A ragtag group of regulars lived in my Barbie Dreamhouse. The leader of the pack was a Disney Matchmaker Magic Mulan doll, who wore a reversible dynastic outfit and had a face that turned white when you dabbed it with water. Eventually, her face froze that way. Her sidekick was a Mulan Happy Meal toy, which was only a third the size of a Barbie. When you’re a Korean-American kid growing up in the suburbs, your imagination can close any racial gap.
Last month, Mattel announced on Twitter a new collection of Barbie body types — tall, petite, curvy, and regular — along with seven new skin tones and 22 eye colors. They tagged it #TheDollEvolves.
For all the good intentions, the doll’s evolution wasn’t very intelligently designed. There are no curvy Asian Barbies, for instance, only the svelte, long-haired version with the fringe bangs, as per the stereotype. It’s just another familiar chapter Asian Barbie’s history.
It begins in 1981 with Oriental Barbie, whose uniform included “lustrous black hair,” a red and gold dress, and a fan that made her seem “dainty and elegant in [her] costume reflecting the influence of the Orient,” according to Barbie’s website.
Oriental Barbie was a catchall of Asian cultures but did serve as a part of the “cultural safari” for American children. Critic Kevin Powell coined that phrase to explain why white males embrace hip-hop, but the same holds for Oriental Barbie, whose nondescript Asianness perfectly illustrates a lingering Orientalism.
Everyone in my Dreamhouse had a role: a black Barbie dressed as a train conductor, a white Barbie in roller skates, and then a broad-shouldered Disney Mulan doll wrapped in silken robes because she could not fit in the others’ clothes.
A few years later, Mattel began selling Korea Barbie. “Anyaha simnika! (Hello!) from South Korea,” the back of the box proclaimed. “Our main crop in South Korea is rice. At harvest time, farmers’ families work together to bring in the crops. . . . The children eat rice candies and fly beautiful kites shaped like dragons and fish.”
By the 21st century, Mattel was still trying to strike the right balance — and failing badly. China Barbie, from 2011, holds a baby panda. 2012’s India Barbie is marketed as “Bollywood-ready” and comes with a “monkey friend.” Japan Ken, meanwhile, carries a katana sword and is described as “both handsome and exotic” — just in case kids thought these two adjectives were mutually exclusive.
Today, the only two Barbies listed as “Asian” on Barbie’s website that aren’t dressed in traditional garb are the 2014 Asian entrepreneur doll, equipped with a tablet frozen on a stock market site, and the 2012 “I Can Be President” doll. The doll and the brand are evolving, however slowly.
It’s also likely no coincidence that this new, more inclusive collection came after years of falling Barbie sales. Considering that the US Census Bureau projects that there will be 40.6 million Asian-Americans living in the United States by 2050, Mattel’s baby steps toward real diversity may pay off.
Toy brands that market themselves as progressive have an ethical responsibility to think about representation carefully. The Asian Barbie should not exist as the slender, pretty afterthought in Mattel’s multicultural design room, nor as a special edition member of the American population.
Kelly Kasulis is a senior majoring in journalism at Northeastern University.