How Barbie Conquered Shanghai

On Friday, March 6, Mattel is opening a six-story, 38,000-sq.-ft. Barbie superstore in Shanghai. "The plan," according to GlobalPost, "is to turn America's favorite doll into fashion fodder for China's upwardly mobile, trend-setting elite." Will a plastic blonde with a dreamhouse really capture the hearts of Chinese yuppies?

With sales slumping stateside, Mattel is eyeing that nation of 1.5 billion customers in efforts to ride out the recession. So while Barack Obama is moving the United States to the left, American capitalism appears to be strengthening its grip farther east. In addition to lots of dolls, the boutique will feature a hair salon, a bar and a $15,000, adult-sized Vera Wang gown.

"By moving up-market and focusing on Barbie-branded merchandise, the company hopes to widen profit margins and attract a new demographic: Chinese women," explains GlobalPost's Emily Rauhala. Barbie is about to turn 50 years old, and the iconic doll's "made-in-China makeover" is part of a push to re-brand the little hottie before she has a midlife crisis.

Reactions are mixed among Chinese women--some embrace the new blonde princess, others prefer dolls with Chinese features. Rauhala quotes Xiaoming Ai, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University, who says brands that target women often push a “discourse of modernity” that commercializes the female body. Advertisers urge women to spend their way to a perfect form, while analysts say a lack of public discussion on sex and gender here makes it hard for alternative perspectives on femininity to emerge."

Either way, Professor Ai is not focusing that much time on battling Barbie. "She has other concerns, says Rauhala, such as domestic violence, sexual assault and the broader fight for civil and human rights in China."

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