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Tracing the history of “Asian” Barbie

There are many odd and offputting aspects to Mattel’s relationship to various depictions of Asian characters in their dolls over the decades. Another one is that in 1976, well before the poorly thought out 1981 “Oriental Barbie” (sic), was the “Honey Hill Bunch” miniature play doll “I.Q.” With an adorable little girl face sculpt, she was just another one of little kids in the “playmate”-themed line. But that name… Its problematic nature was further emphasized by her one toy accessory being a “book.” (The other children had animals, flowers, a guitar, or a baseball bat.) “I.Q.’s” back of the box story similarly leaned heavily on a stereotype that became omnipresent in the media by the early ’80s. (http://dollreference.com/mattel_honey_hill_bunch_dolls.html)

Kelly Kasulis

Curvy, petite, tall and original – using the hashtag #TheDollEvolves, Mattel announced its release of three new body types for their Barbie brand dolls last Thursday. As a lover of toys and a recent buyer of a 1988 South Korea Barbie, I checked the new collection for Asian representation and, no doubt, Asian barbies are included. But I noticed one other thing: there were nocurvy Asian dolls in the collection.

One of the everlasting stereotypes of Asian women is that they are naturally thin, and it seems that Mattel agrees – the company is arguably making a statement by omission when they exclude an Asian “curvy” doll. Such a statement, however, is lost in the excitement of an iconic brand marketing progressive ideas of inclusion, “evolution” and increased diversity; A quick analysis using Keyhole.co and Social Mention show mostly neutral or positive use of the #TheDollEvolves hashtag online, with an estimated…

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Comparative Interpretations of Ethnic and Folkloric Images in Monster High by Mattel and Kurhn Dolls

MH Comparative Mattel Ethnicities

Monster High–Comparative Ethnic Folklore Interpretations by Mattel–I leave the judgment of whether Mattel does this poorly or well up to you…

[Left to Right, Above: “Scaremester” werecat Catrine Demew, “Scaris City of Frights” werecat Catrine Demew, “Scaremester” dragon Jinafire Long, “City of Scaris” gargoyle Rochelle Goyle, “Scaris City of Frights” dragon Jinafire Long, “I *Heart* Fashion” banshee Scarah Screams.]

From curiosity, I have juxtaposed Mattel’s Designs for Monster High (2013-2014), presented here together for comparison across various popular and “updated” folkloric references:

(1.) Two examples of homage to a famous French actress-icon (Catherine Deneuve, who once posed as Marianne, the symbol of France, in 1985. http://www.ambafrance-us.org/spip.php?article619);

(2.) Two examples of the dragon from Chinese folklore depicted as a Monster High exchange student from China (as interpreted by a US toy company, Mattel) (www.cs.rutgers.edu/~mcgrew/remusleftovers/ipad/chinesemyt…);

(3.) One other European folk image, the gargoyle, as interpreted by Mattel as a Monster High exchange student from France [middle, in pink beret and Eiffel Tower print dress] (books.google.com/books?id=CcJL4lO2OaUC&pg=PA19&lp…);

(4.) Lastly, one Retro Mod, 1960s flashback-meets-ancient European harbinger of death: A go-go booted update to the sometimes bedraggled “banshee”* folk character from Irish and Scottish lore, as interpreted by Mattel as a Monster High student originally from Ireland.
(www.amazon.com/The-Banshee-Irish-Death-Messenger/dp/15709…; books.google.com/books?id=t8tKQcfn_QEC&pg=PA43&lp….)

[*”Banshee” comes from the Irish Gaelic words for “bean” (pronounced “ban”) = “woman,” plus “sí” (pronounced “shee”) = “fairy.” Or, spelled out properly: “Bean Sídhe.” So, “banshee” translates as “fairy woman.” Folk tales of this particular kind of “woman of the sí” relate events in which someone hears an unearthly woman’s wail, or sees a strange woman washing clothes, or both, events which are then followed by the death of a family member of the one who hears and/or sees the banshee. This provides the basis for Mattel’s backstory for teenage “daughter of the Banshee,” Scarah Screams, as she experiences social difficulties at school whenever anyone hears her voice.]

(To see more, go to the EffigiPie Flickr site: https://www.flickr.com/photos/omnidoll/14798298778/in/photostream/

“MHComparativeEthnicitiies_FolkloreRefs Omnidoll 2014”)

For further comparison, note the differences between this Dragon Fairy Princess (a.k.a., the Dragon God’s Daughter), as produced by China’s excellent doll manufacturer, Kurhn:

Monster High's Dragon "Jinafire Long" as compared with Kurhn's Dragon Princess

Monster High’s Dragon “Jinafire Long” as compared with Kurhn’s Dragon Princess

Mattel's Interpretation of Chinese Dragon Imagery in the Character of Jinafire Long from Monster High

Mattel’s Interpretation of Chinese Dragon Imagery in the Character of Jinafire Long from Monster High. Again, I leave it to the viewer to decide whether Mattel “gets it right,” or not.

