half hearted ethnicity in toys: japan barbie + ken

This post was originally published at 天高皇企鹅远.

There are some new Barbies doing the rounds, and they’re amazing:

barbie and ken in 'japanese style' costumes, looking mostly space age

I don’t even know what’s going on here. This toy website tells says that Japan Ken wears ‘Japanese-styled clothing and a samurai-inspired sword.’ Japan Ken, if you are Japanese, why is your clothing Japanese “styled” and your sword samuri “inspired”?

A (former doll collecting) commenter in this Racialicious post comments that apparently Mattel intentionally went with a futuristic look, which I am totally in to. I would love to know more about futuristic Ken and Barbie in a world clearly at some point heavily Japanese-influenced – but then why are they Japan Ken and Barbie?

There is definitely a whole lot of fetishisation and exotification in here, and not that I want to be all ‘hey Asian skin doesn’t look like that’ because there are light-skinned Japanese people, but I feel like it is not going out on a limb to say that those Barbies, if they were sans their Japanese-style future clothes, would look awfully Caucasian.

Just like all the others to come before (except for Geisha Barbie and Chinese New Year Barbie, of course, who were no less exotified but at least…kinda looked Asian?).

I am totally in to the idea of ethnically diverse Barbies (though I have many Barbie-related issues), but this fake ‘oh it’ll do’ is not it.

4 thoughts on “half hearted ethnicity in toys: japan barbie + ken

  1. John

    I assume they’re designed exactly to sell as well as possible, for as high a profit margin as possible, and that this is what Mattel’s market research pointed towards.

    As an alternative, I’d like to recommend Feral Cheryl, but unfortunately production has been suspended.

    Geek feminist culture hackers might also find the Barbie Liberation Front inspiring (and the backlash is sooo 1991… or is it?)

    1. Mary

      they’re designed exactly to sell as well as possible, for as high a profit margin as possible

      This is pretty much the universal defence of sexism, racism, othering and so on in products though: it sells.* So… it’s not especially novel to point it out. The question is what to do then, and there’s arguments in favour of both supporting alternative products and demonstrating to the designers that they can’t turn oppression into money without copping some noise, and perhaps ultimately noise resulting in an impact on sales.

      * There needs to be a Moff’s law equivalent: you cannot criticise commercial products on anti-oppression grounds without someone saying “but, it’s commercial! everything will be compromised in favour of sales! no use fighting!”

      1. John

        Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound like a defence. But, as you say, it’s not particularly novel to point out.

        A small idea as to what to do… maybe someone with the necessary skills could design a more realistic equivalent of Computer Engineer Barbie? Or would it be better to make non-stereotypically-feminine accessories (mechanics’ tools, timber axe, road roller, etc) for mainstream dolls, as a a way of saying “you don’t have to come off a different production line to do these things?”

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