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Expert comment: Politics at Play - Childhood, Representation, and Identification

David Bolt 150 x 150 Monday 1 February 2016

Following LEGO’s plan to release its first figure in a wheelchair, Associate Professor Dr David Bolt, Director of the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies, discusses the influence toys can have on a child’s sense of representation. 

So important are the ways in which we recognise ourselves in the multitude of representations by which we are surrounded. In our teenage years it might be popular culture with which we most engage. As the years pass us by, we might find ourselves increasingly moved by so-called high culture. The media is always with us, as are social attitudes and role models. No matter how or when we become aware of these and other representations, they form a backdrop for the ways in which we make sense of ourselves across our lifespan – they offer points of identification. 

In the formative years of childhood it is often toys that most excite the imagination, that let us explore beyond the boundaries of what we are and what we are expected to become. We create a world in miniature that nonetheless seems limitless. Into a landscape of upturned furniture, scattered bedding, empty boxes, and many other imaginatively adapted items, we place ourselves in the form of the toy figures with which we identify. The scenario may have become less common now that many children take a virtual route to this world of daydreams and possibilities, but the toys of the past remain surprisingly popular. No matter how sophisticated computerised games have become, they are still set aside from time to time in favour of toy cars, dolls, building-bricks, and so on.

All this being so, there are important questions to raise about normative representation in the context of childhood. What if we don’t identify with the toy figures that are available, let alone those that are popular? What if, for example, our wheelchairs seem beyond the imagination of the major toy manufacturers? What if, in another instance, our dolls remind us more of our slim blonde friends than of our heavier dark selves? Are we meant to somehow adjust our imaginations accordingly? Are we meant to excuse or perhaps exempt ourselves from our own play? 

My questions could go on, but in these respects I am pleased to note that the past few days have spawned some signs of representational progress. On Wednesday 27th January, the news came that the first LEGO figure to use a wheelchair was on display at the Nuremberg and London toy fairs. Then, the news on Thursday was that Mattel was set to reflect a broader view of feminine beauty by making Barbie with a range of different body types, hair, and skin tones. Of course, these advances could and should have been made decades ago. What is more, they should now be far more extensive. After all, the wheelchair has become symbolic of disability, but it says nothing about the experience of most disabled people. As little and late as it is, however, progress is progress and surely must be commended.

That said, I must also sound a note of disappointment. Why didn’t Mattel take a leaf out of LEGO’s book and finally introduce a disabled Barbie? A couple of decades ago Mattel granted Barbie a disabled friend in the shape of Wheelchair Becky, progress that was short-lived insofar as the doll is now only available as an unattainably expensive collector’s item. The point missed by the production of Wheelchair Becky though, is that children should be enabled if not encouraged to identify with the central protagonist of their play, as opposed to becoming effectively one of their own peripheral characters. Last week’s introduction of Mattel’s Barbie in a range of different body types was commendable, but the absence of disability from this range is indicative of the highly problematic ideals for which that most famous of dolls has become infamous.

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