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Desi Pink: Indian American Women Too are Swept Up in Barbiemania

Desi Pink: Indian American Women Too are Swept Up in Barbiemania

  • Following the opening of “Barbie,” Greta Gerwig's highly-anticipated film, some of them weigh-in on their experiences with the world’s famous doll.

Indian American chef Maneet Chauhan is excited about the “Barbie.” Not only is she dressed in pink, the preferred color of the Mattel doll, she’s taking the theme to her restaurants as well. In a video posted to Facebook before the film’s July 21 release, the Nashville-based chef shared some of the dishes she was serving at her restaurants — strawberry cardamom lassi and pink beetroot paneer kulcha with beetroot raita.

Chauhan is among many women who have been swept by ‘Barbiemania’ that’s taken the country by storm. Donning various shades of pink, especially hot pink, along with accessories like the iconic Barbie glasses, jewelry and shoes, women have been flocking theaters nationwide with their partners, girlfriends and daughters to see the film. On social media there has been an explosion of pink looks  —  magenta lipstick, bubblegum-colored manicures and rosy dresses.

Dipika Khatri of South Brunswick, New Jersey, is a lifelong “Barbie girl.” She saw the film yesterday with a friend. Dressed in a floral pink summer dress, the IT professional and amateur baker took several photos at the movies. Growing up in India, Khatri owned several Barbie dolls. “I loved them,” she told American Kahani. “I wanted to be like them, dress up like them and comb their hair.” Now, the mother of two young adult boys has been incorporating her love for the dolls in her cakes. “Now I use them as cake toppings for other girls,” she says, noting that to her, the dolls are both beautiful and empowered. However, she seemed disillusioned by the film. “I was expecting a lot more.”

PR professional Neerja Patel of Westchester, N.Y., gets into the Barbie spirit. Top photo, Dipika Khatri of South Brunswick, N.J., at the “Barbie” movie on opening day, July 21.

Director Greta Gerwig’s live-action film about the world’s most famous doll has been getting praise from fans and critics alike. Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, it boasts a strong 89 percent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. “Once an equal parts fascinating and controversial Mattel toy, both loved and hated — a tiny-waisted, vacuously smiling, slender doll designed like a straight-male fantasy — is now the complicated feminist symbol of empowerment in Gerwig’s hands,” The Wrap wrote. “But we aren’t talking about an empty you-go-girl kind of empowerment here. That would be too simple-minded for Gerwig, whose articulate and accessible feminism has always been fiercely multifaceted and complex.” The Globe and Mail called it “both a master’s thesis on feminism and an Austin Powers-esque romp.”

Like Khatri, many Indian American women, now in their 40s and 50s, told American Kahani that they had at least one Barbie while growing up. Whether they were raised here or in India, they all have fond memories of the dolls. Some of them shared what the dolls meant to them, and what they learned from them. Most of them hadn’t seen the movie, but most expressed a desire to see it.

Vidhu Goyal of Somerset, New Jersey was born and raised in the U.S. She recalls playing with Barbie dolls from a young age. “I wanted to look like her, dress like her,” Goyal, 53, a project manager at CitiGroup, told American Kahani. She eventually realized the stereotypes the doll was trying to perpetuate. But she also pointed out the “diversity” in the dolls. “One of the many Barbies I own is an Indian one,” she says. “She wears a sari and bindi.”

Despite the ethnically diverse dolls and their multiple occupations, or the fuller-figured models that Mattel introduced in 2016 as an expression of body positivity, “Barbie was just always associated with just being pretty and not really smart.”

Though she hasn’t yet seen the film, Goyal is hopeful that it will “destroy the stereotypes,” and focus on their “positive impact.” She feels the film is out at the right time with its messaging on “patriarchy and gender roles.”She feels everyone should watch the movie, adding that the G13 restriction is appropriate, as it gives mothers a chance to prepare their daughters with what to expect, and what messages they can derive from the film, staying away from the negativity and the stereotyping.

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The first Barbie doll was displayed in March 1959 at the annual Toy Fair in New York City, according to an article in The Smithsonian magazine. The doll was conceived by Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband, Elliot Handler, and Harold Matson in 1945. Three hundred thousand Barbie dolls were sold in the first year. The toy swiftly grew so popular she needed her own entourage. In 1961, Barbie got a boyfriend, Ken, named, perhaps oddly, after the Handlers’ son. In 1963, she got a best friend, Midge, and, in 1964, a little sister, Skipper.

Kapu Patel of West Windsor, N.J., drapes a pink organza jamdani.

When PR professional Neerja Patel moved from India to the U.S. as a young girl, the first doll that was given was a Barbie, “because she was the most popular American toy, the doll everyone had.” But as she grew older, Barbie “became associated with such unrealistic body images.” Despite the ethnically diverse dolls and their multiple occupations, or the fuller-figured models that Mattel introduced in 2016 as an expression of body positivity, “Barbie was just always associated with just being pretty and not really smart,” the Westchester-based mother of two says. So she never even thought about buying her a Barbie as she was “looked upon so negatively by our generation.” Patel is “surprised by the craze” the move is getting and “seeing all the love that Barbie is getting again.” She is curious to know that “despite all the hate she got in the 2000’s for her toxic beauty and lack of diversity, what the craze behind this movie is.” It is a classic girls’ night out film, she says, and would love to watch it with her girl gang, which would be “fun thing to do.” And yes, she would be dressed in pink.

Growing up in India, Mili Mavely Washington of Charlotte, North Carolina, was “a dancer, and a bit of a tomboy.” Dolls didn’t interest her much. But she recalls owning “a Barbie or two.” However, it “did not inform or shape” her opinions on “the feminine, her power, or lack thereof at all.” A mother of a college-bound young woman and two boys, Mavely Washington believes that “as girls and women we can look like and become anything we want and set our minds to.” Describing her as a feminist, she feels that she may have “inadvertently or subconsciously passed on my less than stellar opinion of Barbie to my daughter, and my two sons.” In her mind, dolls other than a Barbie were” acceptable playmates as they were more suited to a young child, seemed realistic, and not like a miniature sex doll with perfect perky boobs and unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards.” But at the same time, she finds “no harm in having fun, or being Barbie obsessed, or loving all things pink.” It’s just not for her. “All this being said, if the movie has rave reviews, I’ll probably (reluctantly) see it with my family and possibly even enjoy it.”

While most want to go see the film out of interest or curiosity, Maryland-based actress Sangeeta Agrwal has a completely different reason: Ken, played by Ryan Gosling. “I tried to get someone to go with me, but everyone flat out refused,” she told American Kahani. “This may be the first time I see a movie by myself,” she said. “Only for Ryan.”

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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