Tracing the history of “Asian” Barbie

Mattel “evolved” by creating a more inclusive line of Barbies with a range of skin colors, eye colors and body types. “Asian” Barbie, however, doesn’t come with a curvy figure – a look at the brand’s history of perpetuating stereotypes.


 

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Curvy, petite, tall and original – using the hashtag #TheDollEvolves, Mattel announced its release of three new body types for their Barbie brand dolls last Thursday. As a lover of toys and a recent buyer of a 1988 South Korea Barbie, I checked the new collection for Asian representation and, no doubt, Asian barbies are included. But I noticed one other thing: there were nocurvy Asian dolls in the collection.

One of the everlasting stereotypes of Asian women is that they are naturally thin, and it seems that Mattel agrees – the company is arguably making a statement by omission when they exclude an Asian “curvy” doll. Such a statement, however, is lost in the excitement of an iconic brand marketing progressive ideas of inclusion, “evolution” and increased diversity; A quick analysis using Keyhole.co and Social Mention show mostly neutral or positive use of the #TheDollEvolves hashtag online, with an estimated reach of over 3.6 million.

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The new Barbie collection includes seven skin tones and four body types, including curvy, tall, petite and original.

To be fair, the new Barbies definitely could be a sign of progress in the arena of diversity and representation. When I was a kid, a Disney brand Mulan and a smaller, 1998 McDonalds Happy Meal Mulan doll were the closest things I had to this. Disney Mulan was too large to fit into Barbie’s more modern, stylish clothes (so she always looked like she was from a Dynastic era) and Happy Meal Mulan’s limbs became too nimble and loose from overuse. These dolls were distinctly foreign in the way they were designed, while my white and black barbies at the time were American roller skaters, flight attendants and veterinarians.

I decided to dig deeper. Was it always this way?


 

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Asian Barbies and the “Dolls of the World” Collection

Kevin Powell, a renown politics and culture writer, once referred to the widespread suburban, white male consumption of hip hop music as a “cultural safari.” The phrase alludes to a sense of fascination with a facet of another’s culture.

As cultural critic Kevin Powell puts it, white fascination with hip-hop is ‘just a cultural safari for white people.’ It’s safe because you can ‘take it off.’ … Cultural identification does not necessarily lead to political alliance. (Michael Kimmel, The Gendered Society)

For Mattel in the 1980s, there may have been a market opportunity to create dolls that allowed young Americans to join in on a similar “cultural safari.” Several Barbies were designed and packaged to represent a country, often dressed in Mattel’s rendition of the culture’s traditional garb. For Asian Barbies, the first one likely was the 1981 “Oriental Barbie,” marketed as “dainty and elegant in [her] costume reflecting the influence of the Orient.” Barbie’s official website describes Oriental Barbie in a way that emphasizes her “long, slender” dress and “lustrous black hair.”

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Oriental Barbie, 1981

The stereotypical imagery in these words mirrored Oriental Barbie’s nondescript “Asian-ness.” And other than the sheer irritation of Oriental Barbie not having any specific ethnicity, America’s first Asian Barbie is problematic in that it speaks to an era (and a continued phenomenon) in which Asian-Americans are inherently made to feel both foreign and all the same. It reminds me, a hapa Korean-American, of all the times people assumed I am Chinese (I’m not).

Oriental Barbie’s vagueness is a great example of a term coined by Sociologist Robert Park called the “racial uniform.” Journalist Alex Tizon elaborates on this term in his book, Big Little Man, arguing that people become more “Asian” the longer they’ve been in the United States.

Years of checking “Asian” on countless forms, of being subjected to the same racial epithets and compliments … all of these would compel young Vietnamese, Cambodians and Filipinos to accept their belonging to the category known as Asians. Perhaps the most unifying force was the perception that everyday Americans saw them as the same (57)

To be fair,  I am not condemning Mattel as a source of evil.

Oriental Barbie is largely a product of her time – a period when Asian American issues were just being heard.

A year after Oriental Barbie’s release, the infamous murder of Vincent Chin garnered national media attention.

Chin, A Chinese-American just days away from his wedding, was mistaken as Japanese. He was brutally murdered by two white, auto industry workers who were angry at layoffs and the rise of Japanese cars. The murderers didn’t serve any jail time, and Chin’s tragic death is often regarded as the starting point of a pan-Asian civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, just a few years after Oriental Barbie came out, country-specific Asian Barbies were released.

