Growing up, what images of women’s bodies were you surrounded by? In many childhood memories, Barbie features somewhere, but until recently the dolls all looked strikingly similar – particularly in terms of their bodies and disabilities (or lack of).
More recent Barbie lines have included a range of women of colour, as well as different body types. And now, Mattel has announced plans to introduce a Barbie who’s a wheelchair user – as well as a doll with a prosthetic leg – as part of its new ‘Fashionista’ line, launching later this year.
The line also has added accessories with a view to raising awareness – like a ramp that comes with the wheelchair, and the option to remove the prosthetic leg.
The company worked in collaboration with a team at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to craft a wheelchair that any Barbie from the line can use; and consulted 12-year-old Jordan Reeves, who has a prosthetic arm herself, on the design of the prosthetic leg.
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Kim Culmone, Mattel’s vice president of Barbie design told ‘Teen Vogue’ that the decision was, in part, a response to what Barbie fans wanted. “A wheelchair or doll in a wheelchair was one of the most requested items through our consumer hotline,” she said. “It’s important to us to listen to our consumers.”
Many are celebrating Mattel’s move to incorporate representation beyond white, cis, straight, able-bodied and conventionally attractive bodies. Disability equality charity Scope praised the move, citing the brand as acting as a “gamechanger” for disability representation.
And Twitter user and mother Kate Joester added that Mattel’s decision to consult a disabled young person in the process was important:
People whose know others with disabilities also praised the additions.
The new line is a “really positive move”, said 28-year-old Michaela Hollywood, who grew up making her own wheelchairs for her Barbies.
”[As a child] I wanted to be able to reflect that my Barbies could be like me,” she told HuffPost UK. “I also think it’s good for other children who are non-disabled, who will be able to learn about disability through play, answering some of their questions and curiosities.”
But Zipporah, 25, who also uses a wheelchair, said we can’t look at the move without thinking about what Mattel has to gain from it. “With all the ‘representation’ minorities are given by companies, I believe it’s first and foremost driven by monetary incentives,” she said.
She added, however, that it’s notable and important that any Barbie in the collection can fit in their specially-designed wheelchair – meaning disabled representation isn’t exclusive to white people.
And even if the initial decision was a gimmick, she said, this doesn’t necessarily mean we have to write the line off altogether as being “bad” for disabled people. “Disabled representation is woefully hard to come by,” she said. “It’s important for people – kids especially – to be able to see themselves represented.”
The Fashionista line will be released in August 2019.