Playing with Barbie

Teaching Inclusivity and Diversity through Play in Indonesia



How to Cite

Hersinta, Kurniana, I., & Ellis, K. (2023). Playing with Barbie: Teaching Inclusivity and Diversity through Play in Indonesia. M/C Journal, 26(2).
Vol. 26 No. 2 (2023): toys
Published 2023-04-25


Play activities with toys give children joy while fulfilling their imagination. Toys also perform an educational function by representing social and cultural information. Ellis argues that imagery of disability in children’s toys convey messages about who we want to be included in the future as well as reflecting what we valued in the past. Through toys adults communicate what kind of world they think children should be prepared for. While Barbie has been heavily criticised for conveying problematic messages about race, gender, and body image to children, within the disability community Mattel’s 1996 “wheelchair” Barbie Share-a-Smile Becky has been positively remembered as a significant representation of disability, albeit not without its problems (see Ellis; Garland-Thomson).

In 2020, Mattel produced a wider variety of Barbie dolls with disabilities along with the concept of “purposeful play” for creating positive impact and supporting diversity. While these dolls were marketed globally, they were largely produced in Indonesia. In this country disability dolls began to be marketed as key to inclusivity. However, it remains unclear how toys and playing activities can be utilised to educate and advocate for disability in Indonesia – normalising differences in a country where disabled people are still largely viewed as subjects of charity. It was not until 2016 when Indonesian disability law shifted from a charity-based to a more rights-based approach (Tsaputra). Referring to existing literature on play-based learning concepts and toys as popular culture, in this article we will use the Barbie case study to discuss how the idea of disability is communicated through toys in the Indonesian context.

In the following section we will firstly discuss how toys can educate children on issues of diversity and inclusivity. We argue that toys as a form of popular culture can create positive representations for disability. We then discuss the Barbie case study and how Mattel, as the parent company that produces Barbie dolls, markets the ideas of multicultural representation through their dolls to the global market, including Indonesia. We then discuss the challenges faced by the Indonesian toy industry and conclude the article by highlighting the challenges and opportunities to promote disability-themed toys, including the factors in influencing decision-making of buying toys, and diverse cultural perspectives in Indonesia.

Diversity in the Toy Box

We argue that disability is shaped by, and reflected in, culture. This cultural approach to disability recognises the influence of attitudes, beliefs, and values across time and place. While disability is most often located in medical discourses, social and cultural approaches recognise that disability is more than an individual medical condition or limitation. Indeed, academic approaches to disability have developed far beyond clinical studies, law, and public policy, to enter the Humanities (Brown). For example, the study of disability arts, culture, and media advances a critique of disability representations in dominant cultural systems (Hadley and McDonald). Karl Knights, an autistic writer with cerebral palsy, states the importance of disability representations in popular everyday objects such as disabled emojis and dolls as part of daily conversation (Knights). How disability is represented in popular media such as books, movies, and toys – despite being viewed only as everyday entertainment objects – provides identities to disabled people, empowering them to have more access to society.

In this article, we opt to use identity-first language (‘disabled people’, ‘disabled children’) as we intend to put a person’s disability identity before the person. The choice to use identity-first language is aligned with the minority model (or also referred as the diversity model) of disability. From the minority model’s perspective, Dunn and Andrews emphasise identity-first language that views disability as “a function of social and political experiences occurring within a world designed largely for nondisabled people” (259). The person-first language (‘people or person with disability’) will also be used interchangeably in this article, as in the Indonesian context this term is broadly used.

Toys educate children about diversity. “Diversity in the toybox” is viewed as one means to address the multiracial and multicultural spectrum through child’s play activities and toys (New York Times). Toys can be used to “produce and challenge prevailing norms of race, gender, class, ability, and nation” (Bowersox 139) – thus educating children about diversity through play with a variety of toys representing similarities and differences in the human body, such as skin colour and other aspects of physical appearance including disability and impairment. In children’s classrooms, there is a current drive to encourage more diverse toys, acknowledging multiculturalism and strengthening the self-esteem of children who are represented by these toys (Shah). Other studies find that toys can facilitate play routines among children with disabilities, while for non-disabled children toys representing disabilities can reduce their anxieties and prejudice toward their friends who have disabilities (O’Neill et al.). Conversely, research also shows findings where children with Down’s Syndrome prefer to play with a typical doll rather than a doll with Down’s Syndrome appearance – reflecting their views toward typical developing individuals as being more attractive (Saha et al.).

