AI-generated Barbies 'from MENA' met with backlash for 'racism' and 'cultural inaccuracies'

AI-generated Barbies 'from MENA' met with backlash for 'racism' and 'cultural inaccuracies'
Barbies created by an AI and portrayed as being from MENA countries were either inaccurate or depicted racist stereotypes, leading to outrage online.
3 min read
18 July, 2023
The article containing the images has now been deleted by Buzzfeed, following backlash [Getty]

AI-generated images featuring what the world-famous Barbie doll would look like from several countries in the Middle East and North Africa have received backlash for "racist stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies".

The artificial intelligence images, published by the Buzzfeed website earlier this month, showcased what Barbie would look like from 194 different countries, including nations in the MENA region.

However, social media users were quick to point out that many of the dolls fed into ethnic stereotypes and racist tropes. 

The images were generated by Midjourney, a generative AI model that converts language prompts into images.

One image featured an imagined Barbie from South Sudan. The doll in question can be seen holding an automatic rifle, contributing to the stereotype that the East African country is continuously engaged in conflict.

Another image showed what Barbie would look like if she was from Kuwait. The doll can be seen wearing a shemagh or ghutrah – a headdress exclusively worn by men in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries. 

Twitter user @xSarouna commented: "This is men's attire, at least do your research."

Similarly, the Barbie from Qatar was also wearing the same headdress - an all-white one - which is also solely worn by men.

A Barbie representing Lebanon has also sparked outrage. The doll can be seen posing in the middle of debris – seemingly alluding to the devastating Beirut port blast, which killed over 200 people and destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure in August 2020.

"AI is racist. Why [sic] the Lebanese Barbie got rubble in the background???" one user said.

Other Barbies could be seen wearing headdresses which can be described as a stereotypical perception of what the hijab looks like. This could be seen on the Barbies from Morocco and Algeria.

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Some wore attire that was not representative of the country in question. This could be seen in the Barbie from Turkey, as pointed out by Twitter users.

Many of the Barbies from non-Western countries also featured Eurocentric features, such as blonde hair and blue eyes, displaying the AI generator’s bias for such faces.

The viral photographs were released to coincide with the buzz surrounding the upcoming Barbie film, set to be released on 21 July, which has been highly anticipated by fans and film enthusiasts alike due to the cultural significance of the Mattel doll.

The film, directed by Greta Gerwig, stars Australian actress Margot Robbie as Barbie and Canadian actor Ryan Gosling as Ken.

Despite sharing the now-deleted images, Buzzfeed posted a disclaimer saying that the AI images "reveal biases and stereotypes that currently exist within AI models", and are "not meant to be seen as accurate or full depictions of human experience".

AI images are created with an AI image generator from data or descriptions it has worked with. Such images have received criticism for depicting inaccuracies or false events, and have previously created confusion and contributed to several instances of false news.