Friday, May 12, 2017

The Plastic Girl in the Wheelchair

In 1997, Mattel wanted to make its line of Barbie dolls more inclusive and relevant to modern girls so it added “Share-a-Smile Becky” as one of Barbie’s new friends. Becky and her shiny pink wheelchair were a smash success. Mattel sold 6,000 Becky dolls in the first two weeks and won praise from disability advocates. But then art imitated life.

It’s not as if Mattel hasn’t had its share of Barbie flops and fiascoes. When Mattel released "Totally Tattoo Barbie," who came with temporary tattoos, outraged parentsfeared the new Barbie doll would lead their little girls to one day get tramp stamps of their own. Who could forget Barbie’s dog Tanner, the mutt that could eat his food and “poop” it out for Barbie to pick up with her pooper scooper? Tanner and his companion "Forever Barbie" ended up being recalled because the magnets in the scooper were a choking hazard. There was the politically incorrect "Teen Talk Barbie" whose catchphrase “Math class is tough!” raised feminist hackles. Then there was "Pregnant Midge," whose cutaway torso revealed a curled up baby. "Pregnant Midge" was marketed as having a detachable magnetic stomach that allows easy “delivery” of the baby. Some parents objected, concerned the doll might encourage teenage pregnancy. "Growing Up Skipper" was another Barbie friend, designed to enable little girls to skip right past puberty.  Mattel advertised Skipper would “grow from a young girl to a teenager just by turning her arm – and sure enough, a pair of rubber breasts popped out of her chest. But for maximum “oops” factor, it’s hard to overlook Mattel’s licensing deal with a popular cookie company: it released a black Barbie as part of its Oreo deal, but "Oreo Barbie" drew criticism because Oreo is a derogatory slang term for a black person who “acts white” (i.e., black on the outside and white on the inside, like the eponymous cookie.

So Mattel was due for a winner, but it looks as though it won’t be “Share-a-Smile Becky;” after 20 years on the market, Mattel has thrown in the towel and discontinued Becky. The problems began when Barbie fans discovered Becky’s wheelchair didn’t fit through the doors of the Barbie Dream House... or its elevator. In fact, nothing in the Dream House design was handicapped accessible: it was a disability nightmare. Becky’s wheelchair didn’t fit inside any of Barbie’s vehicles, either.

Mattel announced it was “looking at the accessibility of all Barbie accessories” but concluded it was too complicated to redesign Barbie’s world to fit Becky. Mattel had succeeded in creating art that truly imitated life. Now little girls who played with Becky would understand what life was like for the handicapped navigating their way through non-ADA compliant buildings. Becky faced the same accessibility problems as real disabled girls. But unfortunately for Becky, there is no Americans with Disabilities Act for dolls. Mattel reportedly toyed with the idea of shrinking Becky’s wheelchair so it could fit through the doors of Barbie’s accessories like the Dream House but in the end the toymaker decided this month to pull the plug on Becky. After all, wheelchairs are clunky and she just didn’t fit in with Barbie’s perfect world.

Cue Rod Serling’s voiceover: a cruel life lesson about disability and inclusivity as a plastic girl named Becky is wheeled off to the forgotten corners of The Twilight Zone... Sponsored by Mattel.

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