In 2015, a campaign called #toylikeme was launched in the UK to advocate for more positive representations of disability in toy products from global brands, and brands like Lego, Mattel, and Playmobil quickly gained international attention (toylikeme). In response to this campaign, Playmobil issued a statement later that year announcing their plan to release a new toy set that include characters with disabilities (toylikeme), and a year after, Lego launched their first mini figure with wheelchair. Throughout this article we focus on instances of physical disability and difference such as mobility impairment and vitiligo (a long-term condition where pale white patches develop on the skin) in our discussion of the representation of disability in children’s toys.

Dolls with Disability: Selling Inclusivity and Diversity in a Fashion

Decades prior to the #toylikeme campaign, toys with disability began to be marketed to the wider public. In the 1970s, popular action figures in the forms of amputee and cyborg action figures such as G.I. Joe’s Mike Power and the Six Million Dollar Man were released, while in 1996 Mattel launched “Share-a-Smile Becky” – a friend of Barbie who is a wheelchair user (Ellis). Despite the Becky doll receiving positive responses from the media and 6,000 dolls being sold within the first two weeks of its release, the wheelchair did not fit into Barbie’s Dreamhouse (Forbes). This caused public criticism towards Mattel for not considering access to the Dreamhouse for the Becky doll – a situation that also reflects the reality where people with disability are excluded from the public space (Ellis).

Twenty years after the Becky doll was discontinued – the last version was Becky the Paralympic Champion in 1999 – Mattel announced upcoming additions to their Barbie's Fashion Doll line, Barbie Fashionistas. The Fashionistas were first introduced in 2009 and were intended to bring a greater sense of diversity to Barbie. The popular line now features a Barbie doll with a wheelchair and another Barbie doll wearing a removable prosthetic leg, which marks Mattel’s campaign on disability representation and diversity inclusion (Forbes). Mattel provides a wide variety of dolls with different body types (petite, curvy, tall), skin tones, eye colours, and hairstyles, and claimed their line as “the most diverse doll line in the marketplace” (Mattel). In their public community report, the company claims their efforts are to initiate a “Play Fair” campaign to address racism and injustice, which includes increasing Black representation across Barbie’s products and content (Mattel).

Mattel’s global strategy to market ideas of diversity and inclusivity is also part of their efforts for strengthening their image and brand value, as well as creating social bonding with stakeholders. Wheelchairs and a doll with a wheelchair appear to be one of the most requested items from their consumers (Ahmed et al.). With this strategy, the toy company views their position as a leading toy brand and, by introducing disabilities in the fashion doll line, they can introduce conversations amongst children about disabilities through their play activities. From the very beginning of Barbie’s inception in the 1950s, the toy was designated to be a fashion doll. With fashionable attires and accessories, Mattel shows that dolls in a wheelchair and wearing prosthetic legs or having specific physical conditions such as vitiligo (loss of skin colour) or alopecia (hair loss) can be fashionable and stylish, thus providing a playful source of entertainment to children (Ahmed

This initiative was welcomed by consumers and the media, as it ignited many positive conversations and discussions through social media and online news. This includes Indonesia, as some leading Indonesian news media featured Mattel’s inclusivity campaign with the launching of Barbie’s Fashionistas diverse doll line (Tempo), although the doll with disability itself did not appear in the country’s marketplace until 2022. The media highlighted the launch of Barbie dolls with disabilities as one of the new toy trends for 2020 (CNN Indonesia).

Disability, Stigma, and Discrimination

Based on the 2020 National Survey in Indonesia, around 9 per cent or 22.5 million individuals within the Indonesian population have a disability (Rahmi et al.). Since 2011, Indonesia has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and has passed the Law No. 8 of 2016 concerning Persons with Disabilities. This Law provides a legal basis regarding the position and rights of persons with disabilities (Nurhayati and Ambari). Nevertheless, people with a disability in Indonesia still face challenges in some critical areas, such as accessing health services, education, and entering the labour market and employment (Syiranamual and Larasati). Disabled people are among the most stigmatised groups in the country, and they largely face discrimination and poor treatment from society. For example, intellectually disabled children often experience bullying in schools and being neglected by their parents, which leads to limited social life and activities (Handoyo et al.). Cultural beliefs among Indonesians also influence how people view disability, perceiving that having a child with disability is disgraceful and a result of karma (Riany et al.).

