The Complicated Link between Barbie and India

The 2023 ‘Barbie’ movie has raised questions about India’s own link with the famous doll and if the brand is as inclusive as it claims to be.

The Complicated History of Barbie and South Asia

In India itself, the doll has not sold too well

There are only a few toys that are known by name brand alone, which have remained popular for a long time.

Barbie is one of those toys, but it has not remained as such without controversy.

Among criticisms of the design of Barbie having Eurocentric features, we also see Mattel (the maker of Barbie) adding variations.

There are Barbies of different ethnic backgrounds, having many different jobs, and in the modern world, it has expanded to represent people with disabilities and/or physical conditions. 

But these are quite recent, and though Mattel proudly states its commitment to diversity, the history is more complicated.

DESIblitz seeks to dive into the history of Barbie and the relationship it has with other countries outside of Europe, specifically India. 

This is to see what type of link Barbie has to South Asian countries and whether the brand is as representative as the 2023 movie claims. 

The History of Barbie

The Complicated History of Barbie and South Asia

Barbie was first created in 1959 by Ruth Handler and her husband, who both co-founded Mattel.

As of July 2023, the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar claims there are two potential origin stories for Barbie.

One says that Barbie’s appearance was inspired by a German novelty doll called “Bild Lilli” from 1952.

The other is Handler seeing her child play with paper dolls and wanting her to have a doll that was “a woman she could aspire to”.

Barbie was, in a sense, a product of a proto-feminist desire to go beyond the idea of women solely existing to be mothers.

The doll was created for the idea that a woman could be self-sufficient and career thinking.

Although, for decades in pop culture, it was thought of as ‘just a doll’, it still may have existed as a symbol of resistance for Ruth Handler.

Whatever the perception may be of this, Barbie’s relationship to feminism is complicated, especially since the dolls almost always don a slender, thin body type and have flawless skin.

The first Barbie dolls having white skin may have been a product of its time.

This could be said because the doll has the glamour style of 50s stars.

But one thing that was clear, and has consistently remained true, was the white version is seen as the ‘default Barbie’.

From either origin story, there is a sense that a white audience was primarily considered. And, many people believe this is still the case. 

However, other ethnic groups and countries would see versions of Barbie.

Mattel sought to branch out the Barbie brand and introduced the Ken doll in 1961. 

But, there was a toy fair protest from the National Organisation for Women in 1971 over the accusation that Mattel was engaging in gender stereotyping with their toys.

A lot of activists claimed Barbie was “soft-spoken”, too ladylike, and focused on clothes and shopping.

Whereas, Ken was adventerous and her knight in shining armour to rescue her from make-believe scenarios. 

Although, no massive repercussions materialised from the 1971 outcry.

Barbie in India

The Complicated History of Barbie and South Asia

Barbie has become popular globally but the history of expansion is complicated. Some countries have even banned the doll.

Despite this, according to Barbie Media, the doll is sold in 150 countries.

In 1968, the first dolls of colour were released by Mattel.

But these were “friends” of Barbie, and not like the variations that exist today. One such version was Christie.

Though the first one, entitled, “Coloured Francie”, actually flopped at the time. Unlike Christie, Francie adopted straight hair and other white features.

The Christie doll is acknowledged as the inaugural authentic African American addition to the Barbie line.

Her introduction took place during the civil rights movement, prompting criticism of Mattel for not adequately reflecting the diversity of America.

In 1981-2, as part of the “Dolls of the World” series, the first Indian Barbie was created.

But this was quite problematic. Both in its very light-skinned appearance, but also in the text on the box.

The text discusses India in such a glaringly orientalist way, playing on stereotypes of Indians eating with their hands and describing the doll’s footwear as “slippers”. 

This text feels like an exoticised version of what Mattel perceived India to be.

Keep in mind, this series was being sold to American and European children, as much as it was to Indian children.

This was many peoples’ first exposure to what an Indian looked like.

But in India itself, the doll has not sold too well.

Before 1991, due to India’s foreign trade policies, it was difficult for Mattel to establish Barbie’s presence there.

When these policies changed, Mattel spent the next two decades trying and failing to make much of an impact.

The main Barbie dolls in India were the standard blonde and brunette, just wearing a sari. It wasn’t until 1996 that Mattel made a ‘proper’ Indian Barbie.

