BRONZEVILLE — Local stores are already selling out of a Barbie doll celebrating Chicago activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.
The limited edition doll, which was unveiled last week, is part of toymaker Mattel’s Inspiring Women series. Wells was a trailblazing journalist who famously investigated lynchings of Black Americans and spent many years in Chicago, dying here in 1931.
The response to the Barbie has been moving and overwhelming for author Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Wells.
“We were hoping that the doll would be well-received, but we never expected this level of excitement,” said Duster, who worked on the concept for the doll with her brother, Dan, and Mattel’s development team.
Mattel designer Linda Jiang wrote in an Instagram post she began sketching the doll in between protests in 2020. Inspired by the suffragette’s life, Jiang aimed to capture the time when Wells was editor in chief of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, where she launched her anti-lynching work.
Duster, who has worked on several projects honoring Wells, said she and her brother threw themselves into the Barbie project. They carefully researched every detail that would go into the doll and a photoshoot to announce it, from Wells’ dress to the photoshoot’s newsroom setting.
The doll’s blue dress was inspired by artist Patricia Watwood’s 2006 portrait of Wells, for which Watwood rented a period dress and “painted it from life,” according to a Realism Today post.
It took the team a little more than a year to create the doll, Duster said.
“My brother really enjoyed it. He just wanted to know how a doll was produced, and Mattel was very inclusive in asking us questions about everything, like her hairstyle and her eye color,” Duster said. “I even looked up what newsrooms looked like in the late 1800s — the typewriter, the desk, all that.”
While the Ida B. Wells Barbie is already flying off the shelves of some area stores — the State Street Target has already sold out — it’s still available on the Mattel Creations site for $35, with a limit of three per customer. Target and Walmart sell the dolls at their stores.
Duster said she’s seeing a lot of people express interest in buying the doll for themselves, some seeking inspiration.
“It’s so interesting how the doll might be used by people. Mattel created the series in order to inspire young girls to be all they can be and learn about historical figures, but from what I’m seeing on social media, a lot of adults are going, ‘I want to put this doll on my shelf, or next to my computer, for motivation,'” Duster said.
The doll is the latest in a recent string of honors for Wells. She was honored in 2020 with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize special citation for her journalism, had a monument in her honor erected in Bronzeville last year and had a Chicago street renamed for her in 2018.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: