Prove your humanity

From glitter hair clips to powder pink mini dresses to spandex workout gear to raving movie reviews, Barbie is abuzz in China. And the American icon’s spirited fashion and her latest flick are not quite done making moves in the Middle Kingdom just yet.


Close-Up: Sun-Blocking Sartorial Styles Are On Fire in Urban China


Arguably the world’s most popular doll, Barbie transcends the realm of your typical (primarily) girls’ toys. Barbie’s luscious blond locks and pink wardrobe have influenced every corner of Western pop culture for decades. Unsurprisingly, an entirely new aesthetic made in the iconic figurine’s image has been circulating the fashion world online and on runways for the past year now: Barbiecore.

As of summer 2023, Barbiecore has blossomed into a pretty-in-pink synthesis of nostalgic references to the past and echoes of Barbie’s own “You can be anything” philosophy.

Chinese social media in spring/summer this year, too, has been buzzing with Barbie vibes so let’s take a look at the trend in the lead-up to and following the “Barbie” movie’s release in the Middle Kingdom on July 21.

In other words, from modish to movie appeal in China: Barbie’s life in plastic, is it fantastic?


On an Unsolicited Educational Note
American toy manufacturer Mattel opened its first flagship Barbie store – the House of Barbie – in China’s Shanghai in 2009. It was a six-story building covering an area of 3,500 square meters and selling over 1,600 related products.

American toy manufacturer Mattel billed it as a unique shopping center for girls. However, it was not very well-received. In 2010, the sales target of the Barbie shop was lowered by at least 30 percent. Due to continued lackluster business performance, it was closed after less than two years of operation.

In addition, Barbie is simply an American consumption icon just like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and KFC. Her image as a sexy but independent woman just didn’t win the favor of Chinese consumers a decade ago.

Now, Mattel did once launch a localized Barbie called “Ling” with black hair and wearing Chinese attire, but consumers believed that it was a Chinese girl in the eyes of Americans.

Barbie’s curves and suggestive clothes also seemed a bridge too far for many moms. And a lot of parents refuse to buy Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend, for their children as they cannot accept their children changing the clothes for a naked doll boy—even though he’s far from anatomically correct, but ok.


Behold: Chinese fashion artist, and one of Temper’s favorite Tasties, Yvan Deng, too, has created some Barbie-inspired works, such as this one–we’re stating the obvious, we know.  Deng’s works tend to depict the contemporary beats of urban society and  capture East and West in the same narrative, on the same canvas, among other materials. IG: @yvan_deng

Barbiecore—At Its Core

According to London-based global fashion search engine Lyst’s 2022 “Year in Fashion” report, Barbiecore was the top trend last year, peaking in June 2022, when the first behind-the-scenes photos of the Barbie movie were leaked. Snaps of stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, who play Barbie and Ken, respectively, in neon spandex and shocking pink cowboy attire sparked a craze (or at the very least a trending social media hashtag) for all things Barbiecore.

Fashion trends often employ nostalgia for certain decades such as the early aughts to emote a collective yearning for the past, perhaps “simpler times.” Fashion trends are cyclical. And it looks as though fashion in 2023 has swung toward the youthful lightheartedness of Barbiecore—a reaction to the international doom and gloom of the past few years.

Recent events such as the pandemic, social and economic crises had a huge impact on the global public and people now want to get out of that dark phase and have fun with their looks, wear more vibrant colors and accessorize accordingly.

It only makes sense that this 1980s-inspired, unapologetically pink aesthetic is taking center stage as the IT trend of summer. Though hot pink is preferred, other shades such as bubblegum and fuchsia also embody the Barbiecore vibe. The color is only one part of the trend though, as the second part is channeling the proper decade, which spans the 1980s to the early 2000s.

But Barbiecore wasn’t an instant hit everywhere. Enter: China.


On Chinese lifestyle slash e-commerce Walhalla 小红书 (xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book), the hashtag 芭比穿搭 (bābǐ chuāndā | “Barbie outfits” in Chinese) had raked in 22.3 million views as of July 19 and 23.5 million as of July 22.

Dead Barbie Pink

On Chinese social media, it took months before the term gradually took off. The hot pink shade associated with the doll was initially deemed a hilarious “dead Barbie pink” (死亡芭比粉| sǐwáng bābǐ fěn in Chinese). Aside from fashionistaes considering the color “so strong it can kill any look,” the hue was, and to some degree still is, perceived as making wearers’ skin look darker, a downside in a culture where fair skin is still the ideal, Jing Daily, aka the leading digital publication on luxury consumer trends in China, wrote in its June 2023 Barbiecore report.

But over the past two to three months, things certainly took a turn for the “livelier”…

As the promotional fanfare for the flick started picking up in the past months, with the movie hitting Chinese screens on July 21, Barbie mania slowly took hold of Chinese social media with many netizens slipping their toes into dainty yet dangerous 1980s heels, reaching for scrunchies, rocking 1990s square sunglasses, day-to-night styles rolled into one outfit, puffy organza short skirts, capes, culottes, sasquatch-like boots, you name it– in every shade of pink known to Mattel. Yes, we’re stating the obvious.

Some Chinese merchants have now put their own creative twist on Barbiecore beyond the typical wardrobe of miniskirts, tops and dresses. Pink qipaos, for example, have been in increasing demand from local consumers.


