Toy giant Mattel announced its newest Barbie, and I have been receiving numerous texts with the news. I think my friends and contacts thought it might make me smile, as my daughter has Down syndrome.
Created in partnership with National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), the doll is designed to look like it has Down syndrome, and many are applauding the efforts.
I had to ask folks to stop sending me the post. “Barbie status” isn’t exactly what I want for my baby. Inclusion, acceptance, jobs, education — these are the things I hope she gets to experience.
I am not a Barbie hater. I applaud the doll’s makers for trying to create a wider range of products that speak to a multicultural, diverse population.
In a Time magazine article in 2016, writer Eliana Dockterman wrote that Barbie’s “been the global symbol of a certain kind of American beauty for generations, with brand recognition that’s up there with Mickey Mouse. M.G. Lord, a Barbie biographer, once said she was designed ‘to teach women what — for better or worse — is expected of them in society.’”
Since Barbie’s launch in 1959, the brand has introduced various versions that are more representative of the world we live in today, including the first trans Barbie, modeled after actor Laverne Cox, and a doll in a hijab, modeled on Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer who became the first American to win an Olympic medal wearing the garment.
These are initiatives I can get behind, but that’s just not the case with this latest addition.
This doll in no way makes me feel like the world is suddenly a better, more-inclusive place for my daughter. Maybe that’s not the doll’s purpose. I realize that’s a lot of pressure to put on a toy.
Instead, it feels like this doll idealizes the concept that everyone has to be blonde and have light eyes and a big smile to be pretty, which simply isn’t true.
But perhaps the most insulting part about the new doll is that it doesn’t resemble most people with Down syndrome.
Kandi Pickard, the NDSS president and chief executive said, “This means so much for our community, who for the first time can play with a Barbie doll that looks like them.”
But this doll really doesn’t look like “them.” It looks like an idealized version of “them.” Models and influencers aside, most kids with DS don’t look like this doll.
There are 11 physical markers for children with Trisomy 21: a flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose; almond-shaped eyes that slant up; a short neck; small ears; a tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth; tiny white spots on the eye’s iris; small hands and feet; a single line across the palm of the hand (palmar crease); small pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb; poor muscle tone or loose joints; shorter in height as children and adults.
Not all children with Down syndrome have all markers, and just like neurotypical children, all children with Down syndrome are completely different.
I am happy the doll started a dialogue about acceptance and inclusivity, but overall, it’s an epic fail. There are other ways Mattel could have handled this: Invite a diverse group of kids with Down syndrome to design a doll they feel like they could relate to. According to the press release, a doctor and the NDSS president designed the Barbie, and children with Down syndrome were invited to play with the doll; start a college scholarship fund for children with Down syndrome; make a commitment to hire more people with any kind of neurological or physical challenges.
The DS community seems to be split on the launch, but many moms are not happy with this quixotic piece of plastic, which is marketing inclusivity in a highly exclusive way — idealizing a narrow view of beauty. We simply want more for our children.
My daughter and I have a daily ritual. I look at her and I say, “You are beautiful, courageous, strong, made from love and are here to do great things.” As for the dolls my incredible, brilliant, effervescent little girl chooses to play with, I couldn’t give a damn what they look like.
And that’s the whole point, really.
Erica Corsano is a South Florida resident.