Mimi Dolls

Hazel Oh

Mimi/미미 is a South Korean doll introduced in 1982 by the Korean toy company Mimi World.[1] Designed by Mimi World CEO Lee Jong-yeul’s mother, Mimi was essentially first introduced as Lala/라라, who had been released in 1981 but whose name was already trademarked.[2] For Koreans, Mimi’s rounded facial features and anime-like eyes felt more familiar than the American Barbie. However, Mimi was based on Barbie even as Koreans tailored her and her style to suit their tastes, evidencing Barbie and her white femininity as the model from which Mimi was created.[3] Compared to her initial proportions, Mimi’s height has increased while her head size has decreased, pointing to a level of model-esque Westernization for the Korean doll.

Figure 1. The author’s childhood Mimi doll, presumably from the Princess line. Notice her overall aesthetic and Westernized features, including blonde hair and large eyes. Personal photo.

Mimi’s Origins, Linguistic Cuteness, and Popularity

According to Namuwiki/나무위키 (the Korean equivalent of Google), Mimi comes in many varieties; to date, there has been a Princess Mimi line for a general female audience, a Fashion Mimi line for young women, and a Seventeen Mimi line for high schoolers. More recent versions include a tanned Mimi (2018) and a part-time worker Mimi (2020), and other versions are still produced depending on consumer demand. Mimi has a ubiquitous presence in Korea, and ongoing production suggests her continuing demand. Mimi also has distinct ties to cuteness, with her name involving a kind of cute repetition if repetition resembles baby talk or cutely condensed nicknames. Furthermore, the Korean hanja character mi/미 indicates beauty, or the state of being or becoming beautiful. Mimi’s name repeats the character, possibly emphasizing her beauty and/or the importance of beauty to Mimi. In relation to Mimi’s linguistic cuteness, her original slogan was “다정한 친구 미미,” which roughly translates to “My sweet friend Mimi.”[4] Although she and her world do not contain a direct word for cuteness, the word “다정해” for “sweet” evokes a pleasant sweetness often attached to cuteness. Apart from her slogan, Mimi did “ha[ve] her own story” that involved her “lov[ing] literature but hat[ing] math, which appealed to young girls back then.”[5] One can infer from her anti-math mindset a more sexist and traditional view of a girl like Mimi being far from the masculine sphere of mathematics and closer to that of the feminine, “softer” humanities. Lastly, although her exact race remains unclear, given Mimi’s Barbie-inspired origins and somewhat white appearance (which I will elaborate on), it is likely that she has some relation(s) to whiteness and Westernization.

To touch on Mimi’s popularity, in 2012, Mimi dolls and Mimi-affiliated products “topped the sales charts for girls” during the previous year’s holiday season, and Mimi World “estimates that about 25 million Mimi dolls have been sold since their release.”[6] As mentioned, demand for these dolls exists in July 2022, Mimi World even worked with Toys "R" Us Korea to sell 40th anniversary limited edition dolls on and offline following an online fan community’s insistence on the release of new dolls.[7] A roller skating Mimi and picnic Mimi were released, with blonde hair and the more Westernized updated proportions. As established brands like Toys "R" Us are maintaining connections to Mimi World and their dolls, Mimi does not appear to be fading from the toy market anytime soon.

