A geisha girl and a samurai warrior: these are the stereotypes Mattel used for Japanese Ken and Barbie dolls. Barbie is dressed as a geisha with lotus blossoms in her hair, a gold fan, and some gladiator heels which are badass-looking, but I’m thinking not particularly Japanese. Ken is dressed as a bare-chested samurai warrior with a small ponytail and a long sword. An ex-boyfriend who went to grad school in Japan called the Japanese Ken doll, quote, “pure Fu Manchu stereotype” — minus that nefarious mustache, of course. Surprise, surprise, Mattel has a long history of representing their Japanese Barbies as geishas.The problem isn’t necessarily Mattel’s Dolls of the World line, to which these dolls belong — it’s the “exotic” clothing/accessories choices and what kind of messages these dolls are sending to little kids about ethnicity. Why not make the dolls look like actual, everyday Japanese people? (Crazy idea, right?) The Japanese don’t walk around with their samurai swords and geisha hair all day any more than Germans walk around in their dirndls or Mexicans with their sombreros. (The only person who walks around in a sombrero is Snooki, duh!) I don’t mean to sound like I’m hating on Barbie. (I mean, I hate Barbies because of the messages she sends to little girls about gender, but I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.)
I realize it’s probably tricky for toy makers, especially doll makers, to present “ethnic” in a way that makes everyone happy, because an Asian-looking doll in pants and a shirt might be criticized as not looking “Japanese” enough. How would you tell that doll is different from a Chinese, Taiwanese or Korean doll? That’s the kind of stupid minutiae that marketers obsess about.
Still, the right answer isn’t to go completely in the other direction with stereotypes, especially sexualized ones like the geisha girl, which little kids won’t even understand.