Campaigning for an Asian Barbie

After Mattel's snub of Asian-Americans, it's time to show it's White House or bust

Observations

July 23, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

As someone who's played with Barbies all my life -- well, actually, I stopped when I turned 23 -- I was thrilled to learn about the popular doll's latest incarnation, Barbie for President 2000.

Toymaker Mattel Inc. launched the doll in April to show girls across America that they can aim for a position in the White House, and not just as first lady -- or intern. To prove that point, the new Barbie is spiffily dressed in a sharp blue business suit that says "I know the meanings of budget deficit and nuclear weapons!" yet also adroitly conveys "I think Tony Blair is cute!! Titter, titter."

But the excitement wore off when I heard that Candidate Barbie comes in just three versions -- African-American, Caucasian and Latina.

In other words, my Asian sisters and I have been dissed.

Oh, the pain, the trauma of feeling that we haven't earned the right to be a $19.99 miniature male fantasy, especially one on her way to the White House. And after much soul-searching, I think I've come up with the reason that we weren't picked: Big Brains.

Yes, you heard it here first. Big Brains. Or, actually, a perceived lack of them.

For decades, Asian American women have been portrayed in the media as either subservient sexpots (think Susie Wong) or sexually aggressive Dragon Ladies (think Lucy Liu in "Ally McBeal"). I hardly think either of those stereotypes paints us as a particularly smart demographic.

And therein lies the problem.

Our ethnic group as a whole has long been stereotyped as superhumanly smart, so smart, gosh darn it, that people think we're adept at stealing nuclear secrets from highly secure government labs. Yet in annals of pop culture, Asian American women constantly are classified as exotic, erotic objects. You don't have to look too far to see this even today.

Just turn on your television and you'll see Lisa Ling in Old Navy ads, tossing her tush up in the air, breathlessly gushing about her capri pants, whooping it up with different men in several scenes then tossing her hair back and declaring playfully, "I'm in the mood for love." Does this ad make one think:

1) "Oh yeah, there's that woman who used to be a serious broadcast journalist who now is on that fluff show "The View" with Barbara Walters?" or;

2) "Sure, I could see her trying to broker peace in the Middle East."

(Actually, no one is thinking about anything but Lisa Ling's behind when they see that ad. Which I suppose could be a plus in a presidential campaign in today's visually oriented world. Hey, if Italians could elect a porn star to office ... )

But to get back to the point, besides Lisa Ling, there aren't too many other prominent Asian American women in the media today. The not-so-vapid Connie Chung has been quiet recently. The clueless, insincere Julie Chen (host of "Big Brother" on CBS) is just plain annoying. And while Lucy Liu's miniskirted power lawyer on "Ally McBeal" conveys dominance and power in a whip-wielding, black leather-catsuited kind of way, she doesn't exactly come across as brainy.

Not brainy enough to be Barbie -- that's a scary thought.

Or maybe it's not brains at all. Maybe there's another reason Mattel didn't make an Asian-American Barbie for president. Perhaps the company just thinks Asian-American women generally aren't built in, um, Barbie-esque proportions. As Lisa Ling has so gracefully demonstrated, we may have the bottom half of a Barbie body, but the, ahem, naturally occurring 36C breasts that Barbie brandishes are quite the rarity among my demographic.

So what's a wannabe White House Barbie to do? I say we take action -- make Mattel take us seriously when they next create a presidential doll. Asian sisters, we must band together, rise up to debunk these stereotypes and let Mattel know we won't stand for being labeled flat-chested floozies any longer!

Burn your short skirts! Wear pants! Don't just read "How To Win Your First Election," carry it on the Light Rail, prop it on your table over long lunches at sidewalk cafes, have it peek out from your purse as you're strutting around town on business. And, of course, it couldn't hurt to start saving up for breast implants, or start stocking up on the latest must-have item in a Barbie-wannabe's closet: figure-enhancing, gel-filled bras.

For its part, Mattel insists the real reasons there are no Asian-American Barbies for President have more to do with manufacturing and distribution than brains or the other "br" word.

The Barbie for President 2000 doll "is exclusively available through Toys 'R' Us, so we had a lower production count," says Julia Jensen, a Mattel spokeswoman (she calls herself "Barbie's campaign manager"), in explaining why they manufactured just three versions of the doll.

But, she adds, "Mattel has done a great job of being responsive to what's going on around us in the world. Barbie has had friends of color for years and years."

Sure, an FOB -- friend of Barbie. Might as well be vice president.

But maybe there's hope. Jensen says Mattel has created a special "Delegate Barbie" to be placed in gift bags for all attendees of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions next month. And this Barbie will come in four versions -- including Asian-American.

This is not a bad beginning. Many great politicians have worked their way up from the ranks of delegates, and without nearly the amount of money Mattel spends to market Barbie every year.

But the battle is far from over. Remember girls, if we want a Barbie who looks like us to get to the White House, we'll have to start using our heads -- and maybe a little silicone. Nobody said politics was pretty.

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