As a little girl, I had a doll collection that took over nearly every inch of toy storage space in my room. I loved them all, especially my two most prized dolls – a My Twinn Doll and a My American Girl Doll, both made to look “just like me.” And there was a indeed a striking resemblance between me and the dolls. We had matching brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, and even a matching freckle above our lips. There’s just one thing that didn’t quite match: my dolls stood upright in their plastic doll stands while I sat in my wheelchair. Disabled dolls were pretty hard to come by.
Unfortunately, years later this is still the case. Doll diversity is relatively limited to things like different skin colors – and even this is a rarity. Body types of dolls are still incredibly standardized. This sends a message from the toy industry that children who play with dolls are free to let their imaginations run free during games of pretend, but not far enough to stray from society’s image of “perfection.” After all, there’s a reason that telling someone they have “doll-like features” implies a flawless appearance.
My entire childhood included only one disabled doll, Share a Smile Becky, who used a bright pink and purple plastic wheelchair and happened to be a friend of Barbie. While reminiscing recently, my dad told me he had to go to six different toy stores before he found Becky for me. I don’t know if that meant she wasn’t mainstream, or if a Barbie doll in a wheelchair was actually in high demand that holiday season. But my parents persevered in finding Becky, knowing it would be a good boost to my self-image if I had the chance to own a doll that had something more important than hair color in common with me.
I do realize “Share a Smile” perpetuates the stereotype of the ever happy-go-lucky disabled person, but at the time, I was just happy to have a doll-sized wheelchair. It’s interesting to note, though, that none of my non-disabled friends had Becky. Clearly a doll in a wheelchair was a niche market. Plus, Becky’s Barbie doll tenure was short lived compared to other dolls, because she didn’t fit in the Barbie Dream House, so instead of making the effort to modify a toy home, Mattel eventually discontinued her. I have to shake my head when I think of what it means for real world accessibility when a toy company can’t even make modifications to improve accessibility of a plastic doll house.
Anyway, these days, if you Google “doll in a wheelchair,” you’ll mainly find doll mobility equipment sets that center on hospitalization, rehabilitation, and medical care. The emphasis is on healing and fixing, rather than on simply being. The implication is still that disability means something is “wrong.” So, I was excited to discover yesterday that one awesome little advocate is putting herself out there to change all this, and I want to help her spread the word.
Melissa Shang has created a video and a petition urging American Girl (also owned by Mattel) to create an American Girl doll with a disability. Each year, the company releases a Girl of the Year with her own special story as well as expanding their collection of historical dolls and offering look-alike dolls. Yet, none of them have ever had a disability. American Girl does currently offer a toy wheelchair and a “Feel Better” kit, but none of the dolls have any kind of disability as part of their life story.
I think this is a crucial moment for American Girl to make a real difference, not only by heeding Melissa’s call to action, but also by doing it right. They could choose to go the cliche, stereotypical route by creating an American Girl doll with an accompanying storyline about how inspirational she is for overcoming hardship. Or, they could introduce an American Girl doll whose disability is simply part of her life. She could have a fun back story like all the other American Girls, and she could be a role model in the same vein as all the other dolls, rather than being inspirational just because she’s disabled. In fact, because the stories are such an integral part to American Girl doll personalities, it would even be feasible to develop a character with an invisible disability as well! Mattel, has so many options to do something positive and promote self-acceptance as well as the importance of accepting others!
I hope you’ll take a moment to visit Melissa’s petition, watch the short video, and sign your name! Melissa says it best: “Disabled girls are American Girls too!” It’s true. The lives of disabled girls – of all disabled people – are valid experiences, and we deserve mainstream representation. Click here to sign the petition: American Girl: Release an American Girl with a Disability.
Photo from amazon.com