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World & Nation

Barbie may struggle with math. But Mattel has had bigger problems with its line of dolls

Share a Smile Becky
Mattel’s Share a Smile Becky doll was an attempt at inclusion that backfired when the doll’s pink wheelchair could not fit through the doors of the Barbie Dream House.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Mattel, which has just introduced a Frida Kahlo Barbie, has a history of missing the mark in expanding its line of Barbie dolls. Its misjudgments over the years have led to some cringe-worthy creations.

Slumber Party Barbie

This 1965 doll came with pink pajamas, a pink robe and pink flurry slippers for sleepover fun.

However, she came with an accessory from a 1963 model: a book titled “How to Lose Weight!”

The doll also came with a pink scale permanently set at 110 pounds — 35 pounds underweight for a woman of Barbie’s supposed height of 5 feet 9.

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Teen Talk Barbie

About 350,000 of these dolls were produced in July 1992, each equipped with four recordings out of a possible 270.

The sayings included: “Will we ever have enough clothes?” “Want to go shopping?” “OK, meet me at the mall” and “Math class is tough.”

The American Assn. of University Women, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and many women advocacy groups condemned the dolls for reinforcing negative and sexist stereotypes of women.

One group of performance artists, the Barbie Liberation Organization, took hundreds of Teen Talk Barbie voice boxes and switched them with G.I. Joe voice boxes.

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“Vengeance is mine!” Barbie said.

“Let’s plan our dream wedding,” G.I. Joe said.

By October of the same year, Mattel eliminated the “Math class is tough” recording.

“We didn’t fully consider the potentially negative implications of this phrase,” then-Mattel President Jill E. Barad said.

Share a Smile Becky

Mattel released this doll in May 1997 with a pink wheelchair in an effort to be inclusive. However, the Barbie Dream House didn’t exactly comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act .

Becky could not fit through the dollhouse’s elevator, and so was unable to fully participate with the other dolls. Kjersti Johnson, a Tacoma, Wash., teenager who has cerebral palsy, raised awareness on the matter.

“How ironic and true … housing for people with disabilities that is not accessible!” she wrote in an email to the Easter Seal Society of Washington in 1997.

Mattel later redesigned the dollhouse to be more accessible to Becky and other dolls with disabilities.

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Oreo Barbie

A 1997 collaboration between Mattel and Nabisco produced two dolls, one white and one black. Previous black Barbies failed commercially because people complained that except for her skin tone, the doll had the physical characteristics of a blond Barbie.

The Oreo Barbie was an even bigger fail, because in the African American community, Oreo is a disparaging term for a black person who identifies with white culture — black on the outside and white on the inside.

The doll was recalled the same year.

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Some parents thought the pregnant version of Midge, Barbie’s oldest friend, was a little too real for their children.
(Sabina Louise Pierce / Associated Press )

Pregnant Midge

Mattel’s “Happy Family” set in 2002 featured Barbie’s friend Midge with her daughter, Nikki.

It was “a wonderful prop for parents to use with their children to role-play family situations,” the company said at the time.

The doll, which featured a removable abdomen with a baby inside, angered parents who felt it promoted teenage pregnancy and presented adult situations to young minds. “There’s enough teenagers getting pregnant as it is. I think they’re glamorizing it, and it’s horrible,” Jackie Ellis, a Philadelphia resident, told the Associated Press in 2002.

A different version of pregnant Midge came with her husband, Alan. Parents didn’t like that one either, and the company recalled the dolls.

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“It was just that customers had a concern about having a pregnant doll,” then-Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Illick said.

michael.livingston@latimes.com

@mikelive06


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