Culture Fail: Barbies of the World – Just Racism?

Barbies, those tall, skinny-yet-seductively-curved dolls that give grown women nightmares, let little girls imagine life as an adult—meeting boyfriends, getting married, and having children with their dreamboat, Ken. Yes, beginning in the late 1950s, Barbie enthusiastically thrust her bosoms into the fight to keep women focused on their breast and waist sizes rather than their intelligence and career paths. But since then we’ve learned that if Barbie were life-sized, she would stand 5’ 9” and would have only size 5 shoes. Her breast size would be a larger-end D cup, yet her waist would be only 10 to 15 inches. If Barbie were real, she would never be able to menstruate or even get herself off the couch.

Now, after over 40 years of Barbie, her boyfriend Ken, and a whole pile of controversies, Mattel has created a new, shockingly racist line of the still-popular toy. In “Barbies of the World,” you can find a Barbie from China, Australia, Argentina, Ireland, India, Holland, Chile, and Mexico. Each cultural Barbie comes clad in an outfit hugely stereotypical of their idealized traditions, and with a pet that supposedly signifies the culture as well, but is more often completely unrealistic. While the intent to teach children about different cultures is commendable, Barbies of the World do nothing but disseminate cultural stereotypes. And we can only conclude that African Barbie is even now sipping Shirley Temples on her Barbie Dream Yacht off the Cape of Good Hope—obviously that’s why she’s missing.

Mexican Barbie comes clad in a quinceanera dress and has a pet Chihuahua, because clearly Mexicans only (and always) have Chihuahuas. Chinese Barbie comes with a pet panda, and Barbie from India has a pet monkey. Apparently no one from Mattel has ever set foot outside the US—possibly not outside of Disneyland’s rather aged “It’s a Small World” exhibit.

The Barbies of the World television commercial ends with the Barbies in their boxes on a shelf in a young girl’s room. When the painfully stereotypical mother asks her daughter which Barbie she’d like to shamelessly emulate today, the child picks a Barbie from one of the countries, and magically the girl is clothed in this particular Barbie’s native dress, holding their completely unrealistic pet. You, too, should want to look like Barbie!

So what is the lesson here? Not only has the Barbie doll proven for 40 years that it is a ridiculous and unhealthy representation of the female form, but now designers at Mattel have apparently stepped up their game to reduce women of various cultures to colorful clothing and ridiculous pets. It’s like saying every American lives like the embarrassing characters on Jersey Shore—we don’t, by the way.


By: Cristina Himka



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4 thoughts on “Culture Fail: Barbies of the World – Just Racism?

  1. Cristina,
    I too am interested in the cultural impact of Barbie. I created an art piece around Barbie called “Who’s Your Goddess Now Baby?” I’d love to show it to you. If you give me your email address I’ll send you a photo of it.

  2. I saw that commercial and immediately googled it to see if others shared my opinion on its blatant stereotypes. As far as African Barbie?…. I’m willing to bet the vision was either of kente cloths and lions or bald heads, naked breasts, and elephants…. Either way, I’m sure they could smell the potential suits and decided they’d find new targets instead

  3. This is another non-troversy. The dolls of the world series has existed since the 1980’s. The idea, in case you don’t understand it is to have dolls dressed in costumes from their native lands. With them they have a pet which can be found in their native land. It is not racist for a doll from Mexico, to have a chihuahua, because chihuahuas come from Mexico. Why aren’t you complaining because the doll from China has a panda? Or the doll from Australia has a Koala? Do you know any other countries that have Pandas and Koalas? Dolls from South America get Parrots, why aren’t you complaining about the parrots? The doll from France has been dressed in a Can-can outfit, for the last 20-30 years. Is that Racist? The doll from Spain was dressed as a toreador, and has been dressed as a fan dancer. Is that racist, or is it because that’s where those traditions came from? People in Africa wear Kente cloth, and some of them do shave their heads. Now, occasionally Mattel will make a mistake. Like dressing the Japanese doll in a Chinese print. But racism isn’t about being ‘wrong’. Racism is about deliberately ‘misrepresenting’ people,or treating people as ‘lesser’ than you are. If the dolls were speaking ‘bad english’ on the boxes, or depicted in a way that didn’t represent the culture, then it would be racist. So this whole thing isn’t even worth discussing except to people who don’t know anything about dolls.

  4. It’s not racist. The chihuahua is named for the Mexican state of Chihuahua. There is nothing about the dolls that attempts to convey that there are inherent differences among the races which determine cultural or individual achievement. Nothing is saying any one race is better than another. Might some of the dolls feed into stereotypes? Sure, but stereotyping and racism are not the same thing, and it’s wrong and bad to incorrectly apply the term of racism. And the comments about Barbie being anatomically incorrect (and perhaps encouraging unhealthy body images) have nothing to do with the spurious claims of racism – it’s a purely emotional appeal that weakens the logic of the remaining argument.

    I had many Barbies growing up, including some of the original dolls of the world. I did not grow up to be a racist nor to have an unhealthy body image – I just grew up wishing I had a better wardrobe.

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