Rebecca Atkinson: Barbie just got more diverse, but not diverse enough!

Posted on June 11, 2015

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The undisputed plastic queen of the toy box just got a whole lot more diverse, or at least global toy giants Mattell have given a nod in the right direction with the creation of the new Barbie Fashionista range, set to include dolls with 8 different skin tones and a larger range of eye and hair colours then the enduring blonde and blue.

Barbie’s got new feet too, that means for the first time ever she can choose to wear flat shoes and not be stuck in bunion-inducing tumble-taking high heels. She’s also go a more diverse range of facial features, oddly billed by Mattell as facial ‘sculpts’, a term that can only contour up images of Barbie on the surgeon’s table undergoing procedures to slim down her already pinched nose and further widen her bambi eyes.

After Barbie’s annual sales figures were reported in April to have fallen by 13% year on year this new incarnation of Barbie appears to be Mattell’s attempt to reverse the ailing fortunes of the toy box grande dame and produce a range more relevant for today’s market where personalisation and choice are paramount.

The move also falls in line with a seeming general shift it the doll market towards more ‘realism and representation’ with small but rising brands like Lammily, the ‘normal sized Barbie’ with stick on spots and cellulite receiving growing attention and Lottie dolls, with a body based on an average 8 year old and already sporting flat shoes and a range of skin tones reportedly seeing sales up 400% in 2014.

But whilst parents and children will be welcoming the news of greater choice for Barbie fans and the chance for children to own and play with more ethnically diverse toys, Mattell have failed to incorporated disability into their new range and positively represent the 150 million kids with disabilities worldwide.

In 1997 Mattell produced a wheelchair using friend for Barbie, with the unfortunate and patronisingly sunny name of ‘Share a Smile Becky’. The ill fated Becky, whilst loved by wheelchair using children was discontinued leaving Barbie and friends bodily perfect again.

Disability is the last bastion of representation in the toy box. Global brands have failed to include disability in their ranges whilst smaller independent companies who appreciate the need find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of making returns on product ranges perceived to have a limited appeal.

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Arklu, the makers of Lottie dolls, who have engaged with the recent online Toy Like Me campaign calling for greater disability representation in toys, explained that whilst they support the need for toy box diversity (currently producing 25% of their dolls with glasses after receiving a request from a glasses wearing child), tooling and manufacturing a Lottie sized wheelchair could cost the small but growing firm in excess of £40,000 to develop. A prohibitively large figure for a kitchen table start-up when sales of this more niche item may always be relatively small.

London based 3D printing toy company, Makielab, are better equipped to respond to the Toy Like Me campaign call without the need for expensive moulds and large minimum orders from manufacturers overseas. In April the firm began producing dolls with a range of diversity accessories including cochlear implants, diabetic lines and white canes.

These can be printed in batches of one or two at their East London based factory. Makielab have been swamped with orders from parents around the world and received global press and praise for their ground breaking delivery of the world’s first range of dolls with disabilities.

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With the difficulty of producing diverse toys experienced by small and well meaning toy firms, (aside from those with a futuristic 3D printing business model), it’s left to the global giants of the toy world to reframe the inclusion of positive disability representation in the toy box.

Playmobil’s upcoming plans to produce a set of characters with disabilities after 50k people signed a change.org petition calling for wheelchair wizards and princesses with guide dogs, begs the question of why global giants alike Mattell and Lego aren’t following suit.

Why are these companies with billions of pounds of annual sales and the kind of economies of scale and manufacturing leverage that could soak up any small losses in exchange for reams of positive PR and happy kids and parents the world over, doing nothing at all?

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By Rebecca Atkinson,freelance journalist and creative disability consultant. Find out more about Rebecca on her website by clicking here.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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