Mimi and K-Beauty

One event in particular highlights Mimi’s ubiquity and popularity: in 2013, Korea held a Seoul Land competition for women who look like Mimi, with a pre-debut Hyomin from the female K-pop group T-ara participating.[8] That Korea had such a pageant showcasing and rewarding women who resemble Mimi shows a clear association between Korean notions of ideal feminine beauty and Mimi, who seems to reflect those notions. In general, Korean beauty ideals revolve around “an overall innocent look” comprising characteristics such as a “small face, big eyes, and slim body” that mark and promote innocence and youth.[9] It is likely that Korean standards also center a kind of softly cute, or kawaii, aesthetic: kawaii is the Japanese concept of cute, which impacts Koreans’ sense of cuteness since Korea is influenced by Japanese culture.[10] This soft kawaii cuteness can be attached to Korean beauty, or “K-beauty,” along with typical cute components such as infantility/youth and femininity.[11] As an industry, K-beauty emphasizes youth. Numerous advertisement campaigns feature K-pop idols and Korean stars boasting youthful, glowing skin, and products prioritize the maintenance of a youthful image. Femininity and feminine colors are emphasized as well, with softness, soft pastel colors, and (hyper)femininity through pastel pink being prominent facets. The K-beauty industry is an increasingly global phenomenon. In 2021, the global K-beauty market size’s revenue totaled a vast USD 8.30 billion, signaling K-beauty as a part of Korea’s expanding global soft power.[12]

Mimi herself fulfills the above ideal K-beauty aesthetic. She has “perfect” skin and a girlish face, dresses modestly, and has a fondness for soft pastels, particularly pink (see Figure 1). Beyond these features, whiteness appears to be an essential aspect of both K-beauty and Mimi. K-beauty emphasizes clear, pale and white skin and double eyelids, and every version of Mimi fulfills and reflects these white ideals.[13] As Ann duCille writes, dolls like Mimi “play crucial roles in helping children determine what is valuable in and around them. Dolls in particular invite children to replicate them, to imagine themselves in their dolls’ images. What does it mean, then, when little girls are given dolls to play with that in no way resemble them?”[14] Although Mimi’s supposedly Asianized face is better suited for Korean aesthetic tastes, this does not signify that she resembles Koreans. After all, the average Korean woman does not have Mimi’s very pale skin and comically large, double-eyelid eyes, as well as light hair and long-legged proportions.

If Korean women are expected to resemble Mimi but do not have such features naturally, they can achieve her desirable look through plastic surgery. Korea has the highest plastic surgery rates and has been called “the plastic surgery capital of the world,” and many Korean women feel extreme pressure to embody the cute and white aesthetic of Korean feminine beauty that the K-beauty industry and products like Mimi accentuate.[15] As the aesthetic’s origins date to an earlier period, Koreans have and still internalize a deeply rooted, cute and white image as the ultimate ideal. At present, adults continue to purchase their young daughters Mimi dolls without critical assessment of how the dolls have come to reflect a white aesthetic and what their whiteness implies for the girls who play pretend with them as they “imagine themselves in their dolls’ images.” Korean adults fail to consider the impossibility of their daughters doing this imagining. That is, since neither young Korean girls nor the Mimi dolls they play with resemble each other, it is less possible for the girls to genuinely “imagine themselves in their dolls’ images” during play (see Figure 2). While young girls may find this impossibility to already be a difficult experience, it can lead to further damage as they grow older with the reinforced notion that white-proximate dolls like Mimi and women who look closest to her are most valued by their society. Notably, young Korean girls observe other girls and women who fulfill the cute, white ideal being upheld in various Korean spaces (e.g., social media, television and film, K-beauty) and understand that the ideal is valued because those “ideal” figures are constantly put forth and positively received by the public.

While Mimi is not a real girl, she fulfills the above ideal and is put forth and positively received by the public, reinforcing the ideal and playing a part in a larger system that pushes white-inflected beauty onto Korean women. There are several important implications for the viewing, internalizing, and perpetuating of the value of feminine beings who fit into the same image Mimi effortlessly does: 1) Girls are taught that what they naturally embody is not acceptable or valuable if they do not fit a certain cute, white aesthetic. 2) Girls are sent the message that if one does not embody this aesthetic, one should and can change to embody it (this is where plastic surgery comes in, since it is the only way to change what is natural). 3) Girls and women are forced to homogenize toward a white Western look. The term “gangnam beauty” indicates those who are deemed attractive, but have obviously had plastic surgery, and points to how many Korean women appear similar to one another after procedures such as (the Westernized) double eyelid surgery.[16] 4) No acknowledging or questioning of the aesthetic’s problematic origins occurs. And 5) If Korean adults provide the means for young girls to have Mimi, the girls who play with her also play into the lasting “superiority” of whiteness and white femininity.

