Impressionable young minds engaging with Amar Chitra Katha and Barbie

As a kid growing up in Bhubaneswar, Bhopal and Srirangam (near Trichy) in the 80s, my playtime included playing street cricket, bringing home stray puppies and cats and feeding them, watching Doordarshan and reading a LOT of comics and children’s books. I was a B-town kid, so comic books and children’s books didn’t mean the internationally renowned superhero collection, but simpler Indian stuff – Tinkle, Ambulimama, Chandamama, Champak, Gokulam, Target and most importantly, Amar Chitra Katha.

Target was a very big influence in looking at things around me and questioning them. Over time, I have also come to see Amar Chitra Katha in a different light. What had once seemed like a wonderful series to introduce India’s incredible history started to unravel as a long, consistent effort in stereotyping. No doubt, much of my interest and knowledge and Indian story started with the series, but I cannot shed the broad strokes used: darker skin tones were used for all people with bad intentions – dacoits, demons, asuras etc. And a lighter skin tone was used for all the good people. I can at least make peace with the cultural stereotypes – subservient women and valiant men, given that those stories depicted a different period in time.

Now, I did not start by reading these books. Like all kids, they were first narrated to me, by my parents and grandparents. They used to read it aloud to me and I used to look at the visuals and relate to the characters and their actions. Subsequently, I started reading them on my own. The long term impact of such broad strokes was that I grew up presuming that darker skin color is something that should be feared and suspected. I’m not alone in this – a whole lot of Indian children would have grown up with the same perception. Till we all started questioning this, with increased education and awareness, that is.

And it looks like even Amar Chitra Katha has realized that they do not exist in a vacuum and that they need to update their material. Unfortunately, most kids these days have moved on to videos, smartphones and OTT for their fun and entertainment. And Amar Chitra Katha is not the sole purveyor of fun, knowledge or entertainment anymore, unlike the period when I grew up.

The equivalent of this stereotypical past and change in the West is with Barbie.

Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, based Barbie on a German doll called Lilli, a prostitute gag gift handed out at bachelor parties! When Handler introduced Barbie (named after her daughter Barbara) in 1959, at the New York Toy Fair, her male competitors laughed and insisted that nobody would want to play with a doll with breasts!!

Barbie has had a long and tumultuous history in gender bias and body shape stereotyping. Women were given certain roles that men weren’t. Body shapes were limited and heavily idealized. All these ensured that a generation of children grew up presuming those gender roles to be the ‘right’ ones, in the process not knowing how to deal with those that are different.

But, even Barbie is changing! From those highly idealized shapes and skin tones, they have a whole new range of Barbie dolls that offer far more diversity and variety. There is a Barbie in a wheelchair. There are more body shapes, like petite, tall and curvy. There is a Barbie with a prosthetic leg. There is a Barbie with no hair and one with the skin condition vitiligo! Barbie also comes in 22 skin tones now.

And according to Mattel, Barbie has had over 200 inspirational careers, and more recently including more STEM fields.

What does this achieve? For one, when young kids get such dolls, they start to think these are normal human forms and start looking at them as just another person, without isolating them. For Barbie to realize the need to do this is not merely a checkbox for inclusion and diversity. This is undoing years of conditioning they have unleashed on young, impressionable minds given the amount of time they have been exposed to such idealized forms all through their formative years.

Unlike Amar Chitra Katha and printed books, Barbie continues to be a huge influence. Mattel’s Barbie does US $1 billion in sales across more than 150 countries annually, and 92% of American girls ages 3 to 12 have owned a Barbie! So, such changes make a substantial difference.

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