On Monday, February 4th, Mattel announced that its Barbie Fashionistas line will come out with two dolls with disabilities in June of this year. Along with dolls who have braided hair texture and a more realistic body type, there will also be Barbies in a wheelchair and with a removable prosthetic leg.
“A wheelchair or doll in a wheelchair was one of the most requested items through our consumer ... hotline. It's important to us to listen to our consumers," Kim Culmone, Mattel’s vice president of Barbie Design told Teen Vogue.
This is a big milestone in the toy company’s efforts to diversify its Barbie line and portray an accurate representation of the children who play with the dolls. Mattel has long heard criticism that the Barbie dolls set unrealistic expectations of a woman’s body and promotes sexist career choices.
Before celebrating Mattel’s latest announcement, however, there is a need to question why it has taken 60 years for the company to successfully include disabilities in the doll’s line. “Successfully” is the key word here because this isn’t Mattel’s first attempt to produce a Barbie doll with a disability.
In 1997, Mattel announced the “Share-a-Smile Becky,” a Barbie friend who used a pink wheelchair with a backpack hanging on the handles. Although 6,000 dolls were sold within the first two weeks of its release, the Becky doll didn’t last long in the “real world.”
Those who played with Becky soon realized that her wheelchair was incompatible with the line’s Dreamhouse and other accessories. The frame of the doll’s chair did not fit into the house’s front door, nor on the elevator in the house. Instead of modifying the dollhouse to accommodate Becky’s wheelchair, Mattel discontinued the Becky line altogether.
It is not a coincidence that Mattel introduced Becky seven years after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a law. This was a time when the U.S. was just beginning to realize that a disability is not something to be “fixed,” but rather that societal and physical structures should be accommodating to those with physical disabilities.
Against this backdrop, Mattel was too quick to hit the gas pedal without working out the seemingly obvious details.
More than 20 years and 100 variations of the doll later, the $476 million doll line is making another attempt at introducing a Barbie with a physical disability. But why has it taken Mattel so long to redeem itself from the 1997 failure of the Becky doll?