Figure 2. A “mini” Mimi doll. Although adults can give young Korean girls a similarly youthful Mimi, this Mimi still does not resemble the girls as a result of her Westernized features. Personal photo.

Mimi, Licca, and Korea’s History of Whiteness

Mimi looks peculiarly similar to the Japanese doll Licca, created in 1967, as well as other Japanese dolls such as Jenny and Sailor Moon.[17] Therefore, even without evidence of direct influence, it can be presumed that Mimi takes some level of inspiration from Licca, especially since Korea has been highly influenced by Japan and Japanese products. Christine R. Yano defines “pink globalization” as “the widespread distribution and consumption of Japanese cute goods and aesthetics to other parts of the industrial world.”[18] As part of this globalization, kawaii figures such as Licca have a wide-ranging, soft-power influence over countries like Korea, inspiring their production and consumption. While much of the scholarship on "pink globalization" has focused on kawaii’s spread in the West, the fact that Licca has never been a popular doll in non-Asian countries, but has exerted a powerful influence on Korea, suggests the need to consider “pink globalization” as it relates to inter-Asian dynamics.

In any case, a more pertinent observation could be that there is a pattern of multiple Asian dolls that not only resemble one another but approximate whiteness. Together, these white-looking Asian dolls carry potentially negative implications for Asian women and Asian American women, who are also pressured to fulfill Asian beauty standards. Moreover, if, as duCille argues, dolls can reflect cultural values about race and gender, the dolls point to the reality that Asians at large uphold whiteness as a feminine beauty ideal. With regard to Licca, Erica Kanesaka writes that “there is some truth to the idea that kawaii favors white aesthetics” (emphasis added).[19] After losing in World War II, Japan had to “embrace… a childlike and feminine role in global politics,” and “Western children’s fantasies… became popular with Japanese audiences due to the authority of American power.” As Korea has its own history with America and the West and whiteness, Mimi’s white appearance may be colored by this particular history, even as she likely takes inspiration from Japanese dolls such as Licca.

Korea-America relations date to the late 19th century, during which the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation instituted diplomatic relations.[20] These progressed until 1905, when Japan assumed power over Korean foreign affairs and went on to rule Korea for 35 years. After Japan’s surrender in World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South Korea, with America occupying the South. In 1949, America and South Korea officially established diplomatic relations and have maintained cooperative efforts since then. In part due to the circumstances in which they received seemingly benevolent American aid, many Koreans hold a positive view of America (and, by extension, the West) without questioning the unequal power dynamics behind their apparent alliance. Furthermore, in postwar Korea during the 1950s, American surgeon David Ralph Millard was assigned as the U.S. Marine Corps’ chief plastic surgeon in Korea.[21] While he was there to “provide reconstructive surgery” and “first considered altering the human eye while reconstructing eyebrows for burn victims,” he began offering double eyelid surgery to Koreans for cosmetic purposes that were somewhat self-promoted. From this point, he and the American military instilled “‘a sense of inferiority [in Koreans] to their White racial bodies,’” and with the war having exposed Koreans “to the Western world via the U.S. military’s presence,… Koreans sought to emulate the people they now associated with influence, money, and power.”[22] Observing the similarities through which Japanese people have come to uphold Western notions of being, one can begin to discern the questionable roots of the Korean Mimi’s desirable proximity to whiteness and specifically double-eyelid eyes.

Figure 3. A 2008 display of Mimi dolls at Lotte World Toys "R" Us resembling displays that can be found in contemporary Korea. Courtesy of Scarlet Sappho on Flickr.

