I’m Conflicted About the New Helen Keller Doll

Photo of Helen Keller

Mattel Adds Doll to Collection

Last month Mattel added the  Helen Keller doll as part of their Inspiring Women Series. She is the 12th doll among the great women in the collection such as Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony. The doll is dressed fashionably in a skirt and blouse. She is holding a book with molded braille on the cover which the national Federation of the Blind provided help and feedback. The doll looks very much like her except for the eyes which has stirred up some controversy. It is said that Keller had unilateral proptosis, which is the protrusion of one eye. This condition resulted in asymmetrical looking eyes. She was often photographed in profile or at an angle to cover up this fact.

Why the Controversy

Now, you might be asking what is all the hype about? What is the problem? Mattel decided to make a doll based on an extraordinary disabled American icon. Keller was an author, political activist and lecturer. She was also the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She traveled all over the world. She met famous and important people. She fought for civil and human rights. She co-founded Helen Keller International, an organization initially for blinded WWI soldiers. She was outspoken and a feminist. She is inspiring and a great role model. So, designing a doll in her likeness sounds like a wonderful thing, right? Well, some say the issue is the doll is not accurate because her eyes look “natural” or “normal” whichever term you prefer. Some Disability advocates  feel the doll should be a genuine representation of what Helen Keller really looked like. But I wonder about that.

Keller Took Portraits in Profile

Today is Helen Keller’s birthday and if she were still alive would she care the doll was not an accurate depiction? The reason I wonder is that she took pictures with her face not completely facing the camera. So that tells me she knew about her eyes. Maybe she was concerned about how they would look in a photo. Or maybe she was advised this was the best approach for a great picture. I have been there before myself. I have been told when taking pictures to adjust my smile and facial features. Sometimes I have been asked to remove my white cane from the shot and depending on the situation I do. It doesn’t mean I am ashamed of being blind it just means having my white cane in the picture is not always the best thing.

Wearing prosthetics

Empish inserting ocular lens in her eye

When Keller became an adult, she had her eyes removed and wore glass prosthetics. I also wear them too. They are ocular shells made of plastic. They are like large contact lenses laying on top of my eyeballs. My decision was totally cosmetic and a bit selfish. I just wanted to look and feel better. At the time I was wearing dark sunglasses because my eyeballs had receded and shrank making it hard for me to blink. So, it looked like I was sleeping constantly, and I was tired of my appearance and people questioning me about it.

In addition, I realized that wearing sunglasses, in some way, communicated to the world that I was ashamed of my eyes. The point was really driven home after attending a disability presentation called “Gawking, Gaping, Staring, Living in Marked Bodies” at Emory University. The presentation explored the history of how people with physical differences are treated in mainstream society. The presenter, Eli Clare, shared about how we must “cover up” our differences to be accepted. I realized that is exactly what I was doing with wearing the sunglasses. That night the shades came down both literally and figuratively. I was so deeply taken with this process I wrote a blog post about it called They Look So Real Wearing Ocular Lenses.

Creation of Barbie

Knowing the history of Mattel, I was not totally surprised with the creation of the Keller doll. I read a fascinating book titled Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Girber. They were revolutionary in manufacturing Barbie. This doll was a real female with breasts, hips and thighs. During that time dolls were just round like balls and soft and cuddly. When Barbie came out parents were reluctant to purchase it, but little girls loved it because the doll allowed them to imagine being grown up. They could act like a real woman!

Explaining Disability Takes Energy

Critics said Mattel missed the mark and a teachable moment with the Keller doll. Keeping her eyes as they were would have been an opportunity to stay authentic and teach children about people who are different. Yes, I can see that, no pun intended. But I also see a doll with eyes that don’t look “normal” could be considered scary or uncomfortable to a child to look at or play with. Parents might not have the language to explain why the doll’s eyes look different. I deal with this stuff all the time as a grown woman, and it is hard. Constantly explaining my disability. How I live and move in the world. So, imagine a child? This is also partly the reason why many blind folks wear dark sunglasses. Getting back to what I said earlier when I wore them myself. We live in a world where differences are not easily accepted, and it takes a lot of work and energy. Sometimes you must decide how much of that energy you want to give. No judgement to my disabled readers. Also, it is about acceptance. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. If “covering up” the disability will lead to that some people will do it. Or they might not want their disability to be a distraction or the focus. People just want to live and be.

Conflicted but Let’s Talk

I know this post might sound contradictory and all over the place. And it probably is. This topic is complicated in my opinion. It brings up many conflicting emotions for me. There is no quick and easy answer. However, one thing I clearly know, this doll has sparked conversation and that is a positive thing. We need to talk more and more about disability issues. Put things on the table and have open and honest dialogue. Push that big, loud pink elephant out of the room! Only then will we bridge understanding and acceptance. Then we won’t have to wonder about another doll and its representation of a disabled person.