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1985 Japan Barbie (left) and 1988 Korea Barbie (right)

When I first unwrapped my $9 eBay purchase of the 1988 Korean Barbie, I raised an eyebrow at the back of the box and attempted to imagine myself as a white, suburban 9-year-old in the 1980s. Without access to a personal computer or likely much pop culture coming out of Korea, my perceptions of South Koreans would likely be based off of this description:

Anyaha simnika! (Hello!) from South Korea, “The Land of the Morning Calm” … Seoul is the capital city of South Korea. It’s one of the world’s 20 largest cities! Our main crop in South Korea is rice. At harvest time, farmers’ families work together to bring in the crops. Each year there is a Harvest Festival in Seoul to celebrate the end of the spring planting. There are jugglers, acrobats, dancers and magicians. The children eat rice candies and fly beautiful kites shaped like dragons and fish.

The end of the lengthy description encouraged kids to consider visiting “The Land of the Morning Calm” and made a point to distinguish South Korea and its language from China and Japan – perhaps a step of progress considering there was just one overall-Asian, “Oriental Barbie” seven years earlier.

In total, Mattel created 17 “Dolls of the World” Barbies between 1981 and 2012. The 1990s recreated some of these Barbies while adding others, such as Malaysian Barbie, Chinese Barbie and Thai Barbie. Between 2000 – 2012, Sumatra-Indonesia Barbie, Philippines Barbie and a Japanese Ken were also added.

And they may have reinforced stereotypes.

According to the Barbie website, Japanese Ken is the first (and perhaps only) ever Ken doll to be added to the Dolls of the World Collection, describing him as “both handsome and exotic.” The Indian Barbie is “Bollywood ready,” and comes with a “monkey friend,” while the Chinese Barbie comes with a panda (facepalm).

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(Left to Right) Chinese Barbie, Japanese Ken and Indian Barbie; Japanese Ken and Chinese Barbie were designed by Linda Kyaw.

Some may argue that fashion is at the very core of this collection, as it is with the Barbie brand. The traditional attire can be perceived as celebratory of a variety of cultures and histories, even if they present them in a stereotypical, “othering” way.

There’s also the question of whether or not Barbie and other toy manufacturers have an ethical responsibility to be fair and representative with their products.

Right now, Barbie is more or less arguing that it does – the hashtag #TheDollEvolves essentially recognizes that things should have been done differently in the past; that the company has evolved to being more aware.


 

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Barbies are usually not labeled “Asian”

Mattel’s “Dolls of the World” collection make it easy to identify Asian Barbies. The other collections don’t.

Whether or not Mattel is willing to explicitly identify some of their past characters as Asian, the truth is that consumers have already done it for them. Fan sites for Barbie collectors and third-party sellers online often decide the racial backgrounds of the dolls kids are playing with, as this website did by charting Barbie’s “ethnic friends” based on face molds Mattel used in the past to create Barbie’s friend characters.

After searching through a variety of sites, I identified a few characters who were widely identified as Asian. Many of them were built using a base “oriental face sculpt:”

  • Dana, who appeared in the “Barbie and The Rockers” band collection (1986 – 1987)
  • Becky, from the 1988 “Barbie and The Sensations” band collection
  • Miko, a vaguely Hawaiian or Asian/Pacific Islander doll presented under branding such as “Beach Blast,” “Island Fun” and “Tropical Friend” (1980s)
  • Kira, the seemingly 1990s version of Miko, who is usually dressed for the beach but also appeared as a super hero and an “all-American” wearing Reebok shoes
  • Lea, a current Asian doll with no particular associations
  • Raquellea character created in 2007 who took on an Asian identity starting in 2011. She is also a villainous character in the Barbie: A Fairy Secret movie and Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse web series.

Raquelle, the problematic person of color

The Barbie website does not say whether or not Raquelle is Asian, but reviews of Raquelle dolls on Toys R Us, Amazon and blogs are telling me that many people think she is.

She may pass as an Asian character to children if she is passing as one to adults. If Raquelle was in the toy aisles when I was in 2003, my third-grade self would have wanted to believe that she was Asian.

Others may perceive her to be Hispanic or Latina, since the name Raquel (spelled differently) is Spanish and because the character rolls her R’s when she’s on a scheming rant about her master plans.

But so long as Raquelle is a person of color, her role may be problematic.

In Life in the Dreamhouse, Raquelle is Barbie’s wealthy “frenemy” who exhibits jealous, overly-competitive, and openly devious behavior. She tries (and fails) at winning Ken’s heart while he remains smitten by blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie.