Contemporary Whiteness in Korea, Scripting, and Conclusion

From an even earlier period, Koreans have upheld whiteness as one way to display upper-class status, for having white skin displayed a lack of need for working outside. However, American and Western global influence has strengthened and reinforced the value of Caucasian/European whiteness.[23] In modern Korea, many advertisements for global brands like Estée Lauder and L’Oréal deliberately use Caucasian models, signifying a globalized “Western standard” in which Caucasian whiteness has been cemented as and remains the perceived ideal. Besides the incorporation of white-ideal Korean idols and stars in K-beauty spheres, K-beauty and fashion campaigns and advertisements often favor actual white models, most noticeably when displaying products not promoted by celebrities. Using non-celebrity white models as “ordinary” models for Korean products, Koreans view whiteness as a sort of ordinary standard, echoing an idea behind the Japanese concept mukokuseki. Mukokuseki, or the erasure of national difference, seemingly allows Japan’s kawaii exports to have “ambiguous, and therefore neutral, racial meanings.”[24] Yet, as Kanesaka argues, the apparent absence of race from many cute characters “arises from the dominance of whiteness and its assertions of universality” (emphasis added). Perhaps, then, there are two reasons that Mimi’s whiteness is viewed as cute: “standard” to Koreans and Asians indicates that whiteness is raceless and universal, unmarked and not to be questioned. Moreover, “standard” indicates what is ideal and preferable. This line of thought could explain why Mimi and other Asian dolls like Licca embody a mukokuseki white femininity white women are seen as both unmarked and universally desirable.

Even as Mimi’s whiteness may make her appear racially ambiguous, her ambiguity does not entail neutrality. Mimi's racial makeup merely seems neutral because whiteness is regarded as such, and typically on a global scale. Interestingly, children’s literature, toys, and dolls can carry attachments of and perpetuate such dominant beliefs and structures. For example, the children’s story The Story of Little Black Sambo carries British “Victorian racial fantasies” and upholds imperialistic power structures traditionally at work yet are rather covered by the story’s cuteness.[25] In Mimi’s case, considering her position as a South Korean doll and the aforementioned history between Korea and America, she could be said to embody and uphold those dynamics revolving around Korea’s “inferiority” to America and the West (in terms of national strength and cultural beauty), as well as a “superior” white femininity that enforces whiteness as the standard. Moreover, if children’s playing with dolls is “performative in that it produces culture,” Mimi and the young Korean and Korean American girls (for whom first-generation Korean parents purchase Mimi dolls) who interact with her may be playing out global ideals of a superior whiteness and white femininity, even if subconsciously.[26] That is, Mimi can be an “elemen[t] of material culture” that “‘script[s] actions.’”[27] It is worth noting that Mimi is not made of flimsy material that would allow rough playing and appears delicate, with her princessy clothing and dainty accessories. Hence, the girls who play with her are scripted to do so in a nice manner, coming to hold a view of white femininity as something to be cared for and to be prioritized. This sense of priority arises from Mimi’s materiality in addition to the fact that the doll’s cute appearance is mirrored in K-beauty and other spaces that present white femininity as highly culturally and socially valued. Subsequently, Korean and Korean American girls are conditioned to desire to embody Mimi, who herself has an extensive presence and is shown in the country in carefully constructed displays proclaiming her feminine worth (see Figure 3).

Forty-one years after her official release, Mimi remains on the Korean toy market, and the contemporary rise of Korean popular culture in multiple realms may be affording her an even greater level of visibility and presence. While the future of Mimi and the ideals she represents are uncertain, we as Korean and Korean (and Asian) American women can aim to better understand and analyze the dolls we loved without question in our girlhoods. As I brushed my Princess Mimi doll’s hair in preparation for her photo, I experienced a wave of nostalgia that was not unwelcome. In any case, even as I look at Mimi with fondness, I do not see her the way I used to after all, I had not seen much beyond her gentle expression and glittering tulle. If Cute Studies has taught me anything, however, it is that one can hold dear and be critical of a given object at the same time. Perhaps my Korean Mimi doll is showing me just that.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] 김형원, “바비·리카·미미, 한 시대를 풍부한 패션인형 이야기,” IT Chosun, August 19, 2017, https://it.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2017/08/19/2017081985011.html.

