance that dominant American culture tells women they should want; black Barbie, as a doll and a concept, symbolizes many of those same ideals. By claiming the label of Barbie or black Barbie, rappers like Lil’ Kim and Minaj can signal that they have a mainstream (read: “white-people-approved”) beauty.
Minaj’s Pink Friday cover art deploys exaggerated Barbie imagery in order to call attention to the artificiality of her appearance. One outstretched leg, shiny as plastic, is more than double the length of her torso. She has no arms, and her breasts are thrust so high they cover her collarbone. These out-of-whack proportions and missing limbs communicate the impossibility of the femininity she embodies. Meanwhile, her vacant expression—eyes wide and dull, pink lips in an expressionless pout—suggests not a doll come to life but a life-size doll, revealing the non-transferable nature of the Barbie ideal.
The cover art of the album perfectly captures Minaj’s approach to gender and beauty as performance. As Lisa Lewis wrote of Madonna, Minaj “engages with and hyperbolizes the discourse of femininity.” Appropriating the Barbie image, and taking it to its logical extreme, may actually be a way of subverting white beauty ideals.
“This tribe called “Women of Color” is not an ethnicity. It is one of the inventions of solidarity, an alliance, a political necessity that is not the given name of every female with dark skin and a colonized tongue, but rather a choice about how to resist and with whom.”—
- Aurora Levins Morales, My Name is This Story from Telling to Live Latina Feminist Testimonios.