First of all, yes Barbie’s friend Becky did actually exist, complete with pink wheelchair and a charming matching backpack. Much to the delight of inclusivity campaigners everywhere.
And Becky was popular, too. Toy makers Mattel sold 6,000 dolls in the first two weeks after ‘Share-A-Smile Becky’ was launched in 1997. Disabled children finally found themselves represented and made visible by the doll manufacturers responsible for creating the previously unattainably thin and beautiful character.
But the elation quickly dissipated after they discovered that Becky’s wheelchair didn’t actually fit through the doors – or in the elevator – of Barbie’s Dream House.
Ironically, much like many real life disabled people, Becky struggled to navigate a building that was completely inaccessible to her.
“It was brought to our attention that some of our houses are not accessible to Becky in the wheelchair,” Mattel spokesperson Lisa McKendall told The Source at the time (as picked up by the Washington Post here).
“We are looking at the accessibility of all Barbie accessories.”
Sadly, Mattel failed to honour this promise, as PRI producer Renee Gross found out when she brought a Becky doll and a brand new Barbie Dream House to American disability campaigner Monique Kulick. Twenty years on, and guess what? That house still isn’t accessible.
“There’s absolutely no way,” Kulick says, attempting to ram the pink wheels into the elevator. “It won’t even fit with her legs sticking out. So pretty much in this house, Becky could go to the kitchen.”
A disgrace. And once they’ve fixed the door width issues? You guessed it. There would still be problems for Becky.
“If this were Becky’s house, her kitchen would have a clear space under the sink so she could roll directly up to it. Dishwashers are normally for an accessible kitchen and universal. They’re raised, so that that bottom rack, you don’t have to bend down so far for the bottom rack.”
Instead of change the house, Mattel changed Becky. She miraculously left her wheelchair behind to become ‘Becky, The School Photographer’, ‘Sign Language “I Love You” Becky’ and eventually ‘Paralympic Becky’, before she disappeared from shelves completely.
Karin Hitselberger, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, has blogged about the changing roles of Becky and what it says about how we in the west consider disabilities.
“A lot of the ways we think about disabilities, we talk about ‘fixing disability,’ instead of focusing on ‘fixing society,’” she says.
We’ve contacted Mattel to hear their side of the story, and will update this as soon as we hear from them.
Until then, we say bring back Becky immediately. And introduce Becky’s own accessible Dream House, too. Everyone deserves the right to be represented, respected and live their lives to the highest possible quality. Even if they are made of plastic.
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