[2] “At 30, Mimi still trounces Barbie in Korea,” Korea JoongAng Daily, March 29, 2012, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2012/03/29/features/At-30-Mimi-still-trounces-Barbie-in-Korea-/2950710.html.

[3] “미미,” 나무위키, accessed May 22, 2023, https://namu.wiki/w/미미; “국내 첫 패션인형 미미,” 동아일보, January 2, 2003, https://www.donga.com/news/culture/article/all/20030102/7897691/1.

[4] 황희경, “토이저러스, ‘미미인형’ 40주년 기념 80년대 콘셉트 한정판 출시,” 연합뉴스, July 26, 2022, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20220725143300003.

[5] Korea JoongAng Daily, “Mimi still trounces Barbie.”

[6] Korea JoongAng Daily, “Mimi still trounces Barbie.”

[7] 황희경, “토이저러스, ‘미미인형.’”

[8] 나무위키, “미미.”

[9] Wendy Wang, “Korean Beauty Standards Explained in 2023 (Complete Guide),” The VOU, April 11, 2023, https://thevou.com/beauty/korean-beauty-standards/.

[10] From 1910 to 1945, Japan had full control over Korea. Based on this imperial history, Japan continues to have influence over Korea (and other Asian nations due to geographical proximity). While there is much more that can be stated about the history of Korea-Japan, I will not do so here for the sake of focus.

[11] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 814.

[12] “K-Beauty Products Market,” Straits Research, https://straitsresearch.com/report/k-beauty-products-market

[13] I elaborate on the history behind this upholding of whiteness in a later section.

[14] Ann duCille, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,” differences 6, no. 1 (1994): 46–68.

[15] Erin Yi, “True Beauty: The Economics of Plastic Surgery in South Korea,” UWEB, January 23, 2022, https://uweb.berkeley.edu/2022/01/23/true-beauty-the-economics-of-plastic-surgery-in-south-korea/. It may be worth mentioning that Mimi’s mold never changes, and every doll mold looks the same.

[16] Soundarya Venkataraman, “‘My ID is Gangnam Beauty’…”, Medium, December 18, 2020, https://medium.com/the-broken-refrigerator/my-id-is-gangnam-beauty-under-the-guise-of-a-frothy-rom-com-lies-a-tactful-look-at-the-pressures-a747df1d77c3.

[17] 김형원, “바비·리카·미미.”

[18] Christine R. Yano, “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines,” The Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 3 (August 2009): 682-3.

[19] Erica Kanesaka, “The Mixed-Race Fantasy Behind Kawaii Aesthetics,” Catapult, January 17, 2023, https://catapult.co/stories/the-mixed-race-fantasy-behind-kawaii-aesthetics-japanese-post-racial-cute-licca-chan-erica-kanesaka.

[20] “U.S. Relations With the Republic of Korea,” U.S. Department of State, February 8, 2020, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-the-republic-of-korea/.

[21] Laura Kurek, “Eyes wide cut: the American origins of Korea’s plastic surgery craze: South Korea’s obsession with cosmetic surgery can be traced back to an American doctor, raising uneasy questions about beauty standards,” The Wilson Quarterly 39, no. 4 (2015).

[22] Kurek, “Eyes wide cut.”

[23] Eric PH Li, Hyun Jeong Min, and Russell W. Belk, “Skin lightening and beauty in four Asian cultures,” ACR North American Advances 35, (2008): 444.

[24] Erica Kanesaka Kalnay, “Imperial Innocence: The Kawaii Afterlife of Little Black Sambo,” Victorian Studies 62, no. 4 (Summer 2020): 571.

[25] Kalnay, “Imperial Innocence,” 566.

[26] Robin Bernstein, “Children’s Books, Dolls, and the Performance of Race; or, The Possibility of Children’s Literature,” PMLA 126, no. 1 (2011): 163.

[27] Bernstein, “Children’s Books,” 165.