A 2011 study by Priti Nemani looked into the topic, finding that Barbie never became an Indian doll to Indian audiences.

The boxes of the dolls from the late ‘90s and early 2000s had an American look and a description that felt foreign.

One such box described a lengha choli, despite the Barbie doll wearing a sari.

In 1997, there was the Expressions of India Collection, and a few other versions since, but they have all failed. This is in part due to the way the dolls were designed.

Changes to the dolls to make them look Indian were superficial and imposed on the original doll design. 

With blue eyes and European noses, it could hardly be said that Barbie represented Indians properly.

Also, some Indians perceived the standard Barbie to be hypersexualised and obscene.

Despite adhering to India’s laws on the matter, people still thought the brand failed to adhere to their cultural norms and preferences.

In 2022, a new “Indian Businesswoman” version of Barbie was released.

This was a limited-edition collaboration between Mattel and Deepica Mutyala. She is the CEO of cosmetics company, Live Tinted.

This is being sold as the first Indian Barbie, purporting to be a progressive toy released for Women’s History Month.

The doll has “Indian features” – big eyebrows, wearing bangles and jhumkas, and having brown skin.

But it still feels very restrictive in its representation of what Indian beauty is.

After all, this doll looks fairly light-skinned, and there are darker skin tones not being represented.

It also feels airbrushed in design, having entirely clear skin, and appealing to conventional beauty standards.

Looking at other South Asian countries, it does not appear that there has been the same level of attempt to make a unique Barbie.

There is no specific Pakistani Barbie, or Bangladeshi Barbie, or any other South Asian Barbie for that matter.

After looking at these countries, it appears the ‘conventional’ Barbie is sold in these markets.

This really speaks to Mattel’s historic lack of interest in representing more cultures.

Does Barbie have more Representation? 

The Complicated History of Barbie and South Asia

When it comes to Barbie, since 2015 there has been a more concerted effort to represent more types of people.

Mattel created three new body types: curvy, tall, and petite.

The 2016 Barbie fashionistas line has since tried to further reflect the diversity of women that exists.

In 2023, Mattel’s website boasts that it represents:

“35 skin tones, 97 hairstyles and 9 body types.”

People of different backgrounds, including disability are being represented. This includes the male dolls.

Although Ken has been around since 1961, there was not much focus on him and his look has stayed fairly stagnant. This was until 2017, with the reboot of Ken.

This reboot has had a significant focus on representing him in more ways, especially with skin colour.

In April 2023, there was a buzz around Mattel’s first Barbie doll with Down Syndrome. It comes to show that the Barbie brand is more concerned with diversity.

The 2023 Movie

The Complicated History of Barbie and South Asia

The buzz and excitement surrounding the 2023 Barbie movie has in many ways been a shock. 

Whilst there would have been major excitement for the money due to its Hollywood line-up, the success of the movie has made it a global phenomenon

Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling amongst many others, it has caught the popular imagination.

This movie has harped on many things.

For one, on a popular desire for a more colourful, stylised and fun film. But again, it has also brought up issues of representation for women.

In some sense, some of the same ideas discussed in the past about Barbie and Ken have been brought up.

But also, quite significantly, the movie has achieved what the toy brand has historically struggled with.

We’ve seen British-Bengali actor Ramzan Miah playing Ken and British Indian Ritu Arya cast as a version of Barbie.

Beyond these British Asian stars, the movie boasts incredible diversity. It will be interesting to see how this affects the dolls in the future.

Whilst the movie still leans in on Barbie being a conventionally attractive character, it does also show more types of people.

Barbie’s history in South Asia is complicated, and there has been stereotyping.

It has only changed quite recently after comparisons between the brand and the Bratz line of dolls were made.

Bratz itself has boasted diversity since its creation.

Though Mattel has historically had a blind spot for diversity in South Asia, it seems as though they look to rectify that.

Consumers being more aware of these issues has certainly helped.

However, problems with Barbie’s appearance still persist. One such issue is the way that all the dolls are still the standard size, and have thin arms and legs.

But beyond this complex legacy, there appears to be a hopeful future and more children can potentially see themselves represented in the toys around them.

Murthaza is a Media and Communications graduate and aspiring journalist. His include politics, photography and reading. His life motto is "Stay curious and seek knowledge wherever it leads."

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