Oriental Barbie

Oriental Barbie Okay, so a while ago onebrownwoman has this awesome post critiquing the Diwali Barbie. This week, she posts a link to Oriental Barbie but doesn’t have time to comment on it.

Here’s what the page says about this lovely “Doll of the World”:

Oriental Barbie® doll is dainty and elegant in this beautiful costume reflecting the influence of the Orient. Her long, slender yellow dress is trimmed in red, and complemented by a red and golden-flowered jacket. Her lustrous black hair falls gently over her shoulders, and is pulled back to display her lovely face.

Compared to what’s said about some of the other barbies — Thai Barbie is “[a]s beautiful and exotic as the land she represents,” and “Chinese Barbie® exudes the simplistic grace of the Chinese culture.” — that blurb isn’t so bad. The only Asian stereotype that seems to be played up is the “dainty” part. Although it does seem that the American clothing tends to be called an “ensemble” while the non-American clothing tends to get labelled a “costume” (the Asian barbies seem to have their outfits almost exclusively labelled “costumes”).

Let me tell you what other barbies are in this list: India Barbie, Japanese Barbie, Korean Barbie, Malaysian Barbie, Chinese Barbie, Japanese Barbie 2nd Edition, India Barbie 2nd Edition, and Thai Barbie. Aside from there being an India rather than an Indian barbie (done to avoid confusion with the Native American barbies in another part of the collection?), what strikes y’all here? If you said that all of the other barbies come from an actual country and the Oriental Barbie is a blatant representation of the racist stereotypes that the West has lumped onto those they term “orientals” then you win!

I would argue that the term “oriental” is problematic no matter where in the world it is being used, but in America especially, is considered offensive and derogatory when being used on people. Though the doll is technically an inanimate object, she is being used to represent a human being so the usage, therefore, becomes derogatory.

More than that, the “Dolls of the World” series are being used to represent cultures. As I mentioned above, there is no “oriental” culture outside of what Western imperialists in the past lumped together under the heading of “east of us” — what the word really stands for is “exotic” and “Other”, with a focus on Asia and Asia Minor.

Now, it’s important to note that this barbie was not produced during some dark age in American history. It was the beginning of what the Barbie Collector Showcase website labels as the “Dolls of the World: Asia” line, with the date 1981 under it. The collection, by the way, ends with Malaysian Barbie in 1998.

Via Woman of (an)Other Color. Image from Sandys Doll Room.

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11 thoughts on “Oriental Barbie

  1. Also, reading onebrownwoman’s post reminded me of a somewhat related story – I was in a toystore the other week, and they had figurines based off the contemporary Charile’s Angels movies, and the one of Lucy Liu’s character is the same colour as the two white characters. *twitch*

  2. I don’t buy veggies from one particular stand at the Farmer’s Market where I live because I overheard one of the proprietors guffawing as he shilled his wares about how “those Orientals eat dock root” and he thinks it tastes like dirt so how can anybody eat that stuff? They must be desperate! It was reminiscent of so many times I’ve talked about tofu with strangers. I couldn’t believe that someone would be so blatant in making assumptions based on hearsay and then disparaging an entire third of the world’s taste in food, especially while a dozen or so people of various Asian ancestry walked by. I guess the assumption was that they didn’t speak English? Except that in my experience most of our foreign graduate students (most visibly ethnic Chinese and Indian) have excellent English skills, and a goodly number of our appaerent ethnic Chinese and Indian students grew up in the US. Ignorance, ahoy! You might expect better of the hippies, but it’s not happened yet here.

  3. Ariella: Oh, come on, don’t you know that Lucy Liu is really white? No Charlie’s Angel would be anything but a beautiful representation of the all-American woman. (‘scuse me while I go wash out my mouth with soap)

    Denise: I think that Americans tend to assume that since they can only speak one language, that the same goes for everyone else. Not to metion that Americans can only come in white or black (and the latter aren’t as good/pure as the former, of course!). Everyone else is just a dirty foreigner. Days like these I’m ashamed of my country. ._.

  4. I do one-of-a-kind fashion dolls, and I really like the Dolls of the World line for that purpose, because they tend to be really interesting face sculpts, and have cool hair, etc., etc.

    But the way that a single female doll is set up to represent a culture – sometimes a “culture” that doesn’t actually exist – is indeed troubling. On the one hand, I think it’s very cool that Barbie has this series of dolls that are much more diverse than the blonde doll that was ubiquitous in the 80’s and early 90’s. And, as I say, the quality of the craftsmanship in that line of dolls tends to be higher, which makes them attractive to OoaK artists and collectors. But I think I like the message sent by the new(ish) Fashion Fever line much better – those dolls come in a variety of skin-tones, face sculpts, and hair styles and colors (which could still be pushed farther, don’t get me wrong! But they’ve made a decent start), and there’s no copy on the packaging that differs between different dolls in the line, or Others any particular doll.

    Now if only Mattel would use some of the variety in the Fashion Fever dolls and start launching a Career Barbie series that goes beyond nursing and teaching, or something!

  5. “Oriental” Barbie? Wow, I (almost) can’t believe they did that. Especially after doing dolls for individual Asian countries.

    What a perfect example of the inept liberal non-racist. They even tried to use “exotic” as a compliment.

  6. Sigel Phoenix: Actually, looking at the site-listing again, whilst Oriental Barbie’s listed last, it looks like she was made first; 1981, with the others in the later 80s and 90s. So they did like, go back and realise there were other countries. Still stereotyped the crap out of them, in a very *headdesk* inducing way, of course. But, yeah. I can’t remember if I had a point, really.

  7. this is a lovely post – you’ve articulated the problem of “oriental” so well – You’re totally right – some of the other descriptions are nightmares compared to this one. I’m always so angry at the use of “oriental” as a way of attempting to group an entire continent’s worth of culture as well as people’s continual denial at why the term is offensive. It’s about the history that it was created in and the colonizers it was created by.
    Also, I just have to say, I’m never a fan of calling someone’s apparently traditional clothing a ‘costume’. I think it’s because it reminds me of white folk dressing up as “ethnic people” for halloween.

    Keep writing when you have the time! Hopefully you’ll find someone to guest blog for you, though I don’t know if they’ll be as awesome 🙂

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