By Susan Chang
Are we putting too much focus on the importance of an Asian Barbie?
Journalist Kelly Kasulis argues in the Boston Globe that the evolution of the dolls, the Asian Barbies in particular, has become “another familiar chapter of Asian Barbie’s history”. Mattel’s recently unveiled “curvy, petite, and tall versions” of the iconic Barbie doll ,which has received criticism for its unrealistically thin body for decades. Kasulis argues that “toy brands that market themselves as progressive have an ethical responsibility to think about representation carefully.”
I question the purpose of striving for a Barbie collection that realistically portrays the diverse population of young girls and women. Using the author’s own words, “your imagination can close any racial gap.”
When the author chronicles Mattel failed attempts to “strike the right balance” for Asian Barbie, the author assumes that most people want Barbies that look like themselves and that people want them as behavioral role models. She finds grievance in Asian Barbie not having a curvy version, and maintains the stereotype of the thin, svelte Asian woman. I agree with the author that “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”, but we also have to agree that the variety of shapes, sizes, cultures, and values that exist within Asian America can never be represented by any scale within a Barbie collection. It is these abstract concepts–cultures, values, and behaviors–that young girls take cues from. Ask any adult who their role model was as children, and not very many, if any, will say some toy guided their lives in significant ways.
The author notes that the only listed “Asian” Barbies that aren’t dressed in traditional garb are the Asian entrepreneur doll and the “I Can Be President” doll. Even if Mattel produced Barbies that are representative of many career possibilities, combined with any combination of body shapes and race and ethnicities, how much can a piece of plastic inspire a young girl?
Are Barbie dolls, or any dolls, meant to be role models for young girls? A Cambridge University study showed that female infants as young as one day old show a stronger interest in faces, while male infants favored mechanical objects. If we are to use the result of the study to, albeit in a simplistic argument, explain why girls who prefer dolls are encouraged to nurture such preferences, couldn’t we take it one step further and encourage girls to seek the faces of successful women in real life?
No matter how the collection of Asian Barbies or the rest of the doll collection evolves, Barbies are and have always been a fashion toy. Even as scientific research either show that unrealistically thin dolls have effects on young girls’ body image or show inconclusive evidence, the process of social influences and seeking inspiration is a complex one, even for little girls. One of the studies even showed that in older girls, the “immediate negative impact [desire for a thinner body shape] of Barbie doll was no longer evident”. This suggests that greater social influences come into play after a time in a girl’s life. Even if Asian Barbie’s evolution “wasn’t intelligently designed”, shouldn’t we focus on the evolution of realistic role models for young girls, which has been successful thus far?
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