It is necessary to develop strategies for eliminating this stigmatisation of disabled people and promoting more inclusivity in Indonesian society. Providing better understanding about disability and promoting representations of different disabilities through daily activities such as play will allow children to develop more positive perceptions of disabled people. Indonesia provides a particularly compelling example because, as we argue in this article, the mass production of these dolls has had an impact on disability representation in that country.

Marketing Disability-Themed Toys in Indonesia

Indonesia is one of largest producers of toys, particularly dolls. Indonesia, with a total population of 273 million by 2021 and with a growing middle-class, will be considered as an attractive target market. The total consumption of the Indonesian toy market itself indicated prominent growth from 2012 to 2021: its value increased at an average annual rate of 5.7% (Indexbox).

Indonesia is known as home to one of largest toy factories in the world, and approximately half of the toy dolls globally are produced in Indonesia. The Asia Toy and Play Association, a non-profit that provides a platform for dialogue between various stakeholders in the toy industry, highlighted that as a market, Indonesia is important to buyers and sellers. For example, PT Mattel Indonesia is reportedly contributing more than 35 percent of the total export value of toys from Indonesia to the world. This US-based company has two factories in the country, the east plant, which produces Barbie dolls, and the west plant, which produces die-cast cars under the Hot Wheels brand. Mattel also involves small and medium industries (SMEs) in the production process. The company, which has been operating in Indonesia since 1992, has a production capacity of 85 million fashion dolls and 120 million toy cars per year. It has successfully exported children's toys made in Indonesia to various countries in the Asia Pacific and Europe, as well as to the Unites States.

Challenges from Regulations and Consumers’ Influencing Factors

Despite the potential of having a large market of potential consumers, there are some challenges faced by the Indonesian toy industry in marketing their products. Firstly, specific regulations for products conformity assessment regarding national standard of toys manufacturing – the Indonesian National Standard (SNI, or Standar Nasional Indonesia) – were issued in 2013. While this standard regulates the safety of toys, it is also considered to be one of the challenges facing the toy industry (Lembaga Penyelidikan Ekonomi dan Masyarakat), including local toy manufacturers. The implementation of such standards can increase cost significantly, due to the complexities of testing and certification procedures (Susanto).

Secondly, in Indonesia, there are multiple factors influencing consumers (in this case, parents) to buy toys for their children (Ulfa and Djamaludin). The main priority is the location of the point of sale. Other priorities include factors such as the toys’ usage, price, and materials. Product information and physical aspects of the toys (e.g., size and form such as soft and hard toys) are the least priority considered by the parents (Ulfa and Djamaludin, 69). These findings suggest that consumer literacy in buying toys is the least important – a factor that needs to be addressed in promoting and marketing disability-themed toys in Indonesia.

The Need for Product Narratives on Toys Representing Disability

A more recent study by Octaviani and Ichwan found that the Internet is the strongest influence on the consumption patterns of imported toys by children and parents in Indonesia. Although online shopping has been widely used by toy consumers, the study shows that parents in Indonesia within the age group of 20-40 years old do not prioritise reading product information, warning information, and cautions about the use of toy products. The main concern to parents is the price and material of toy products. Octaviani and Ichwan also highlighted that parents’ decisions to purchase toys have not been informed by product literacy.

While previous studies (Ulfa and Djamaludin; Octaviani and Ichwan) have shown how parents in Indonesia make decisions to purchase toys, another study in the United Kingdom highlights parents’ attitudes may influence responses to toys with disability and impairments (Jones et al.). This study shows that among parents of children without disabilities – who support their children having friendships with their disabled peers – their responses toward disability representation in toys are likely to be more positive (Jones This indicates that toy manufacturers should consult with parents through open dialogue around disability and impairment when they consider messages of diversity and disability through their products.

While there are arguments that toys representing disability and impairment have benefits for all children, negative attitudes towards disabled people are still common in society (Dixon et al.). As mentioned in the previous section of this article, stigma and discrimination are often experienced by disabled people in Indonesia, and they remain underrepresented in society and the media. However, since the ratification of the UNCRPD in 2011, the country’s policy perspective has shifted from charity-based to human rights- and social justice-based (Tsaputra). This also calls for a more significant role of the media and other popular forms of culture in opening dialogue and considering alternative ways for more positive representations of disability.  

