Toy com­pa­nies break down bar­ri­ers to be more in­clu­sive

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - STATE NEWS - By Anne D’in­no­cen­zio

Toy com­pa­nies are work­ing harder to think out­side their usual box, of­fer­ing more-in­clu­sive items like dolls with dis­abil­i­ties, fe­male su­per­hero fig­ures and char­ac­ters with a range of skin tones.

Many of the prod­ucts break­ing down the bar­ri­ers started with smaller busi­nesses, but big names like Mat­tel and Has­bro are get­ting into the game and of­fer­ing lots more op­tions this hol­i­day sea­son.

What that means on the shelves is Bar­bies that have a greater va­ri­ety of body types, eye col­ors and fa­cial struc­tures, a Lego minifig­ure of a boy who uses a wheelchair, and an Amer­i­can Girl doll with ac­ces­sories like a diabetes kit and arm crutches in ad­di­tion to the hear­ing aids and ser­vice dogs it has of­fered be­fore. Other items in­clude cod­ing toys, ro­bots and cir­cuit builder sets aimed at both girls and boys.

Jen­nifer Weitz­man, whose 5-year-old daugh­ter Hannah has cochlear im­plants, has the Amer­i­can Girl doll with hear­ing aids and a Tin­ker Bell doll with a cochlear im­plant that Weitz­man bought from a Bri­tish site called

“She lit up when she was given them. She thinks it’s awe­some that they have im­plants just like her,” said Weitz­man, of Mount Kisco, New York. “For many kids, it helps them iden­tify and makes them feel in­cluded.”

The trend started a few years ago, pushed by par­ents who didn’t see enough diver­sity in the toy aisle and were turn­ing to the in­ter­net or star­tups to find items.

In­creas­ingly, the in­clu­sive­ness in the toy aisle means dolls with dis­abil­i­ties. Toys R Us has car­ried an exclusive line since 2013 called Jour­ney Girls, which in­cludes a wheelchair and a crutch set. Its part­ner­ship with Amer­i­can Girl to carry the Truly Me col­lec­tion start­ing this month will in­clude dolls that also use crutches, diabetes kits and wheel­chairs.

While Lego has had larger fig­ures be­fore that use wheel­chairs, the minifig­ure in­tro­duced this year comes as part of the “Fun in the Park” set, mixed in with sev­eral fig­ures that don’t.

“The de­sign­ers were think­ing about what might you see in the park in the city,” said Lego spokesman Michael McNally.

Lego mini-fig­ures had been yel­low so that chil­dren could imag­ine their own iden­tity for the char­ac­ters. “We’ve al­ways been about help­ing kids find them­selves,” McNally said. But in 2004, it in­tro­duced flesh tones when rep­re­sent­ing real-life per­son­al­i­ties.

Ex­perts say it’s crit­i­cal for chil­dren to play with toys that don’t per­pet­u­ate stereo­types about what’s con­sid­ered beau­ti­ful. They say the toys chil­dren play with have last­ing im­pres­sions on their ca­reers and their con­fi­dence.

“There’s been some good progress, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” said El­iz­a­beth Sweet, a so­ci­ol­o­gist and lec­turer at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia. “Kids need to see them­selves in the toys and ob­jects they in­ter­act with.”

For build­ing toys, the com­pany GoldieBlox, founded in 2012, was among the first to dis­rupt the pink aisle by of­fer­ing con­struc­tion sets aimed at girls. But it also re­al­ized it needed more racial diver­sity, and last fall in­tro­duced a black char­ac­ter called Ruby Rails and has since then added a Latina en­gi­neer called Valentina and other char­ac­ters.

Many ex­perts have been closely watch­ing the moves made by Mat­tel, par­tic­u­larly with its iconic Bar­bie, whose busi­ness has been re­bound­ing amid a makeover af­ter see­ing its sales suf­fer. The na­tion’s largest toy maker launched the Bar­bie Fash­ion­ista col­lec­tion last year that of­fered more skin tones, eye col­ors and fa­cial struc­tures. This year, it added three body types — curvy, pe­tite and tall. It said those items have been do­ing well. Spokes­woman Michelle Chi­doni says the com­pany is also look­ing to add dif­fer­ent body shapes to the Bar­bie ca­reer line and the Fairy­tale doll col­lec­tion.

Racial diver­sity can also be key. Amer­i­can Girl, which is owned by Mat­tel, launched a doll this year whose story is that she is grow­ing up in civil right­sera Detroit. Wal-Mart’s My Life As doll col­lec­tion has ex­panded the num­ber of skin shades avail­able, and Has­bro is adding more skin tones to its Baby Alive doll for next year.

Be­yond in­tro­duc­ing dolls and games that fea­ture all kinds of char­ac­ters, com­pa­nies are start­ing to think dif­fer­ently about toys that have tra­di­tion­ally been aimed at boys or girls. The White House held a con­fer­ence on gen­der stereo­types in me­dia and the toys, draw­ing ex­ec­u­tives from ma­jor toy com­pa­nies.

Tar­get Corp. phased out gen­der-based sig­nage in the toy aisle last year. It also was for a time the exclusive seller of Mat­tel’s DC Su­per Hero Girls, in­clud­ing Won­der Woman and Bat­girl, which were the first 6-inch ac­tion fig­ures de­signed for girls. They join other fe­male char­ac­ters in the ac­tion fig­ure aisle that in­clude Black Widow and Star Wars hero­ine Rey, says Jim Sil­ver, editor-in-chief of TTPM, an on­line toy re­view site.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is sell­ing its first 18-inch boy doll this hol­i­day sea­son un­der the My Life As brand, and Has­bro plans to launch a boy doll un­der the Baby Alive brand next year.

John Fras­cotti, pres­i­dent of Has­bro Brands, cited My Lit­tle Pony, which orig­i­nally was aimed at girls, and Nerf, which was tra­di­tion­ally for boys. Has­bro found the brands at­tract both boys and girls, so three years ago, it launched Nerf Re­belle that was styled for girls. As for My Lit­tle Pony, it’s ex­pand­ing into comic books, usu­ally more a do­main for boys.

“We are fo­cus­ing on sto­ry­telling and wor­ry­ing less about gen­der,” he said.


This Oct. 6 photo shows Bar­bie Fash­ion­istas, from Mat­tel, on dis­play at the an­nual TTPM Hol­i­day Show­case in New York. Toy com­pa­nies are of­fer­ing prod­ucts that are more in­clu­sive, from Bar­bie dolls in all shapes, sizes and skin tones to baby dolls aimed at boys. Toy com­pa­nies are also of­fer­ing dolls that rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent dis­abil­i­ties. But still ex­perts and par­ents say more work needs to be done.

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