Mattel criticised for Barbie collection that commemorates Tokyo Olympics but leaves out Asians

Mattel is facing criticism after it released a collection of Barbie dolls to celebrate the Olympics that do not include a character of East Asian ethnicity.
PHOTO: Mattel

US toymaker Mattel appears to have left out a Barbie doll of East Asian ethnicity in a recently released collection commemorating the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, despite Japan hosting this year’s Games.

The creator of the iconic Barbie dolls first unveiled the set in February 2020 and relaunched it in late July. Mattel pitched the line as a way of “empowering girls to participate in sports” and “find the athlete within”.

The collection features five dolls representing new sports added to the Olympic programme this year: baseball and softball, sport climbing, karate, skateboarding and surfing.

Besides the specific sporting apparel and equipment, the dolls also have Tokyo 2020 jackets and gold plastic medals on a ribbon. They are part of an official licensing agreement with the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The Barbie dolls were meant to commemorate the five sports added to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, such as skateboarding and karate. Photo: Mattel

People immediately criticised the dolls for an apparent absence of an East Asian doll, especially since the Games took place in Tokyo.

Jenna Wong, a Chinese-American living in the US, told the South China Morning Post she found the omission offensive.

“Mattel making a Tokyo Olympics Barbie collection without including a Barbie that actually looks like she could be from that area of the world – while including two blonde Caucasian Barbies in the set – is just disappointing in so many ways,” she said.

Wong also pointed out that, in the US, the coronavirus pandemic led to a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans of East or Southeast Asian descent, and this is another example of Asians being dismissed in society.

Drue Kataoka, a Japanese American visual artist, wrote on Twitter: “Mattel renders Asian Americans invisible while touting its ‘most diverse doll line yet’.”

She added that Sunisa Lee, an Asian-American of Hmong descent, became the Olympics’ breakout star after winning the women’s gymnastics all-around championship.

Mattel did not respond to a request for comment from the South China Morning Post.

Some also argued that one doll in the set, with almond-shaped eyes and brown hair, looks vaguely Asian.

However, this viewpoint was disputed by Taiwanese-American entrepreneur Dave Lu, who said, “ambiguously Asian isn’t good enough.”

Lu pointed out that a doll made to celebrate Chloe Kim, who won the gold medal in snowboarding at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, looks remarkably similar to Kim, proving that Mattel could create a doll that represented East Asians.

Long criticised for its lack of diversity and producing cookie-cutter dolls that adhere to white beauty standards, a slip in sales numbers in recent years forced Mattel to produce a more diverse set of Barbie dolls.

In 2015, it introduced new skin tones and hair textures in response to a 20 per cent drop in sales between 2012 and 2014. In 2016, the brand unveiled three new body types – petite, tall and curvy. In 2019, it added a Barbie in a wheelchair.

Barbie sales recovered dramatically during the pandemic, with parents telling The Wall Street Journal they were buying the dolls to pry their kids away from digital screens as their children spent more time alone and indoors.

Prior to the Olympics, a Barbie doll commemorating Naomi Osaka’s return to the court in Tokyo sold out mere minutes after its release.

In an official press release on its website, Mattel said that it “believes in the power of representation” and it is “committed to continuing to better reflect the world kids see today”.

“Barbie is the most diverse and inclusive doll line on the market today, but we are not done yet,” it said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.