Whatever the latest trend is— be it flared jeans, Basquiat prints or women empowerment— Barbie will seize the opportunity to boost their sales. In February of 2020, Barbie’s mothership, Mattel created an homage to international female athletes by releasing a women-empowering doll collection celebrating sportive heroines. While the collection was designed to be “inclusive,” Mattel seems to have forgotten one fundamental detail—Asian representation.
In the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Surfer Doll’s online product description Mattel states, “When a girl plays with Barbie®, she imagines everything she can become, and if you love waves and water and going for the gold, then you can be a surfer!” But can you be a surfer if you’re an AAPI girl? Not according to Barbie. This said girl clearly does not include Asian girls, given that Barbie’s new Olympic Games doll collection only features Black, white and Latino dolls.
Encouraging young children to take examples from recognized women athletes is a refreshing step after Barbie spent decades training young girls to “nurture” and covet unnatural beauty standards. However, if some children are left out in identifying with dolls that just don't look like them, then distributing diverse doll collections becomes pointless. This begs the question: are omissions of certain races accidental, or are corporations simply afraid to enter the geopolitical conversation and potentially harm their financial gain?
The Barbie website features a Black surfer, a presumably Latina softball player, followed by three white athletes. Not only were the 2020 Tokyo Olympics set in one of the most widely visited cities in Asia, but the upcoming Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing. In a sportively notable year for the AAPI community, breaking numerous records and attaining historic athletic achievements, it is simply unjustifiable that Barbie forgets about Asian representation.
Second only to the USA, who won 39 medals, China took home 38 gold medals from the Olympics and Japan an impressive 27. Two Japanese athletes, Sakura Yosozumi and Momiji Nishiya, took home skateboarding gold medals, Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee won a gold medal in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition and Chinese Quan Hongchan scored perfect 10’s in two of her dives at just 14 years of age. It’s hard to attribute Mattel’s omission to an innocent mistake with over 32 thousand employees, one bound to be woke enough to point out this is socially tone-deaf and suspiciously convenient oversight.
Perhaps Mattel is too afraid of upsetting white American consumers with Asian representation in the midst of Coronavirus racism. Indeed, it would appear that like other major U.S. corporations, Mattel’s intentions are not directed towards forward-thinking audiences but, rather, yields the most profits. At the end of the day, Mattel seems to have deemed diversity and inclusion as too costly.
The 2020 Olympic Games were initially subject to much skepticism. Potential Covid spread and inevitable financial loss to Japan’s economy were not the best way to start. Nevertheless, the Olympics went ahead and proved to be exceptional in its achievements. Historic records were broken, athletes proved their perseverance in times of struggle, Simone Biles drew attention to athletic mental health and spectators from all over the world gathered on their couches to celebrate friendly global competition.
In a time when Asian hate has propagated so fiercely following the pandemic — referred to as the “Chinese virus” by former President Trump and his Republican supporters — positive AAPI representation and inclusion is especially crucial. Conspiracy theorists worldwide have pointed to China, accusing the country of intentionally engineering the virus. Alternatively, ill-informed armchair experts attributed the virus’ spread to China’s mythical low hygiene levels. As a result, racism and hate crimes targeting the AAPI community have risen by nearly 150% between 2019 and 2020 in the United States. In New York City alone, hate crimes rose from three incidents in 2019 to 28 in 2020.
"The FBI assesses hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease […] endangering Asian American communities," states the intelligence report distributed to local law enforcement agencies across the country in March 2020. "The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations."
Rhetoric like the former U.S. President’s is a dangerous vector for Asian hate, antagonizing Asian-looking individuals with derogatory labels such as “Kung flu.” To cite one among the numerous examples of chilling hate crimes, an Asian American family, including a two-year-old, was stabbed in Texas in March of last year. The attacker later confessed that he specifically attacked the family because he thought they were Chinese and, as such, were infecting others with the virus. Now more than ever, expanding positive, celebratory content of Asian culture in the media is therefore pivotal.
