It has often been said that changing the world starts with children. Each generation brings new life and ideas to society that change and improve it. What better way to reach children than through the medium of pretend play? That’s exactly what Mattel realized this spring when for the very first time in history, a brand new line of limb-different Barbie dolls hit the shelves, and it all happened because a little girl named Jordan decided to be different, and speak up.
A Child’s Dream
Jordan Reese was like any little girl; she just wanted a doll to play with. When her mother bought her an American Girl doll with a matching outfit at the age of four, she had expected to find a friend to love that was just like her. But something wasn’t right, “I think I know what matching means” Jordan recalled during a TED talk entitled: “You’re Different? Speak Up!”. “So if we’re matching, why doesn’t it have an arm like me?” For four-year-old Jordan, who was born with a left arm that ends just below the elbow, it was difficult to understand why her doll’s arm didn’t look like hers. Jordan struggled with this and often thought that if kids could see toys with limb-difference, they would see her as the “crazy kid” on the playground, rather than getting scared, staring, or becoming grabby when they see her arm.
Seizing The Opportunity
In 2016, American Girl launched its first insulin pump accessory for its dolls so that children with Type-1 Diabetes could have a doll whom they could love and relate to. Seeing this as a sign that corporations were ready to start making more inclusive dolls, Jordan and her mother launched a change.org petition in 2018 to ask American Girl to start manufacturing limb-different dolls. More than twenty-six thousand people have signed so far with more signing every day. In her TED talk, Jordan mentions that American Girl “…does know about it, and they said ‘maybe’. I mean, we want it to be a ‘yes’, but it’s still better than a ‘no’”. But, regardless of American Girl’s response, Mattel took notice of Jordan’s pleas and invited her to collaborate with them on a new line of Barbie dolls.
The doll line, called “Fashionistas”, features two revolutionary dolls. One has a prosthetic leg while the other includes a wheelchair, and both are smiling that classic Barbie smile. This move made history in early 2019, as Barbie became the first major doll line to recognize its limb-different audience. In a blog post on BornJustRight.org, an organization started by Jordan’s mother, Jordan is pictured smiling in front of the new line of dolls at a department store, with a caption below recognizing other companies who also support the limb difference community, including A Doll Like Me, One Step Ahead, and The Vermont Teddy Bear Company, which recently launched a line of customizable limb-difference teddy bears.
Such an event carries dramatic weight not only for the limb-difference community, but for the world as a whole. In a news article published by CNN on the release of the dolls, Mattel is lauded by Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, who said “a big icon of society like Barbie now demonstrates or shows that there are different types of people … [who] can be attractive and something kids want to play with”. Mattel’s latest move in inclusivity has been seen as a cultural milestone by consumers and corporations alike. It serves as a foundation upon which future companies can grow and build to bring more representation of the limb-difference community through pretend play. As children grow up with toys that represent people of all sizes and shapes, they will become more comfortable not only with those who are different from them but also with themselves as they see themselves reflected in the toys they love. And with these dolls that represent the roughly one billion limb-different people in the world, Jordan hopes that they will lead to more widespread acceptance of limb-different children, and inspire other children like her to be different, and speak up about what makes them different.