Barbie does Beijing: The adventures of a Malibu girl in China

June 21, 2010

BarbieModern day national influence, some smart people like to argue, spreads through the “soft power” of brand appeal and attraction rather than the “hard power” of coercion. In China, one avatar of U.S.  soft power tends to be trim and busty, and come with blue eyes and a long mane of blonde hair. Her name is Barbie, she is made of plastic, she was born in Malibu and Chinese girls want to be like her.

Barbie comes in all sorts of versions, according to the man who introduces her to her foreign friends, Mattel’s international president, Bryan Stockton. Still, in China, the No. 1-selling Barbie doll is the sunny surfer girl who cruised across the Pacific from southern California to bring millions of young Chinese girls a new vision of the world, not to mention themselves.

“The challenge (in China) is to have toys become a part of the culture,” Stockton said at the Reuters Consumer and Retail Summit on Monday. “We’re trying to get our toys to be a part of a child’s development. … In Chinese culture it’s very important to help girls think they can aspire to be something. … Barbie is a western icon and she’s an American icon, and Barbie is from Malibu, California.”

“Now,” Stockton said, “Barbie is a part of Chinese educational culture and Chinese pop culture.”

It’s important to remember, however, that it’s not about seeing yourself in Barbie’s physical manifestation here on earth. As Stockton said:

“In reality, Barbie is a toy. Barbie is for aspiration. … Barbie doesn’t represent anything concrete. Barbie is a plastic doll, so what we try to concentrate on is all the things Barbie provides for girls… She’s a great thing for girls. She’s done a lot of wonderful things for girls, and so we’re going to continue to emphasize the positive.”

Wish they all could be California girls? Wish no longer.

(Photo: Reuters)

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