Toying Around With Inclusion: The New Barbies and Legos

girl of 8 years old playing with dolls
girl of 8 years old playing with dolls

Last week, my news feed blew up with "Yay! Progress!" posts, all centered on the release of new toys by Lego and Barbie. Barbie unveiled "curvy, petite and tall" versions of their traditional doll and new options in skin tones, facial features, and hairstyles. Lego announced its plans to release, for the first time, a minifigure using a wheelchair.

So, yes, this is good. Definitely good.

But is it progress?

I found myself thinking about the Barbie one a lot. I was a big -- seriously big -- Barbie fan growing up. I created whole worlds and storylines and characters with my Barbies. I actually think a lot of my love for theater and storytelling started with my Barbie collection. I was also a girl, and, if I'm honest, still a woman, who struggled with body image issues. While I credited Barbie with my creativity, did I also need to blame her for my weight and height insecurities? Some studies, and many advocates, would say yes.

But I don't think I buy it. I don't think I believe that if I played with Barbies who were a little taller and a little "curvier" I'd be more confident in myself. Changing toys will do little to change the world we live in.

Let's take Lego's new minifigure using a wheelchair. The internet cheered! And while they tweeted thumbs up emojis, millions of people who use wheelchairs struggled to access basic public transit and services, inaccessible city streets, and even famous landmarks. Some people with disabilities can now find a lego who represents them, but most can't find a job.

A new toy is a far cry from progress for inclusion and accessibility. The fact that Barbie has evolved her body type doesn't mean men won't creepily call me a "tall drink of water" in the grocery store, or pinch my waistline at a business dinner, or try to "go back-to-back" with me when I waitress by uninvitedly rubbing up behind me. None of those men are going to change their behavior because a new doll was released. Their behavior and the innumerable systems that hold women back have influenced my self-perception more than any Barbie doll with an anatomically impossible figure.

It's not that I don't think Barbie should represent the diversity of girls and their bodies. (Side note: Let's be clear that Mattel isn't doing this purely because it's the right thing to do. It also will help them sell toys and, if it doesn't, we'll slowly see these dolls fall out of production.) I agree kids should have options when it comes to their toys. We should think about the ways toys impact how kids think about themselves and what's possible for them in the world. My concern is that toys, and images, and perceptions are only part of the problem, and likely a really small part of it. If we focus so much of our energy -- and celebrations -- on symbolic shifts and evolving perceptions we might lose sight of actual actionable progress that still (really) needs to be made.

I've worked on issues of diversity and inclusion my whole life, but I didn't fully appreciate how much the rest of the population like to discuss diversity until I came to graduate school. I don't get frustrated with constant discussions of diversity or celebrations of symbolic wins for inclusion because I don't like or value them. I get frustrated because I'm genuinely concerned that over-discussion and over-celebration may do harm.

It may make people who are slightly skeptical on these issues tune it out as tedious background noise. It may let people rest on their laurels thinking we've actually achieved something. It may drown out individuals struggling with actual issues for fear of redundancy. It may make people focus more on perceptions and feelings rather than action and impact. It may make people value being heard more than they value being effective. It may let people pretend progress has occurred when really we just dressed up the status quo with blue hair and a thicker waistline.

Find me on twitter @micaelaconnery.