Barbie pays tribute to Anna May Wong and more

Toy conglomerate Mattel has launched a collectible Barbie doll that honours Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star. David Ho looks at what else the iconic doll has been up to

Sculpted to Anna May Wong’s likeness, the doll from the Barbie Inspiring Women series wears a red gown with a metallic gold dragon overlay at the bodice. She comes with sparkly golden shoulder straps and a sheer cape with a draped neckline for an elegant look.

Wong was a trailblazer in Hollywood and first found fame in the silent movie era when she took on the lead role of Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea.

But she faced an uphill battle in her career due to racism. Despite being a lead in the movie Daughter of the Dragon, Wong was only paid a paltry US$6,000. Just half as much as Warner Oland, a non-Asian actor who played her father and the villain Fu Manchu.

She founded her own production company in 1924 at 19 years old. But feeling like her prospects were limited in the US, Wong eventually left to find further opportunities in Europe. Though she would eventually return to the States. Her recognition then came in 1960 when she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – a year before her passing.

This Barbie doll tribute follows the announcement in October 2022 that Wong would become the first Asian-American to appear on American currency, where her likeness would be on quarters.

The timely tribute also aligns with a year that Asian actors are receiving their dues, with Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan winning acting awards at the 95th Oscars. The Barbie brand has also collaborated with Chinese couturier Guo Pei on dolls wearing some of its famous creations, including the “omelette dress” that Rihanna wore to the Met Gala once, as well as original designs for the Lunar New Year each year.

It’s also been a busy time for the Barbie franchise. Mattel worked with the US National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) to create a new Barbie that represented a person with Down syndrome. The doll featured characteristics of women who have the genetic condition. She came in a yellow and blue dress, colours that associated with Down syndrome awareness.

The Barbie doll also wore a pink pendant necklace with three upward chevrons that symbolised the three copies of the 21st chromosome, the genetic material that causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome. The Barbie Fashionista doll with Down syndrome also wears pink ankle foot orthotics to match her outfit and her sneakers tout a zipper detail. As some children with Down syndrome use orthotics to support their feet and ankles, the NDSS provided a box of orthotics to serve as real-life inspiration for the ones this Barbie Fashionista is wearing, matched to her outfit and the bright colours in her design.

British model Ellie Goldstein, who has Down syndrome, stated that she felt “overwhelmed” when she saw the new Barbie. Mattel has stated that its goal is for “all children to see themselves in Barbie” as well as “play with dolls who do not look like themselves”. In recent years, it has released dolls with a hearing aid, a prosthetic limb, the skin condition vitiligo and a wheelchair.

Mattel has also been hard at work on dolls for the live action version of The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey. A video of the singer-actress being presented with the doll in her likeness for the first time went viral. The dolls have become a best seller on Amazon from pre-orders alone.

It was just this year that the toy company regained the license from Disney to create dolls based on its characters. Mattel unveiled a US$150 collector’s edition line of Disney dolls, starting with one of Maleficent from the Sleeping Beauty movie.     

The Barbie franchise is expected to grow further when the Greta Gerwig-helmed Barbie movie hits theatres on July 20. It features a star-studded cast with Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, Dua Lipa and Dame Helen Mirren among others.  

Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz has stated the movie is a “catalyst” for future content creation based on its intellectual properties.

“Barbie is clearly an important brand. It’s one of our three power brands, and it will be in many ways a showcase for the quality of the movies that we’re looking to make, the type of partnerships we’re formulating with lead talent in Hollywood, working with major studios.”

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