It all started with the debut of the “Asian Ken” doll recently. “Finally!” some bloggers exclaimed, relieved at last to have the first ever Asian male addition to the Barbie family. And then the exultation turned to sour disappointment, anger, and then ridicule, when people actually saw this Asian Ken looks, as Dolls of Color put it, “like he’s going to some cosplay convention.”
Many have decried the fact that Asian Ken looks nothing like a modern Asian man. “Why couldn’t they have put him in a tshirt and jeans?” they say. And, true, a negligible few in modern–and I’ll bet even fewer in feudal–Japan actually walked around looking like this dashing Japanese Ken doll and his mate, a geisha dominatrix. But it’s not like Barbie manufacturer Mattel invented stereotypical depictions of “ethnic” dolls with this Ken alone. No, not at all.
Mattel for example has made enough American Indian Barbies that they’re up to their fourth edition now. That’s also not counting their “Eskimo” Barbie, who is herself just one of dozens in Mattel’s truly exhaustive Dolls of the World collection, where Asian Ken hails from. Not every nationality makes the cut–there are sadly just four African Barbies for at least fifteen European representatives, and I didn’t see any Puerto Rican or Iranian or Vietnamese Barbies. Shucks.
Yes, these dolls are severely reductive and cliched and in many cases offensive, but people buying Barbies for their kids are likely already inculcating them with plenty of other damaging cultural attitudes about gender, beauty and body type. (It’s hard to criticize Barbies without railing against all of Western civilization.) Why not add hackneyed depictions of people of color to the mix?
So please enjoy the global lineup of Barbies–including a few bonus Barbies from Mattel’s “Festivals of the World” collection. Kwanzaa Barbie, meet “Chinese New Year” Barbie.