Friday, January 29, 2016

Barbie Turns Back On Becky: Is Barbie a Bigot?

Original Image Description From Source: Iconic doll character Barbie is getting a full-on diversity makeover for 2016. (Image source: www.pinknews,

I've probably read more text about Barbie than about any toy ever created. I've heard her name in deep and serious discussions by Feminists. I've chatted with mothers who were frustrated at their childs's desperate pleas for a Barbie, when they'd vowed never to buy one for their children. Barbie is part of our cultural zeitgeist. I admit that I even own a Barbie, well not actually a Barbie, but a friend of Barbie's, Share a Smile Becky was the first wheelchair doll I'd ever seen. No matter what she had been named, to everyone I knew, and this was long before I became disabled myself, she was known as Wheelchair Barbie.

Image description: Share a smile Becky sitting in a pink wheelchair. (Image source:
 So when I heard that Mattel was going to make huge changes to the line and make it more diverse, I was pleased and even hopeful, that 'diverse' actually meant 'diverse.' Here's the statement, from an executive at Mattel, Ms Mazzocco, that I read: “We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand – these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them – the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them."

Then I saw the picture of the new Barbies. It is clear, instantly, that there isn't a doll with a visible disability of any kind in amongst the bunch. Barbie had clearly dumped Becky, no matter how much she smiled, Becky. Is Barbie, and I can't believe I'm asking this question, a bigot? That's bad enough but let's take a look at some of the statements made:

First, Ms Mazzocco, said that the dolls were 'more reflective of the world girls see around them.' It is clear that Mazzocco imagines a world where disability doesn't exist and that children live in an exclusionary world where none with a disability dare enter. It angers me, deeply angers me, that Ms Mazzocco, presents to kids a world view that disability isn't welcome.

Worse, Mazzocco says, that the dolls 'allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them.' Hmmm, I guess kids with disabilities aren't customers or don't want dolls. Or is it instead that Mattel believes that children with disabilities don't deserve dolls? Has Mattel reintroduced the 'ugly laws' in dolldom? I'm guessing so, because she went on to say: "We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty," So, neither 'diversity' or 'beauty' includes disabled children. Nice!

It's a hateful act. They know how to make a doll in a wheelchair so a white cane or a guide dog shouldn't be out of their range of expertise. Would a doll with Down Syndrome be that hard to make? Why not just say MATTEL MAKES DOLLS FOR NON-DISABLED CHILDREN EXCLUSIVELY, and be done with it.

But they expect us to either not notice or not do anything about it.

I want to make something blatantly clear to companies, to newspapers, to writers of books and stories. You can't freaking use the word 'diverse' if it doesn't include us. We are part of diversity and without us it isn't diverse - it's exclusionary. We are massive in number, we are part of this world and this society and don't you dare use the word 'diverse' if we aren't there.

It was difficult to find who to write at Mattel, Mazzocco's email address no where to be found. In fact the only email address they give out is for the press, so that's where I'm sending this blog. Some of you may also wish to write. 

The only email on the Mattel webpage was for the press, I wrote there and recieved this response: If you are looking for more information on today’s Barbie announcement, please visit the Barbie Media site at, which includes the press release, product fact sheet, downloadable images, b-roll, etc.  For more Barbie information contact Michelle Chidoni (  or Marissa Beck ( ). Which, of course, I've done. (The reply email also posted their phone numbers, I never post phone numbers on this blog.)


little.birdy said...
You may notice that one of the dolls in the header has hearing aids. If you scroll down, you'll see one with a birthmark on her face. I believe one is also available with a cane or crutches, and one is available with a cochlear implant. Hopefully they will be for sale again soon!

Levi said...

I agree that disability should be included if they want to be more inclusive/reflective of the diversity in our society, but I had a concern with one thing that you kept saying in this particular blog post. You wrote multiple times about how it's girls with disabilities who will be affected by the lack of disability inclusion among barbies, which is certainly true and I'm not challenging that, but I want to bring attention to the fact that barbies aren't toys limited to only girls (even if the widespread perception is that barbies are girl toys). Any child of any gender can play with them if they want to, I feel, and therefore it won't just be girls who are affected by the exclusion of disabled barbies.

h smith said...

Those are token and practically invisible depictions little.birdy,because all of their ideas of disability show the same able bodied "acceptable looking" barbie, even in the wheelchair. There are no twisted or different shaped bodys, no missing or shrivelled limbs, no asymmetry, no obvious facial differences, nothing that depicts disability in a real instead of sanitised and afterthought way. So no, they dont get to claim diversity and representation when theyre ignoring the fantastically diverse range of bodies and faces that make up the disabled community. Although theyre not on strong ground with those diversity claims in any area coz just darkening the skin tone of a white barbie isnt really representing different races is it.

Ron Arnold said...