Kurhn Dragon Princess with Kurhn White Snake Fairy ~2008

Kurhn Dragon Princess with Kurhn White Snake Fairy ~2008

L to R: Mattel Monster High Scaremester "Jinafire Long" Dragon Character (2014),  Kurhn "Dragon Fairy Princess (Goddess)" ~2008, Kurhn "White Snake Fairy" ~2008, Mattel "Scaris City of Frights Jinafire Long" (2013).

L to R: Mattel Monster High Scaremester “Jinafire Long” Dragon Character (2014), Kurhn “Dragon Fairy Princess (Goddess)” ~2008, Kurhn “White Snake Fairy” ~2008, Mattel “Scaris City of Frights Jinafire Long” (2013).

MH Scaremester Jinafire Long Dragon Character by Mattel with Kurhn Dragon Fairy Princess Closeups

MH Scaremester Jinafire Long Dragon Character by Mattel with Kurhn Dragon Fairy Princess Closeups

In looking at the different interpretations of an anthropomorphized dragon character above, we can see which details two different doll manufacturers choose to highlight in their characters. Mattel of El Segundo, California, USA, chooses a fashion fantasy approach, with a pastiche of different, and sometimes at odds, visual references that might be recognized from Western depictions of Chinese culture: Red lantern earrings, chopsticks as hairpins, Mandarin collar with diagonal closure on the blouse, tapered cropped pants [or] a cheongsam* with asymmetrical hemline, faux brocade trim with allusions to Chinese embroidery, green hair, scales, flames, tassels, gold metallic skin, lion-like tail ending in a green flourish, chrysanthemum hair decoration, red shoes with visual allusions to Chinese sculpture, and images of open fans. As has been noticed about the Monster High designs, there are many small details embedded in the the dolls, so I am only listing some of the most noticeable here about the two Jinafire Long dolls. Red lanterns, gilt or gold-painted statuary, brocades, chopsticks, fans, and chrysanthemums are all images familiar to Westerners who have either visited the Chinatowns of major US cities, have frequented perceived “old-fashioned” Chinese restaurants, or who have seen such images in Hollywood-produced materials. In her appearance, her flame motifs, her personality described on the back of the box and in her “journal,” and even in her name, Jinafire Long, evokes the fire-breathing dragons of European folklore, instead of the pacific, water-based dragons of Chinese folklore. (*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheongsam).

Kurhn Toys Co., Ltd., of Foshan City, China, has used a similarly high level of detail in their fashion doll. The Dragon Fairy Princess or Daughter of the Dragon God, however, appears as a different kind of fantasy character, a regal one, as though she stepped out of a fantasy-adventure movie produced in China. She comes embellished in pastel layers, with a floor-length gown and inner and outer robes, long bell-shaped sleeves, sheer chiffon, gold lamé trim, ribbons, lace, faux pearl edging, satin slippers, long hair upswept in an elaborate style, a pink-tasseled bamboo flute, a thin gold crown with a pearl-like bead, and a set of gold fabric horns to indicate her position as an imperial creature. The pearls, floating chiffon, frothy shapes of her headdress, and preponderance of light blue signal that Dragon Fairy Princess is a denizen of the sea, as her Dragon God father rules there. Unlike Western dragons who breathe fire, she is cool, calm, and associated with water.

The faces of the two dolls, while both featuring a closed mouth and large, wide set eyes, also contrast in their details. Kurhn’s princess has brown eyes, dark brown hair, and a skin tone in keeping with her place of origin, while a bit on the pale side, which makes sense since her family lives under the sea. Aside from the two soft sculpture horns attached to her flowery, lacy headdress, the Kurhn fantasy princess is more humanoid in form than Mattel’s golden teenage dragon girl. Jinafire Long features large, wide-set eyes with, as one doll blogger (John Pickles, on Flickr, a.k.a. Pickles or Oak on Tumblr) points out, epicanthic eye folds. John Pickles notes in Aug. 2014 on one Flickr thread that Jinafire Long’s nose bridge seems a bit out of place in conjunction with her eyes. Overall, her round face, wide eyes, serpentine pupils, feathered brows, and bow mouth add up to a kittenish effect. (John Pickles’/Oak’s point is backed up on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicanthic_fold).

Kurhn does not bother with trying to make their character “recognizable” to potential customers outside of their normal distribution area, because their folkloric doll was never intended to go outside of Kurhn’s customer base in China. (This is why I have not been able, thus far, to ascertain this line’s year of production, as little is written about Kurhn in English and not everything on the company can be fed through translation software.) Kurhn hews to visual cues based on a popular interpretation of Chinese folklore, that, while not aiming for “authenticity,” does not have to add up to “recognizability” by Western-based viewers.

