The Problem with The Rosa Parks Barbie

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tags: civil rights, African American history, Rosa Parks, Barbie

Andrea S. Johnson is an associate professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who specializes in the history of the intersection of religion and social movements. She is currently working on a book-length project on tactics of the civil rights movement and is currently co-chair of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements unit of the American Academy of Religion. You can find her on twitter @HistoryAndFaith.‚Äč


This week Mattel proudly announced two new dolls in The Inspiring Women Series of Barbies.  Civil rights activist Rosa Parks and astronaut Sally Ride join a line that has previously featured aviator Amelia Earhart, artist Frida Kahlo, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. The description of Rosa Parks though is a bit lacking as it claims that she “led an ordinary life as a seamstress until an extraordinary moment on December 1, 1955.” She is described as having a “quiet strength” that “played a notable role in the civil rights movement…”   The problem with these descriptions is that they reduce her once again to the tired woman on the bus, an image that can be found in the 1957 comic book The Montgomery Story designed by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to promote nonviolent activism. In the comic book, Parks “quietly” refuses to move because she was tired and her feet hurt. 


In reality, Rosa Park’s moment on the bus was a planned, strategic act and her life before it anything but ordinary.  In her early 40s, she was an established local activist working with the Montgomery branch of the NAACP.  As Danielle L. McGuire has described in At the Dark End of the Street, Rosa Parks worked to investigate rape cases. This included the 1944 rape of Recy Taylor, featured in a recent documentary.  Parks had also previously resisted unfair treatment on the busses; the same bus driver removed her from a bus years before.  That previous summer, she attended Highlander Folk School, an institution that once focused on labor organizing, but began to focus on segregation issues in the 1950s. 


None of this is groundbreaking information about Rosa Parks.  Historians have been discussing her prior activism for well over a decade. A great short summary of her long term activism can be found in Jeanne Theoharis’ chapter “’A Life History of Being Rebellious:’ the Radicalism of Rosa Parks” from 2009. The problem is that the more in-depth narrative that historians have worked hard to reconstruct is continually lost in public consumption.


The history of the civil rights movement includes national narratives and local narratives.  The national narratives typically follow large organizations or noted figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Taylor Branch’s series on America In the King Years tends to fit the national narrative. The local narratives focus on individuals or groups who were more important on a regional level. John Dittmer’s Bancroft prize winning Local Peoplewas one of the earliest examples of a historical work that examines the stories of those working in Mississippi. Most civil rights scholars would recognize that there is value in both, and that the civil rights movement could not have been as effective without either level.   However, the national narrative continues to dominate discussions in the larger public sphere.  


This national narrative is decidedly a masculine one.  This is partially because civil rights leaders made sure that the public face of the movement was masculine.  Civil rights leaders sought to ensure that black men, often deprived of leadership roles in the workforce and broader community, had the opportunity to be recognized leaders within the movement.  This was driven to some degree by Cold War era beliefs about proper gender roles within the home that impacted all Americans. Some women in the movement accommodated this leadership vision, some challenged it, and others worked around it, but at the end of the day they were rarely portrayed as leaders. For example, no women spoke at the March on Washington and James Meredith did not invite women to join March Against Fear.


This masculine national narrative is what appears most commonly in our school curriculums and textbooks.  Take for example the History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools.  Rosa Parks is the only female civil rights advocate listed in the examples for 11.10.4.  Similarly, in the Alabama Course of Study, Parks is the only woman listed for the 4th grade (standard 14) and 6th grade (standard 9) requirements.  Alabama does, however, extend the 11th grade list (standard 14) to include Autherine Lucy and Vivian Malone Jones. Students in Alabama might then receive a more nuanced civil rights education, one that at least in the upper grades makes room for a local vision which includes more women.  However, textbook companies publish texts which will match a number of state curriculums so a story that would be of interest in Alabama may not sell in the more heavily populated California. A national narrative then is convenient but woefully incomplete.


Herein lies the problem with the Barbie version of Parks. It is focused on her role in the national narrative of the civil rights movement.  Her given narrative is that she, out of nowhere, has an “extraordinary moment” and then “quietly” moves to the edges of the picture. Her earlier work, her time as an advocate for rape victims, her previous attempts to change the bus system, and her other NAACP work is only visible if we stop and think about her as part of a local narrative, a story which is admittedly harder to sell given the public’s lack of familiarity with it.  Mattel has an opportunity here to do more. We can only hope they will.