Barbie was all over the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai this year. The doll celebrated its 50th Anniversary by sponsoring the event. At first I thought it was the company’s obliviousness to irony that prompted the fashion show sponsorship, but then it all came together when I read this article last week.
You might have noticed that India has become more competitive in the global economy over the course of the past 10 years, and one change that is apparent to those of us who live here is an ever-growing middle class, which in turn gives way to an ever-growing number of Western companies trying to get their foot in the door of Indian markets. The Indian-owned company Toys N Joys already sells Barbie-like dolls that are adorned to accurately represent the country’s regional and ethnic diversity, but Mattel apparently wants in on the action. Though Mattel is pitching the Katrina Kaif-like doll to be India’s first Barbie, the company actually collaborated with Leo Toys to create an ‘Expressions of India’ series in 1996. (The Mattel brand name nearly doubles the price of what one would pay for the Toys N Joys dolls. Both are pictured here.) It has also created and sold several India-themed collectors’ dolls over the past thirty years.
What is telling in the Telegraph article I mentioned is how unproblematically it throws out (and then away) interesting tidbits like Kaif’s light skin (which it uncritically lauds as a “a classical type of Indian beauty”) being a result of mixed heritage; that Kaif is a London-born NRI who didn’t know how to sing, dance, or speak Hindi before she started acting in Bollywood; and that she nearly sank her film career before it started by exuding a ‘western’ sex appeal in her first Indian release. So this is the person Mattel chose to represent Indian women to the world? Uh-huh. Now I’m not saying that Kaif is any more or less Indian than Mattel’s first choice, the wildly popular Aishwariya Rai. I just wonder what it was about Rai that didn’t measure up to their historically Eurocentric standards. (After being mocked by the media, Rai now says that she was the one who declined the toy maker’s deal due to a busy schedule.)
Another point of interest is how Mattel is using feminism to sell the Bollywood Barbie® saying: “She allows girls to dream beyond and know that a woman has choices, having herself represented more than 100 careers in her lifetime. ” It will be interesting to see how the doll turns out—particularly as Kaif reportedly had a hand in the doll’s physical appearance and manner of dress—and how it is received in markets around the globe. The Bollywood Barbie® goes into production in September.