While there is much to recommend Mattel’s overall doll design, the elements of pastiche do not work well with some viewers. Yet, even if John Pickles/Oak has certain qualms about Mattel’s design choices with Jinafire Long (which would include the name; see below), he has still been using the doll for makeovers. This is the great strength of the Monster High line: the ease of remaking the doll to the owner’s specifications, allowing for a bit of learning curve with repainting or in applying new face decals (the latter of which are offered in the MH kits).

In the end, I leave the decision on the efficacy of Mattel’s folkloric and ethnic representations up to the viewer.

(By the way, John Pickles/Oak has some great notes on the culture clash details on Jinafire: http://oak23.tumblr.com/search/jinafire+long:

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I have an issue with Jinafire being a chinese dragon and being a FIRE elemental, with having issues controlling her temperament, when Chinese dragons are known for being really calm and wise, and largely associated with the WATER element. This is easily found on Wikipedia and I have no idea why this aspect of her was so poorly researched.

As well as the fact her default outfit is yet another asian doll in a ‘modern’ cheongsam is very problematic even if Mattel didn’t intend to be racist, there is a lot of issues with her in terms of Asian representation and in doll lines in general.

16 notes (via daydreams-at-midnight)

Tags: jinafire long jinafire skelita Skelita Calaveras mh

jun 26 ’13

 

[Also see John Pickles’/Oak’s other entry on Jinafire:

wardahahmar replied to your post: LIKE A QUICK LOOK ON WIKIPEDIA SHOWS WHAT A…]

Maybe she is half Phoenix? Its kinda annoying to have to stretch like that but maybe when they first created her character she was going to be a Phoenix but they changed it halfway through cause Dragons are more familiar.

thing is though, Jinafire has the perfect traits for a Western dragon with her fire affinity and all of her abilities/traits with a bit of Pan-Asian traits thrown in. So it kind of annoys me so badly to see that a quick bit of research for Eastern dragons so badly gone astray.

And even then if they intended her to be a Chinese Phoenix or a Fenghuang, there isn’t as much emphasis on *fire* for that mythology as so much about balance and union. Even though there are similarities between Eastern and Western Dragons/Phoenixes, their emphasised points are very different. If she was meant to be westernised due to being in a European/western country it could have been done through her fashion and aesthetic choices (much like Operetta with her rockabilly look, or Draculaura with her lolita/neo victorian slant)

So it bothers me a lot that for a doll line that puts a lot of effort and justifications for their design and character choices really dropped the ball on the mythology of a character and their background.

2 notes

Tags: wardahahmar Monster high Jinafire Long asian dolls represent

mar 28 ’13

Heroic Ada Lum and Her Famous Dolls at Asia with Embroidered Eyes Blogspot

Ada Lum MeiMei and DiDi at Asia with Embroidered Eyes Blogspot

Ada Lum MeiMei and DiDi at Asia with Embroidered Eyes Blogspot

In the process of trying to identify a cloth doll from the late 1980s, I ran across this brief history of Ada Lum. Ada Lum (b. Australia ~1907[?]-d. Hong Kong 1988), sister of the tennis champion Gordon Lum, appears in references to both her brother and in accounts of the actress Anna May Wong and the humanitarian French Jesuit Priest Father Jacquinot de Besange. More people recognize Ms. Lum’s cloth dolls than her name, though. (See examples from asiawee.blogspot.com above.) Cloth doll collectors who own her dolls may not have much more to go on than the “Made in Hong Kong” stamp on the doll or its clothing. The story behind how Ada Lum began her doll, housewares, fashion, and interior design company is well worth reading.

I recommend checking out more of her amazing story at http://asiawee.blogspot.com/.

If you were a doll (manipulatable effigy) what would you be?

 

FurrySpaceGuy by Omnidoll. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

FurrySpaceGuy by Omnidoll. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Toni Morrison's Beloved posing with book cover by Omnidoll 1996. Photo by Omnidoll 1996.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved posing with book cover by Omnidoll 1996. Photo by Omnidoll 1996.

Pullip City Police Jack Ready for his Miami Closeup. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Pullip City Police Jack Ready for his Miami Closeup. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Armand Marseilles and Simon and Halbig Mignonette--late 19thc.-early 20thc. Repaired, rebuilt antique dolls by Omnidoll. Photo by Brian Lee

Armand Marseilles and Simon and Halbig Mignonette–late 19thc.-early 20thc. Repaired, rebuilt antique dolls by Omnidoll. Photo by Brian Lee.

Charlie McCarthy Ventriloquist Dummy Refurbished by Omnidoll 10-09. Photo by Omnidoll.

Charlie McCarthy Ventriloquist Dummy Refurbished by Omnidoll 10-09. Photo by Omnidoll.

