When Cree filmmaker Sonya Ballantyne spoke at a Winnipeg school recently, girls came up to her to ask when she could get a Barbie doll that looked like her.
Mattel, the maker of Barbie, had featured Ballantyne in Facebook ads as one of 60 Canadian Barbie “role models,” or brand ambassadors, as part of a campaign for the toy’s 60th anniversary. In the comments on one of the ads, a woman said she wanted a doll for her child too.
But the ad campaign didn’t come with the promise of a personalized doll.
So the writer and director, who is from the Misipawistik Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, started a Change.org petition to get Mattel’s attention in hopes they might create a Cree Barbie.
“I think if we had a doll of a Native girl with punky hair and a funny shirt, I think that would connect to a lot of people,” she says.
“There is a lot of work nowadays that keeps Native people in the past. We don’t exist now and I’ve always hated that.”
While Mattel now sells Barbies with more varied body shapes and skin colours, as well as a line modelled after important female figures, there are still no Indigenous Barbies, save for collectible “Native American” figures.
Ballantyne isn’t sure exactly why Mattel approached her to be a face of the brand at the end of October, but thinks her efforts to see women who look like her in front of the camera contributed.
She was initially hesitant, she says, because she barely played with Barbies as a child. But she says she’s encouraged by the wide variety of careers now reflected in the dolls’ outfits, including scientists, chefs and engineers.
“What Barbie means to little girls is just this idea of seeing yourself in something important,” she says.
“I realized that little girls and some boys see Barbie as an extension of themselves.”
She says she thinks that as Indigenous children learn about intergenerational trauma and racism, they also need to be empowered.
“I just really want to inspire little kids, especially little kids from our rez, to know that they can achieve their dreams too.”