When Disney released Mulan’s live-action movie last year, many AAPI viewers were pleased to see members of their community take center stage in cinema. However, following the discovery that certain scenes were filmed where Chinese Muslim minorities are detained in mass internment camps and that lead actress Liu Yifei expressed support for the “One China” ideology, people boycotted the movie. But why did Disney roll out an extensive marketing campaign? To increase AAPI representation? Nope, for the same nearly 1.4 billion sets of eyes that all of Hollywood is trying to entice.
Last year’s “Mulan” debut in Chinese cinemas was merely an effort “to court Chinese consumers, drawing them to its stores and theme parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong,” according to the Wall Street Journal. After the low box office revenue of the 1998 “Mulan” in China, Disney was keen on a second chance at gathering moviegoers and conquering the wide Chinese market.
Though Mattel has yet to recognize the size and economic value of the Asian market, they have obviously hopped aboard the bandwagon of the women’s empowerment movement. Released over the summer, Mattel’s latest First Responders Heroes collection of six diverse dolls inspired by actual medics and nurses is a prime example. The collection features one doll depicting AAPI frontline worker Dr. Audrey Sue Cruz. Mattel chose to include the US, the UK, Brazil, Canada and Australia; would it have cost them so dearly to add a doll representing a medical heroine from Asia?
We all make mistakes, a little humbling and introspection are important for growth. However, with corporations like Barbie which have been around for over sixty years and boast thousands of employees, a brief history check to gain insight into their track record is appropriate.
Created by co-founder Ruth Handler (a white woman), the first Barbie dolls — white, of course— came out in 1959, only varying in their hair colors, either blonde or brunette. Ten years later, Barbie’s Black friend Christie was released; the side character. It wasn’t until 1981 that, in an effort to come off as more worldly, Barbie started selling the “Oriental Barbie Doll.” Submerged in explicit colonialism, Western superiority and a pinch of perverse curiosity of the “other,” the corporation’s first inclusion of an Asian doll was nothing short of disgraceful. The Barbie company has had anti-Asian issues from the very beginning.
Medium blogger and single-mother to a young girl, Shannon Ashley commented on Barbie’s oafish efforts to be more inclusive and her difficulty in finding diverse Barbie doll playsets. “For parents or children who want a different doll, say one that’s less white, or even less perfectly proportioned? You’ve got to shop a different line altogether. Make no mistake here—diversity is still not the norm.”
Also noteworthy is Barbie’s “Inspiring Women” doll collection, released in August 2019. Shockingly, only two out of five dolls are white. Less shockingly, the public’s overwhelming reaction was “too little, too late.” Featuring Rosa Parks, Amelia Earheart, Sally Ride, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson, this collection was meant to honor strong real-life women while empowering young girls. However, this begs the question, why now? Barbie appears to be less led by progressive beliefs and more by what is currently trendy be it pink high heels or the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Especially troublesome is their description of Rosa Parks, saying that she “led an ordinary life as a seamstress until an extraordinary moment on Dec. 1.” As Jeanne Theoharis’ twitter account points out, Rosa Parks had been a criminal justice and voting registration activist for decades prior to her arrest. Expanding further in the comments, she writes “Time & again, Parks said her stand for justice was not a one-day thing for her. ‘Over the years I have been rebelling against second class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested.’ Mattel calls this doll series "Inspiring Women" but distorts her actual inspiring life.” Mattel was tagged in the tweet but never responded.
The issue here is not an innocent faux pas, it is a racist pattern that has been prevalent over the last sixty years and still continues to this day. Mattel is afraid that AAPI dolls won't sell in middle America, now more than ever.
Despite the promise that “Barbie is the most diverse and inclusive doll line” and that Mattel “believes in the power of representation,” the proof is in the plaything. While their public diversity mission is righteous on the surface, their lack of commitment and courage to represent all races leaves us with an aftertaste of cowardice.