Fifty shades of pink courtesy of LRB

On Chinese lifestyle slash e-commerce Walhalla 小红书 (xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book (LRB)), the hashtag 芭比穿搭 (bābǐ chuāndā | “Barbie outfits” in Chinese) had raked in 22.3 million notes and views as of July 19 and 23.5 million as of July 22. On Douyin, China’s TikTok, the same tag had 18.5 million related short videos and livestreams as of July 19, and 19.2 million as of July 22.

FYI: Notes on LRB often center on the user’s own consumption experience, which serves as a useful guide for other users. Generally, photos and text notes are used to convey more detailed product information, whereas short and fast-moving videos highlight looks as well as (dis)advantages of the product in a Douyin style format.

A Beijing-based friend of this author, a Chinese photographer with a strong proclivity for doll-like dresses, high ponytails and colorful slash glittery eye make-up, told Temper that “anything from Dopamine Dressing to Barbie style makes me a happy from the time I walk out the door and go to work in the morning all the way to dinner and after; in sum, all day, every day.”

In an era where genderless fashion is becoming a staple, the doll’s hyper-femininity might appear restrictive or retro. But instead, for some contemporary Chinese consumers, the doll today symbolizes the opportunity to celebrate womanhood and showcase the fact that a girlish aesthetic isn’t incompatible with intelligence or authority, Jing Daily added.

But was this pick-up in related trendy and trending posts really all about embracing ultra-femininity and confidence?

The “map of mayhem” — we joke. To the right, you will spot the “nine-dash-line.” Even though you will count only eight dashes. This line is used on Chinese maps to demarcate territory in the South China Sea that Vietnam and China both claim as their own. Image: Screenshot from the Barbie movie, which was released in China on July 21.

Fashion For Thought

Ahead of the global “Barbie” debut, Vietnam on July 3 banned the movie for a shot in the film that features what is known as the “nine-dash line”—even though, upon closer inspection, there are only eight dots. Yes, counted – insert wink. This line is used on Chinese maps to demarcate territory in the South China Sea that Vietnam and China both claim as their own.

In other words, the nine-dash line, a U-shaped addition to maps, is used to section off about 90% of the South China Sea as Chinese territory. The Philippines, as the other nation with possible claims on the region, has announced it will allow the movie to be screened but will blur the “map of mayhem.”

Several movie industry experts as well as political observers—yep, Barbie is one hot chick right now–have said the movie’s map is a matter of Hollywood appeasing China in a bid to tap into the latter’s massive moviegoer market.

In the leadup to July 21, widespread excitement for the fashion and flick, aside, hundreds of Barbie-style and -movie comments on LRB read, in reference to the map, “Well, if Barbie supports us [China], we support Barbie!”

So did they? As the modish trend, demonstrated by the rise in Barbie style-related posts, kept moving onward and upward, did the movie fare just as well, then?

On Douyin, China’s TikTok, the “Barbie outfits” tag had 18.5 million related short videos and livestreams as of July 19, and 19.2 million as of July 22

Mode to Movie

“Barbie” was released in China on Friday, July 21 to considerable fanfare, but its pink appeal proved no match for a slew of local Chinese blockbusters. The Warner Bros. comedy-fantasy finished its opening day in China in sixth place, having earned “only” RMB 6.9 million (USD 960,000) as of 6:30 PM Beijing Time, according to The Hollywood Reporter on July 21 (Pacific Daylight Time).

The soft start for “Barbie” continues a trend of Hollywood films earning much less in China than they once did. Though Hollywood films have resumed flowing into Chinese cinemas at a healthy rate, total ticket sales for U.S. movies in the first half of 2023 clocked in at just USD 592 million–a 69 percent slide from the USD 1.9 billion earned during the same stretch in 2019, before the pandemic, the magazine reported on its website.

But it’s worth noting that #芭比电影 (bābǐ diànyǐng| Barbie movie) reaped a whopping 120 million related posts on Douyin on July 21, following the movie’s premiere in China, with many netizens, men and women alike, posting raving reviews and hailing the motion picture as “a tale of real human emotion.” The plastic fantastic flick also received a major viewer rating of 8.8 (out of a maximum 10) on Douban, China’s most popular movie review platform that same day.

An acquaintance of yours truly, not naming any names today but it’s someone who works in the creative industry, on July 23, after watching the movie, wrote in his moments on WeChat, the Facebook-like wall of China’s ubiquitous super app, “I thought this [the ‘Barbie’ movie] would be a comedy; never could I have imagined the story would run so deep. This movie deserves a thumbs-up!”

But other men apparently weren’t as impressed as social media was flooded with posts about men walking out midway through the movie in disbelief, vocally expressing their disagreement with the movie’s main themes — such as reversing gender roles by making women dominate Barbieland, according to Chinese state-run online magazine SIXTH TONE. “Barbie,” aka the barometer for boyfriend material. #apparentlyKenmadeabooboo

Disappointing debut box office numbers aside, it seems that, as opposed to roughly one decade ago, Barbie has won the favor of Chinese consumers in the Roaring Twenties 2.0. And one might dare say neither the mode nor the movie are done making moves in the Middle Kingdom just yet.

The finance guys rocking fifty shades of grey and beige might not be convinced Barbie’s life in China is fantastic right now, but the consumers looking pretty in pink sure are. After all…

“Anything is possible.”




















Top tier: Two of Chinese fashion artist Yvan Deng’s Barbie-inspired works. IG: @yvan_deng
Lower tier: Barbie style-related posts on Chinese social media, from LRB to Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.
Elsbeth van Paridon
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