The controversy over the Wilma Mankiller Barbie doll: what do the Cherokee really think?

The controversy over the Wilma Mankiller Barbie doll: what do the Cherokee really think?
Barbie Wilma Mankiller

In a ground-breaking move that has set the internet abuzz, toymaker Mattel has unveiled a new Barbie doll in the likeness of Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The release is part of the company’s “Inspiring Women” series, which pays homage to historical and contemporary female figures who have blazed trails and shattered glass ceilings. Mankiller’s doll stands as a symbol of indigenous pride and female empowerment, yet it has elicited a kaleidoscope of reactions.

The introduction of the Wilma Mankiller Barbie is a potent reminder of her indelible legacy. Mankiller was a formidable force for change, championing Native American rights, and focusing on community development and self-sufficiency within the Cherokee Nation during her tenure from 1985 to 1995. Her leadership was characterized by resilience and a commitment to justice, which led to significant improvements in education, health care, and government within her community.

However, the doll’s release has not been met with universal acclaim. While some have embraced it as a progressive step towards greater representation and diversity in the toy industry, others are wary. They question the commercialization of a revered figure and express concern over how cultural symbols are being marketed. The Barbie doll, with its long-standing critique of perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards, becomes a contentious vessel for the depiction of a revered icon like Mankiller.

The doll, clad in traditional Cherokee attire, aims to reflect the authentic garb of Mankiller’s heritage. The design team at Mattel reportedly put in significant effort to ensure cultural accuracy and respect. The attention to detail, from the patterns on the clothing to the accessories, was intended to honor Mankiller’s legacy and introduce children to a pivotal figure in Native American history.

For many within the Cherokee community and beyond, the Mankiller Barbie symbolizes progress. It represents a shift towards inclusivity and education, providing young girls with a role model who embodies leadership, courage, and the strength of indigenous women. This move by Mattel is seen as an opportunity for children to learn about diverse histories and the powerful women who have shaped them.

Yet, for some, the doll is a double-edged sword. It sparks a conversation about the nuanced relationship between representation and commodification. Critics argue that while the attempt to honor Mankiller is laudable, the medium of a commercial doll might not do justice to the complexity of her accomplishments and the struggles of the Cherokee people. The broader context of historical exploitation and marginalization of Native American cultures further complicates the reception of such merchandise as more than just a plaything.

As the debate continues, the Wilma Mankiller Barbie doll occupies a unique space in contemporary discourse. It is a testament to the strides we have made in recognizing the diverse tapestry of American heroes. Yet it also serves as a reminder that representation is not a one-size-fits-all solution; it requires sensitivity, ongoing dialogue, and a commitment to understanding the profound significance of the icons we seek to celebrate.