Tell Me, Mattel!
Barbie in a wheelchair! Barbie with a removable prosthetic leg! Disability and diversity will be represented in the Barbie family! This is a big win...or is it?
What about "Share-a-Smile Becky?"
In an unbelievable coincidence, I received a 1996 "Becky" doll that I purchased on eBay an hour before Mattel released the news that Barbie would be introducing dolls with disabilities this fall.
Wait, why did I buy a Barbie from 1996, and who is "Share-a-Smile Becky?" Also, where did she go?
I needed a Barbie in a wheelchair for a video production that Prospects are filming for World Down Syndrome Day. Requiring a diverse population of Barbie dolls, I was able to easily find and buy Barbie Astronaut, Barbie the News Caster, Barbie the Chef, Barbie the Pilot, Barbie the Beekeeper, Café Ken, and friends. But I couldn’t find a Barbie in a wheelchair…anywhere. I tried Amazon, Walmart, FAO Schwarz Rockefeller Center. I began drawing plans to modify the wheels of a Barbie bike into a custom chair when I found the Becky Doll was waiting for me on eBay. Becky. Click. Buy It Now. Click. She was expensive, but I had no choice, I wouldn’t play, I mean produce the Prospector's video without casting a Barbie in a Wheelchair!
The whole time I was wondering, why aren’t there any Barbie Wheelchairs and why the do I have to time travel to 1996 to score one? I did some research. Detective Val uncovered some interesting facts about Becky’s past, including some Barbie would like to forget (cue: ominous music).
Becky "...with the good hair" and nice wheels was released in 1996. She had long, beautiful hair, wore a flannel shirt and jeans, a red wheelchair, and a job as a photographer for the school yearbook. But her nice wheels and nice hair immediately proved to be problems. Her hair got tangled up in the wheels when she moved. (Fail!) Becky’s wheelchair didn’t fit through the front door of Barbie’s Dream House (Fail!) Barbie’s perfect world offered no accessibility for Becky. (Fail!)
Mattel quickly reimagined Becky and rereleased her with a shorter haircut, a smaller pink and blue wheelchair, new clothes, and rebranded her as "Share-a-Smile Becky." The launch was a huge success! Becky rolled off the shelves, selling over 6,000 dolls in the first two weeks. She was praised as a role model, showing people with physical disabilities can be fashionable, fun, and (stereotypically) share a smile with others.
Nancy Zwiers, Senior Vice President of Barbie Marketing in 1997 said that “It was about time that Barbie had a friend with a disability.” Not for long.
In 1998, Kjersti Johnson, a 17-year-old student with Cerebral Palsy, discovered the new Becky doll couldn’t fit in the Dream House’s elevator. “This is what we live with every day, how ironic and true,” she said. Mattel said they intended on making changes to the Barbie House designs, but instead, Becky disappeared soon after that, only to reappear in my possession via eBay ON THE SAME DAY as Mattel announced a Barbie in a Wheelchair was going to arrive ... 22 years later!
We still don’t know what happened to Becky, or why she mysteriously disappeared despite her retail success. It has been reported that Becky Dolls do not fit in today’s Dream Houses and the pretty pink Barbie World does not seem to be up to ADA codes!
I am happy Mattel is releasing a new Barbie with physical disabilities in the Fall of 2019 and hope she will have many opportunities within the Barbie world. I hope she will have access to Barbie vehicles, Barbie education, Barbie campers, and Barbie careers. Maybe the original Becky Doll can teach her some digital photography techniques, or Barbie Computer Engineer can help her learn to code because she can and should be more than a token or a fashion icon!
Thank you, Mattel, for adding disability and accessibility in to the Barbie World.