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White House or Bust

OK, Barbie's running for president, but why no Asian American version of the doll candidate? It just doesn't stack up.

August 04, 2000|CHERYL LUJ-LIEN TAN | BALTIMORE SUN

As someone who has played with Barbies all her 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.

El Segundo-based 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. The new $19.99 Barbie is 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!"

The excitement wore off when I heard that Candidate Barbie comes in just three versions--black, Caucasian and Latina. My Asian sisters and I have been dissed.

After much soul-searching, I think I've come up with the reason that we weren't chosen: Big Br. . .ains. Or, actually, a perceived lack of them.

For decades, Asian American women have been portrayed in the media as either subservient sexpots (Susie Wong) or sexually aggressive Dragon Ladies (Lucy Liu's Ling in "Ally McBeal"). Neither stereotype paints us as a particularly smart demographic.

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 pop culture, Asian American women constantly are classified as exotic, erotic objects.

There are precious few 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 scary.

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, formerly of "The View," currently of Old Navy ads, has so gracefully demonstrated, we might 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!

Mattel insists the real reasons there is no Asian American Barbie 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," explains Julia Jensenof Mattel

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 as gifts for delegates at the national conventions of both parties. And this Barbie will come in four versions--including Asian American.

It's not a bad beginning. Many politicians have worked their way up from the ranks of delegates, and without nearly the amount of money Mattel spends to market Barbie.

But the battle is far from over. Remember, sisters, 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 Wonderbra or two. Nobody ever said politics was pretty.

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