This holiday season, Mattel, the world’
biggest toy maker is poised to embarrass itself and enrage Asians across the globe, with
the release of its latest collectible Barbie: The Fantasy Goddess of Asia. Designed by Bob
Mackie in a fit of laziness, ignorance, cynicism or all three, the doll is a mishmash of
racist stereotypes of Asian women—an Oriental Flower/Dragon Lady hybrid.
She sure isn’t my fantasy goddess—or even what I’d guess
to be Mattel’s version of such. The $6.3 billion global giant, with primary
manufacturing facilities in China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, should know better. In the past feminists have slammed
Barbie—who makes up a whopping 40% of the company’s sales—for being a poor
role model. Today, the toy store shelves are crammed with WNBA Barbies, honoring (in that
Barbie way) strong, accomplished American women. That Asian women, a diverse and growing
population many of whom are in fact manufacturing Mattel toys, are depicted with
retrograde, stereotyped images is all the more striking in contrast.
American soldiers, back from wars in Asia, brought
home the idea that Asian women were utterly feminine, delicate, and
submissive—Oriental Flowers—the perfect antidote to loud, independent, American
women. That idea has been enshrined in popular movies and plays such as “Madame
Butterfly.” But always running parallel to this image of Asian women has been the
myth of the Dragon Lady—the Asian dominatrix who selfishly destroys the world’s
best loved pop band (Yoko Ono) or is a cold-blooded litigation hungry vixen (Ling on
“Ally McBeal”). In recent years, hundreds of prominent Asian and Asian American
women, from the human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi and the writer Arundhati Roy to the
model Jenny Shimizu and the skater Kristi Yamaguchi (along with the growing Asian American
feminist movement) have shown the lie behind
these images. And the publishing, entertainment, and news media industries have been
shaken by them. But not Mattel.
For Mattel’s doll is a mockery of Asian
femininity, and calling it a goddess is an affront to the very notion of divinity. The
doll is the first in the new “International Beauty” collection, which according
to Mattel is “designed to celebrate worldwide beauty in [a] dramatic fantasy
style.” Yet, this doll’s attire is not from any recognizable Asian culture. She
wields fans decorated with dragons, her black hair twirling serpentine above her head, her
strange Barbie body tightly wrapped in a long, western-style beaded gown. No actual Asian
woman (or goddess, for that matter) whose beauty this series is meant to celebrate, looks
or dresses even remotely like the Fantasy Goddess of Asia. And there are literally
hundreds of Asian goddesses—from the Royal Kumari to Kali, whom the doll could have been modeled after. Which brings one
to wonder, whose fantasy of an Asian goddess is
this? And, more lasciviously, what kind of
goddess are we talking about here?
Priced at $250, the Fantasy Goddess of Asia is not
meant for kids, but for adult collectors, who buy and sell Mackie-designed Barbie dolls
for thousands of dollars. In a sense, that makes it worse, for of course it is adults who
patronize the mail-order bride business and participate in the international sex
trafficking of Asian women—two exploitative industries that capitalize on men’s
misguided fantasies about Asian women. Plus, while Mattel attempts to captivate people
with its “fantasy” of Asian women, back in the real world, Asian women and girls
are toiling in Mattel factories, for just 2$ a day in Indonesia, according to
“Dateline”, and for 84-hour-weeks in China, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The irony is not lost on Manavi, a South Asian
domestic violence organization based in New Jersey that has launched a campaign to stop
production of the doll. It seems likely that Asian American feminists and their allies,
who cite Asian goddesses as inspiration and symbol, will sign on with enthusiasm.
Especially today, when Asian women and girls are experiencing perhaps the most widespread
and profound suffering of recent years, it shouldn’t pay to demean us.