Mattel’s Barbie dolls are about as controversial as toys can get. Some of the harshest critics claim that Barbie’s inaccurate and unattainable proportions negatively affect girls.
Beyond the undeniable fact that Barbie’s proportions are nowhere close to that of the average U.S. woman’s, Mattel has had some serious issues with minority representation. The first African American Barbie, for example, was released in 1967 — eight years after Barbie first hit shelves. Of course, it’s also understood that the 50’s and 60’s were different times.
But what about the other groups? Sure, race is important, but at least Mattel touched upon that and continues to do so.
Despite attempts, what Mattel and most other toy companies lack is the representation of disabled girls. How are girls with disabilities supposed to feel when none of the things they play with use hearing aids or ride in wheelchairs? If Barbie supposedly makes “normal” girls feel bad, one can only imagine how someone labeled “not normal” might feel.
Fortunately for them, thanks to the recent Twitter/Facebook campaign “#ToyLikeMe”, parents are asking toymakers to create more diversity among their products–and it’s working. So far, the biggest response has come from Makies. The interesting company name derives from their ability to use 3D printers to make personalized dolls.
Now, Makies has three pre-made dolls with common disabilities: Melissa flaunts a birthmark covering half of her face, Eva uses a walking stick/cane and Hetty wears bright pink hearing aids. Beyond their disabilities, each girl is (by doll standards) unique and beautiful.
Better yet, Makies has given each doll their own biography. All of them participate in normal, everyday activities and hobbies. By taking that extra step, Makies not only brings diversity to the toy world, but embraces it and reminds everyone that kids who face these problems still love arts and crafts, singing, and in Melissa’s case, “working on her tennis serve.”
The only downside to this revolutionary product is the overwhelming price. Personalized Makies Dolls are about $120, but these #ToyLikeMe endorsed dolls range from $122-$127. Barbies, on the other hand, start at $10. The price really depends on the extravagance, but nonetheless puts parents of disabled children in a bad position. On the brighter side, at least now they are given a better, higher quality option.
Other companies, however, have not been as flexible as Makies. In 2013, Melissa Shang, a ten-year-old girl with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (a form of muscular dystrophy), created a petition to the American Girl company asking them to create a disabled doll.
In the touching petition/letter with over 145,000 signatures, Shang writes, “Girls of the Year have helped me understand how it feels to be someone else…I want other girls to know what it’s like to be me, through a disabled American Girl’s story.” According to her petition, Girl of the Year dolls “introduce a brand-new character with a story about finding success in the face of challenges today…and they help girls learn what it’s like to be someone else.” But how are girls supposed to learn about what it’s like to be someone else when not everyone is represented?
American Girl responded to the petition somewhat vaguely, stating, “We receive hundreds of passionate requests to create a variety of dolls and books based on a wide range of circumstances, and we are always considering new ways to enhance our product lines.” Needless to say, Shang and her family were not satisfied with the response and still hope to see a disabled American Girl in the near future.
What does the lack of disabled dolls and toys say about society? It’s entirely possible the reason is business related. For instance, the thought process of “who would even buy dolls that only represent a small percentage of the population?” might exist. Or, it could reflect the fear companies and parents have in regards to exposing their children to such a strong topic. It’s hard to explain disabilities and why they happen because there is no good answer; it just kind of happens, whether it be genetic or the result of a bad accident.
Regardless, it is so important to teach children about disabilities. Looking at Melissa Shangs petition and similar experiences, it is obvious that there is a major disconnect between people with disabilities and “normal” people–and it’s not just physical. It would be unfair to accredit all of this to the lack of disabled toys, but it would be a big help if toy companies became more open to the idea.