In 2022 Mattel’s official online marketplace in Indonesia introduced a Barbie doll with a skin condition as part of the Fashionistas line – a brunette, tan skin-coloured doll with vitiligo and a curvy body type (fig. 1). The dolls were sold in limited quantities, and in 2023 the male version (Ken) with vitiligo was seen on the shelves of Indonesia’s chain toy stores, and in Barbie official flagship online marketplace (fig. 2). The customers’ reviews in the online store were mainly positive with five stars, but we also found a complaint posted by a disappointed customer: “the product has a defect in the doll’s paint” (Tokopedia). When the online store sold the doll Ken with vitiligo earlier this year, they added more specific information about the product (“The faded spots on this Barbie Ken Malibu is a skin condition called vitiligo, it is NOT a DEFECT. Vitiligo is a disease that causes loss of skin colour in the form of patches.”) and a symbol with caption “celebrating diversity” (Tokopedia).

During a recent visit to a physical toy store in Jakarta, Indonesia, we (the first and the second author) found that the Ken doll with vitiligo is displayed on the shelf. These dolls are displayed among the other Barbie Fashionistas doll series, under a special section of Barbie. However, when the store assistant approached the second author, they were not well-equipped with product knowledge about this product line. During the check-out process another sales assistant informed us that the doll is supposed to be representative of a condition that shows the loss of colour in skin due to a disease. Toy manufacturers must consider the point of sale for their products and provide comprehensive information of the product in the stores (both online and offline), not only to sell the products but also to support the global campaign of the brand (in the case of Mattel’s Barbie in Indonesia) for promoting diversity and inclusivity to the wider society.   


Fig. 1: Barbie fashionistas line, with vitiligo in the middle (author’s documentation).


Fig. 2: Ken with vitiligo (third on the top row) on the shelves in an Indonesian toy store (author’s documentation)

Conclusion: Where to Go Next?

Within the Indonesian context, inclusivity and diversity are facing challenges due to numerous cultural complexities. This is particularly true when discussing the possibilities for children to have more positive aspirations around equality and diversity through everyday activities such as play. Pranoto and Hong reveal that young Indonesian children (aged 4-6) aspire to have material wealth (such as getting presents in the form of toys, dolls, flowers, clothes, money, etc.) as opposed to doing well at school (including long-term education, reading, getting rewards from the teacher, etc.). Interestingly, the study suggests that different ethnic backgrounds inform children’s aspirations (Pranoto and Hong). For example, people with a Sundanese ethnicity value the importance of higher social status in society while groups representing the Javanese ethnic group appreciate more family values in society (Pranoto and Hong). Thus, it is argued that different ethnicities have different values on material and non-material things. This argument can be considered when discussing how toys and playing activities can shape the understanding of disability in children – whether different cultural backgrounds can influence their expectations on more complex issues such as inclusivity and diversity.

Most toys, including dolls, have positive impacts within children’s play and everyday lives (Ahmed et al.; Jones et al.; O'Neill et al.). However, when it comes to inclusion, diversity, and disability, these same studies indicate complex implications for children’s future lives and their ability to accept and normalise inclusion, diversity, and disability. As a form of popular culture, toys not only function as play and entertainment tools, but also contain the possibility to influence children’s experience and perceptions. The discussion in this article is limited to exploring existing literature and some preliminary observations on the topic of toys to educate children on issues of diversity and inclusivity. Considering the limitations of research discussing how disability-themed toys and play activities can influence children’s understanding on disability, in Indonesia, we suggest future qualitative research explores these implications for Indonesian children. We also recommend further exploration focussing on parents’ attitudes to toys representing disability in Indonesia, as this will give an insight into the possibilities of marketing these toys (and communicating the ideas and aims of the product). We ask if the Internet – as the preferred e-commerce platform – has more possibilities of opening access for parents to buy these types of toys for their children. Should Mattel rethink their strategy in making these products more available in the market, including in Indonesia? Further research with well-grounded methodologies and extensive data is required to provide the answers. However, we hope this article will begin the much-needed discussions and generate ideas for research on disability toys in Indonesia.


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