Let's talk about Barbie again, or rather, Barbie's friends. Babs has had plenty throughout the years. Some of 'em have had a near constant presence in her life, like Ken and Teresa. Some are constantly in and out, making sporadic appearances over the years like Midge has done. Some were by Barbie's side for a number of years and then abruptly disappeared, like Kira, P.J., and possibly Christie. And there have been plenty who were there for only a year or so, maybe even a shorter time than that, before disappearing into Mattel History. Such is the case of one of Barbie's black friends, Shani.
1993 Sun Jewel line. The theme was beachwear, and I could share my memories about the Sun Jewel dolls but we'd be here all night (we had a lot of fun with them, LOL). Anywho, Shani is not one of my childhood friends. She came along when I was about twenty, and I fell in love with her pretty face so I kept her. She's missing a couple of toes and her hair required a boil wash, but she's cleaned up pretty well.
This evening I remembered reading that Shani was part of a spin-off series of Barbie friends, so while my Shani changed into something more comfortable I did a little research. First and foremost, Shani's name is not pronounced the way I thought it would. I thought it was prounounced "Shuh-NY." In truth, the name is pronounced "SHAW-nee," like the Shawnee Indians. According to this link, Shani's name is Swahili and means "Marvelous."
The second thing I found involved Shani's world as a whole. She had two girlfriends, one named Nichelle and the other named Asha. Nichelle was the darkest of the bunch and had a new face mold with a closed smile, while Asha was the lightest and had an open-mouthed smile. In this way Shani and her friends remind me of the So In Style dolls, both in numbers and in concept. Both lines initially had three dolls, and both lines focused on dolls of color.
Shani's world eventually expanded to include a boyfriend (another parallel to the S.I.S. line), or at least, a boy who was a friend. His name was Jamal, and as far as I can tell he made his entrance with the Soul Train wave. He wore an African-inspired outfit (as did all the Soul Train dolls) complete with a Kente cloth kofia (hat) and what appears to be a matching dashiki (shirt). I find it fitting that Jamal would be wearing such items, since they're worn dominantly by those who speak Swahili. You may recall that Shani's name is Swahili. Anywho, I like Jamal. His face has a lot of character, more so than a lot of modern-day Ken dolls. He'd make a good catch for ANY female in Barbie's scale. As an aside, if you want to know more about the Soul Train line, Debbie Behan Garrett has this post available. Miss Debbie is a wonderful resource for dolls of color.
I'm not entirely sure why Shani and her friends disappeared, though I can definitely hazard a guess. My assumption is that her story ended the way the Generation Girls' story did; the line didn't make enough money so Mattel did away with it. Either way Shani and her friends had only a short run, lasting around three years ('92, '93, and '94). Not long enough to cause a stir, right? WRONG!!! Shani was created partially to reach out to black children, and it worked; little girls of color fell in love, and Ebony Magazine lauded her as a doll that "reflected...natural beauty." But there were critics, of course...and they seized upon the very thing that has nipped at Barbie's heels since 1959. Yep, Shani was too skinny. Her legs were longer than the average woman's, her waist was nipped in too much, and her breasts were too big. Some even went so far as to gripe about hair, saying that Shani and her friends had too much of it. Mattel was able to rebut that one, saying that "little girls like to...comb and style their long hair." As for the body, if one uses common sense one would understand why Shani's body is so similar to Barbie's. They ARE friends, after all. Similar bodies enable the two to share clothes!
Even though Shani, Asha, Nichelle, and Jamal have been gone for over twenty years, little reminders pop up from time to time. Barbie's friend Christie has been seen with both the Asha head mold and the Nichelle head mold, as did Barbie herself when she was rendered in a black skin tone. Also noteworthy are two of Barbie's friends from the millennial era. First there were the aforementioned Generation Girls. The Girls consisted of Barbie, six international female friends, and one guy going to a fancy school in NYC. One of the females was a cute black doll named...Nichelle.
The other doll of interest is Shawnee, from the Mystery Squad.
Kenzie! And frankly, the only thing that saves her in my eyes is her hair. The Mystery Squad was a cute concept with cute clothes and accessories, but I can see why the line fell flat.
Oh yes, the name Nichelle did make one other appearance.
Model of the Moment line. She shares a name with Shani's friend, but otherwise is a pretty far cry from the doll that little girls played with over two decades ago. She's on the Model Muse body, thus rendering her a doll meant for adults. Her skin is very dark, darker even than the original Nichelle's. Her hair is similar in style to Generation Girl Nichelle's. And her face? Well...I'm not sure where that mold came from, but it's definitely not Shani's, nor that of either of her friends. In fact, it's not even the Mbili face! Anyone know what the name of that head mold is???
It's interesting how Mattel works, innut? You think a doll line is dead forever and then it may crop up again years later. I personally prefer the original Shani, simply for the reason that not everyone remembers her. Most of my fellow doll collectors know Midge, Teresa, Kira, and Christie, and they remember shorter-lived friends like Jamie, Stacey, and Steffie. Usually when I run into someone who likes Shani, that's an indication to me that they're a fairly serious collector. Either that, or they owned one as a child and have some great memories!
Oh, and my Shani? Yeah, she got comfy like she said she would.
Happy Black History Month,
UPDATE, 2/28/2015: Apparently the first wave of Barbie Basics were supposed to have individual names. If this had come to pass, Model #4 would have been named NICHELLE!!! It never came to be, but those who own a Model #4 in the little black dress can consider themselves owners of a Nichelle doll. If you need a refresher, here's what Model #4 looked like.