Furthermore, Barbie lacks character flaws – she is usually clueless or chooses to take the moral high round while Raquelle greenly curses her perpetual second place status.

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Screenshot of Raquelle

In one scene, Raquelle competes in a runway show against Barbie and falls off the stage into Ken’s arms. Ken asks if Raquelle is okay, to which she lewdly responds, “I am now – how about we ditch this low-rent production?”

Barbie then appears on the stage and instantly dazzles the crowd with her beauty – so much that Ken absentmindedly drops Raquelle and screams out to Barbie that he loves her.

The lesson is clear: the people of color in this show are no match for the prettier, more successful, more humble (white) Barbie.

Raquelle is the character we all want to laugh at, who we all want to feel pain. She can be seen getting hit in the face with frisbees or running from a mall cop who shoots stickers at her.

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Raquelle is chased by the mall cop, even though she tried to place the blame on someone else
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Ken is at first impressed by Raquelle’s castle, but ultimately declares Barbie “the winner”

In one episode, Raquelle works hard on a sandcastle at the beach to impress Ken, but he instead is impressed by Barbie’s “architectural masterpiece.”

Raquelle’s brother Ryan, also a person of color, is a reinforcement of the “white wins” tale. Like Raquelle, Ryan’s one goal is to win the heart of the white protagonist, Barbie. Spoiler: Barbie is more interested in Ken.

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Ryan, Raquelle’s brother

Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse song encompasses this sentiment – called “Everybody Needs a Ken,” Barbie sings lyrics like, “Your smiling face, not a hair out of place, you’re a dream come true,” to a music video which largely depicts herself and Ken as perfect and Raquelle and Ryan as scheming losers.

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Ken at Barbie’s door with a box of chocolates in “Everybody Needs a Ken”

I’m not the only one who noticed this. A tumblr blogger took similar issue with the show in August 2012, lamenting that the mostly-white cast overshadows and demeans background, vaguely person of color characters. The blogger cited a scene in which Barbie emerges out of the ocean water with perfect hair, while Raquelle’s hair springs up into an afro. Even worse, a fish gets caught in her hair:

The tumblr user is right: this is unforgivably offensive.

One little joke, so much racist propaganda. Raquelle’s inferiority to Barbie, itself already a bit ‘meah’ because I have no clue what she is but she sure doesn’t score as many Caucasian points as Barbie, in this joke is manifested through the use of white hair vs black hair, with white hair being presented as the good option and black hair the undesirable one. On top of that, it plays into the racist myth that black hair is unkempt, as the fish is clearly absent from Raquelle’s hair when it still resembles the Caucasian look (Parrotbeak.tumblr.com).

The show, which started only four years ago, has little excuse for this regressive, racially-charged humor. And it is certainly not consistent with Barbie’s “new image,” which pushes diversity and acceptance of all types of people.

The point: there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The same year as the season one release of Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, Mattel released the “Barbie for President 2012” doll collection. The collection explicitly labels the four variations of the dolls as “Caucasian, African-American, Asian and Hispanic.”

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2012 Asian “Barbie for President 2012” doll

Released two years later in 2014, an Asian “Entrepreneur” marked what might be the second explicitly, non-“Dolls of the World” Barbie.

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2014 Asian entrepreneur Barbie doll

These dolls, adorned in regular, everyday clothing and representative of ambitious professions area nice step forward. However, these are the only two dolls for sale online that are identified as Asian in a franchise that claims diversity, but seems to  have some very racialized mixed-messaging.

Furthermore, though the newer, “evolved” Barbies are a step in the right direction, one has to remember that this step was made following years of declining sales. It evokes the question of how genuine this inclusion is.

The good news is that, in the meantime, kids have more Asian Barbies to play with. Representation matters, especially for a population that is stereotypically regarded as a group of outsiders. Simon Cottle’s “Ethnic Minorities and the Media: Changing Cultural Boundaries” eloquently explains why:

It is in and through representations, for example, that members of the media audience are variously invited to construct a sense of who ‘we’ are in relation to who ‘we’ are not, whether as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’, ‘citizen’ and ‘foreigner’, ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’, ‘friend’ and ‘foe’, ‘the west’ and ‘the rest.’

I leave you with one thought: according to the US Census Bureau, a projected 40.6 million Asian-Americans will be living in the United States by 2050.

It’s time to make more Asian Barbies.

[For more updates, follow me on Twitter @KasulisK]

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