Now, tell me what you think. Did Mattel miss the mark with this doll? Should they have created her with accuracy? If so, what do you think the reaction would have been?

6 thoughts on “I’m Conflicted About the New Helen Keller Doll

  1. Acceptance & understanding takes time. Most are hesitant to deal with disabilities , even in their own families. Remember reading at some time a quote from an European actor :
    “Americans are so obsessed with perfection, that’s why they dress up their dead”
    Maybe in time we’ll realize there’s only one perfect being- GOD !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Frances, What you say is so true! We are slow to accept the disabled even people we know and are close too. That is where I was going with the whole explaining and energy thing. It is a lot of work at times. But you bring up an interesting point about American’s focus on perfection and dressing up the dead. I wouldn’t have thought about it quite that way but people can spend a lot on a funeral.

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  2. I love the fact that the way this post is written is literally like going through your thought process. I don’t think it’s all over the place. I can clearly see your thought progression, perhaps because I think in a similar way, nonetheless it worked for me.

    Thanks to Mattel’s doll and your article I did some research about deaf-blindness, just for me to grow my knowledge about a condition which I didn’t know anything about it. That is already raising awareness to an extent.

    I think that as humans we are not always so easily ready to accept things we don’t understand. Perhaps Mattel could see that and understood that this is a good first step to raising awareness and being people to be more accepting, and to have more open discussions about disability. This will hopefully ease the path for more acceptance of a doll that Showa off the disability in the near future. I see it as a first step. I’m not against what they did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rachel, thanks for your thoughtful comment and understanding where my mind was going. I was feeling a bit scatter-brained but I am glad it made sense. Yes, I agree that having a disabled doll can spark conversation and awareness for a lot of people. Like you I learned through this experience too. While researching for this blog I learned that Keller had her eyes removed and where glass prosthetics. I had no idea but when I did I felt a kind of kindred spirit with her because of my experience with them too.

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  3. I usually learn a lot from your posts and this and the previous one are no exceptions. I hope in return to possibly educate you a little. Perhaps we’ll have a symbiotic relationship.

    First I’ll share some of my personal experience as a less visible minority, specifically as a Jewish person who lived for a time in Tennessee. I lived in Nashville for a few years and the stories I could tell about being a Jew in the evangelical heart of the country – the Buckle on the Bible Belt – would be a difference set of stories than the ones I want to share here.

    I lived in Oak Ridge, in East Tennessee, for twice the time I lived in Nashville. This once secret city was developed as such by many people from many different places, including, in its earliest days, African-American (mainly) manual laborers and European Jewish scientists. Vestiges of both populations, including the institutions they built and some of the houses they lived in, still play integral roles in the city today.

    Two of those more modern institutions are the Oak Ridge office of Recording for the Blind and the Scarboro Community. The former, one of many, many very long standing service organizations in town, closed in 2013. The latter was developed in response to post WWII pressure to develop better, more permanent living quarters for black residents, In 1950, Scarboro Village opened, providing an improved yet still segregated standard of living for black people. In 1955, one year after the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision striking down segregation in public schools, the Oak Ridge school system was the first southern school system to end segregation.
    The Scarboro community still exists as a residential community in Oak Ridge.

    These both relate to subjects I want to continue to pursue in my retirement by volunteering and in fact had started to do that until overcome by a lot of personal and public events.

    A couple of years ago I had tried to work with people in the Scarboro community to add info re the subject of integration in Oak Ridge as a draw for heritage tourism. I had to abandon this project then because I could not connect with the right people who had the personal and historic knowledge to assist me. I felt that one possible reason for the lack of response to my requests might be due to possible continuing self-segregation of Oak Ridge’s present African-American citizens. My feeling may have been borne out by the fact that several organizations centered in Scarboro finally, in just the last year or so, finally took up the gauntlet and have produced and placed such exhibits in appropriate spots around town.

    I have heard there may be a similar self-segregation among the disabled community in general and even by individual communities dealing with different kinds of disabilities. I believe this type of self-segregation may have been created and/or imposed by various ethnic and religious communities when they first arrived on our shores and still exist though usually in smaller pockets. I am therefore at a conundrum, especially as a member of a group that still struggles with the idea of segregation, mostly imposed by outsiders, vs assimilation, which is what we have generally striven to achieve. Both are historical and current struggles we have encountered wherever we settled. I have always seen this situation as interesting vis-a-vis people of color who usually be segregated by society based solely on appearance. I imagine the same is true of most people with disabilities.

    Given my personal conundrum re the concept of segregation I am wondering if you have any ideas or suggestions I could pursue with ethnic and/or disabled communities and/or organizations that may have programs or be interested in developing programs in this area to educate the general public. If not, I know I can find such programs re Judaism, Jews, the Holocaust and other related subjects.

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    1. hbsuefred, thank you for your comment. but let’s continue this conversation off line. Please reach out to me via my contact page and we can discuss in more details.

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