Levi has a good point. To go a little beyond it - honestly - I'm not aware of any toys (dolls in particular) in the 'boy' world that are ever anything less than muscular and 'able-bodied.'

I think there might have been a GI Joe character in the 80's . . . I think. Maybe. All the stuff my son likes though - nope. No representation at all.

Dawn said...

LEGO just announced they are adding a figure with a wheelchair. They made this change in response to a petition. Perhaps it's time for a petition to ask Mattel to add some dolls with disabilities.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Levi, thanks for catching me out on the way that I used gender in this post, you are absolutely right, and more than that, I know better. I have gone back through the original post and changed the text so that it is gender free ... with the exception of the quotes from the Mattel executive who exclusively used the term 'girl.' Thanks for pointing that out ... and in such a gentle way.

Anonymous said...

How is disability conveyed in toy design? Is it about bodies, or is it about supports? The lego toy has gone under the headline 'figure in a wheelchair' not 'toy figure with a disability'. I hate it that wheelchair becomes shorthand for disability and Down syndrome becomes shorthand for learning disability- happy faces of kids with DS in the catalogues for special equipment and stuff. Always kids, like people with learning disabilities never grow up.

There is talk about assistive equipment represented thro toys- wheelchairs, hearing aids, cochlear implants, canes etc. To me this captures something about disability being in part located in the material world, beyond bodies.

I think a doll with Down syndrome is hard to make. I think that bcos the dolls with DS I see online are yuk. Here's someone who has made a nice doll, but possibly not one where ppl will recognise the depiction of DS, discussing the issues

I think there's a challenge in making an embodied representation of an identity, which is about semiotics, what we collectively recognise as signalling an identity. This article says that Barbie now has different bodies (original, curvy, tall, petite), 7 different skin tones, and different eye colour, hairstyle, face sculpts. But they are all sexy and attractive. I know lots of people with Down syndrome who are sexy and attractive, who have sexy and attractive bodies. Who should/could be models. This young woman is But I'm not sure that we, as a community, see 'sexy and attractive' and 'Down syndrome' as possible combinations. Like they might be mutually exclusive.

I think this is the barrier to more diverse Barbies, the dilemma that doll makers face is making an cute embodied representation of DS when mainstream thinking thinks of DS as unattractive, undesirable.

Mum of beautiful kiddie who has DS

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

I was happy to see the new dolls, but I do wish they had disabled dolls in there. I had Becky in the red wheelchair when she was the school photographer. I haven't seen one since then.
No walker-users had one, no blind people had a doll... etc.

I brought it up once (the lack of disabled diversity) and was told to be grateful! Grateful there was a "token", short-run doll... that there was anything. And it was amazing, truly, though she was still "perfect".

As far as I know, Ken has NEVER been in a wheelchair. He'll probably never be "curvy" or "petite", either.

jSarie said...

It is a noticeable gap amongst the Barbies, but in addition to these new tall/short/curvy releases, they've really improved the ethnic/colour diversity of the line in their Barbie Fashionista series over the past year, so I have hope that they'll keep broadening their representation in other directions over the next few years.

Just as a data point, Mattel did release two visibly disabled dolls in 2015 and 2014 through the their Monster High line - a wheelchair-using merman and a prosthesis-wearing ghost girl.

Anonymous said...

Do you notice that the "Barbie" that is heavier than the rest wears the worse outfit? (Acid washed crops and ugly "T" with printed on bow.) My first thought was "trailer trash", but realized I was labelling. Honestly, why can't she look as smartly dressed as the rest. Another prejudice on display.

jSarie said...

@Anonymous - their are actually four versions of the heavier Barbie, each of which has a different outfit, and two of which come with additional clothing.

Another aside on disability representation from Mattel that I forgot to mention in yesterday's comment, one of the American Girl historical character dolls is post-Polio, and they have a few disability-related accessories in their modern line including hearing aids, a wheelchair, underarm crutches and forearm crutches (plus some health-related items like epi-pens and insulin pumps).

To jump back up to Ron Arnold's comment about "boy"-marketed toys, it's not quite no representation at all either, mostly thanks to a handful of movie and comic tie-in figures (just the How to Train Your Dragon line alone has multiple characters with prosthetics).

Within any of these lines, there could be more and better representation, but the options really are significantly better than they were say, 10 years ago.

Unknown said...

Interesting article - I miss Becky. It is even more glaring an omission because I saw in shops a Monster High doll (they are also Mattel) Finnegan Wake - who has a wheelchair and from the box blurb he's into extreme sports - so similarly to Becky who was a photographer he isn't defined solely BY the wheelchair. Not sure what to make of that - if it makes the lack of Becky in the newer Barbie line all the more frustrating because they DO make disabled characters in their other brand. Or if I were to look at it optimistically, it shows they seem to be committed to representing disabled characters so hopefully in the future there will be a disabled Barbie doll?