Barbie takes a lot of criticism. Her body proportions are unrealistic, and it’s been said that if she were an actual woman, she wouldn’t have the body mass to menstruate (kinda puts the breaks on the pregnancy Barbies, doesn’t it? Did anyone else have one of those? They were WEIRD). The Barbie that a lot of millennials grew up with was a stereotypical doll made from patriarchal standards – blonde, boobs, beauty. But that appears to be changing.
Before the 1990s, when a lot of us would have had the iconic toy, Barbie was a model, a fashion designer and a pageant girl. She was a ballerina, a movie star and a rock star. She was a nurse in 1961, but she wasn’t a doctor until 1988.
To give credit where credit is due, she was a business executive in 1960, and an astronaut 1965. And since the 1990s, things have gotten much better. Although that decade also saw the rise of the Barbie Princess, she also moved into various careers typically coded for men. She was in various military branches between 1989 and 1993, a firefighter in 1995, and became a game developer in 2016. Her vlogs are also pretty good (modern Barbie is very big into science, gaming and social justice — she would have been 90s Caroline’s HERO). Barbie was probably always going to be going in a roughly progressive direction since she went into space, but it’s been more recently that Mattel have pushed Barbie in a much more inclusive direction.
“There is now a Barbie with a prosthetic leg, and a Barbie who is a wheelchair user. “
Barbie and her pals have recently diversified in ethnicity and body type (although this does still need work), but the latest big step by Mattel is two different disabled Barbies. Although Barbie’s many careers included a sign language teacher in 1999, disability isn’t something you see very often in children’s toys. Ethnicity and body shape are the ones you generally see the most often being diversified, and studies do show that playing with different dolls can impact self esteem. Mattel’s recent introduction of a Barbie wearing a hijab, and news that they’re considering a gay marriage set (didn’t everyone else just make their Barbies lesbians? Is that just me?), is very good, and the logical next step seemed to be disabled Barbies, representing the often forgotten minority.
Mattel consulted with customers, reporting that the thing they heard most on their consumer hotline was that customers wanted a disabled Barbie. In response to that feedback, there is now a Barbie with a prosthetic leg, and a Barbie who is a wheelchair user. They’ve clearly given the idea some thought, because the Dream House can also be adapted to have a ramp for Barbie to whiz up and down.
It’s important for all children to be able to see themselves represented in their toys, making this absolutely HUGE for disabled children, who have limited options at the moment. The fact that Mattel have listened to their customers and worked with disability activists on exactly what to do does warm my heart as a disabled adult; one who is very strongly considering getting herself a wheelchair Barbie.
“For both disabled and abled children, it’s important for them to know that there’s nothing wrong with disabled people, that a disabled child can play like them.”
But there’s also another personal note this news strikes with me. I wasn’t disabled until adulthood, but I did have a disabled mother when I was a child – a fact which was difficult for me to understand as a nipper, but which was something that my classmates picked up on as different. For both disabled and abled children, it’s important for them to know that there’s nothing wrong with disabled people, that a disabled child can play like them, and that a disabled parent is just the same as an abled one. Now, Barbie isn’t magic, and I don’t think she’ll be able to do it all on her own, but it’s certainly going to help.
The main criticism of Mattel’s new diversity in their Barbie range is that it all seems a bit one at a time. When you look at that poster for the new disabled Barbies, they’re both thin and white. Digging a little deeper, it seems that the wheelchair can be used with any doll from the ‘Made to Move’ collection, and I really hope that the advertising material in the future will represent that fact. Given the criticism Mattel came under only recently about the Frida Kahlo doll – they were accused of ‘prettying up’ the Mexican artist who rejected conventional beauty standards, and of omitting her disability entirely – intersectionality seems to be the way that Mattel needs to go next, along with yet more diversity of body type.
Photo: Mattel, Inc.