Ancient Silhouette Figure by Omnidoll. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Ancient Silhouette Figure by Omnidoll. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Dogbert from Dilbert made by Omnidoll. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Dogbert from Dilbert made by Omnidoll. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

EquestriAlien 2013 "Frankendoll" type of customization by Omnidoll 2014. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

EquestriAlien 2013 “Frankendoll” type of customization by Omnidoll 2014. Photo by Omnidoll 2014.

Toni Morrison's Beloved in yard holding hat by Omnidoll 1996. Photo by Omnidoll 1996.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved in yard holding hat by Omnidoll 1996. Photo by Omnidoll 1996.

Vintage and Contemporary Mattel Fashion Dolls. Photo by Brian Lee.

Vintage and Contemporary Mattel Fashion Dolls. Photo by Brian Lee.

What Is EffigiPie?

What is EffigiPie?


EffigiPie ties images from my Material Culture research for Doll Culture in America (University Press of Mississippi, upcoming) to my day-to-day life as a doll maker, doll restorer, doll collector, and general doll user. “Effigy,” in this instance, stands for those aspects of doll use that transcend the word “doll.” Are you, or do you know people, who say that they “don’t like ‘dolls'” but have one or more items in their possession that is small, poseable, has a face (even if does not have features on that face), and seems oddly trivial in the context of these people’s lives? Yet, for some reason people still keep such an object around? That small, human-looking object represents something anthropomorphized–something not human, yet given human-like qualities. It’s an “effigy” of an aspect of that person’s human existence.

–A doll is always an effigy, but an effigy isn’t always a doll. How is that?

An effigy can be a statue, something not to be meddled with. More often, when you see effigies in the news, though, aren’t they always being meddled with in the most enthusiastic way? You’ve probably seen politicos or celebrities or ordinary people with the spotlight burning on them having been made into life-size or larger than life 3D figures. People on the news bounce those figures around on poles, waving or burning them to bits. Guy Fawkes at the end of his “Day’s” festivities in England. Or your opposing team’s mascot at the peak of frenzy before the Big Game.

To be used as a doll, an effigy must be able to be manipulated, posed, ready to be altered at your whim. Unlike a statue or other forms of representational or fine arts, people take dolls for granted. To “be a doll” to someone may mean you are adorable, you bring gladness with your presence…or you can be easily dismissed. Dolls do not get so easily dismissed at EffigiPie. Those of us who know dolls know differently.

We know such effigies as a means to creative expression and as a tool to uncovering different parts of oneself and one’s identity with others.

–Did a relative or friend ever give you a “foreign doll” representing images of your background? Many of us have owned such a thing. Depending on your cultural background, you may have many such figures…or very few.

–Have you ever owned a “mascot” in plush or felt or other material? That little guy represented “you” to yourself in another way.

–Have you ever had a “lovey” (luvvy), a “stuffy,” a teddy bear, or whatever a soft item for children is called where you come from? That effigy, too, represents something about you, in a way that no other object can.

–Have you ever fiddled with a novelty or gag figure at your place of employment? Ever idly marched it or twisted it around a counter top, desk, or storage cabinet while on the phone? That doll is standing in for you there, too. That rubbery, wiry, colorful, silly thing may be an effigy of your company’s or client’s logo, but it’s an effigy of you at work, too.

Think of it… A doll acts as your brain’s stunt double.

So, EffigiPie treats you to a new angle of doll-as-effigy use. The depictions here may make you smile, laugh, or scratch your head. EffigiPie will always hope to find for you an oddly familiar little face to be a mirror for one of the many faces that make up “you.” We now have a page for you to share these faces with others. Tell us about the effigies of YOUR life. For now, we enter online activities without the benefit of using touch or smell. So you won’t be able to manipulate the effigies on this screen. (K.I.S.S. dolls and avatars not being easily supported on a blog site.) If my blog’s capabilities for user interaction changes in the near future, such that WordPress can support it, you’ll hear about it at EffigiPie. Until then, EffigiPie will provide the two dimensional details of a journey through the world of changeable little human-like forms like:

  • – dolls
  • –  action figures
  • – stuffed animals
  • – ceremonial figures
  • – K.I.S.S. (online interactive dolls)
  • – avatars
  • – and items with faces and malleability–but perhaps no category at all.

Face Sculptures Made Of Toys & Dolls [Image Sources:  http://blog-stampofapproval.com/2011/11/28/native-american-heritage-month-mississippian-effigy/; http://blog-stampofapproval.com/2011/11/28/native-american-heritage-month-mississippian-effigy/;Artist Freya Robbins. Source http://www.incrediblethings.com/art-design/face-sculptures-made-of-toys-doll-parts/%5D

EffigiePie Community Poll #1: EffigiPie Wants to Know More About You!

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