Do dolls reflect our society? Or do dolls help to guide and nurture the next generation? In other words, do children see their current selves in their dolls, or do they see their futures? Are dolls a crystal ball for what and who they will become? And in the 21st century, is the notion of genders obsolete and confining? Will gender neutral dolls become the training ground for a brave, new world of non-binary citizens? It’s a heavy topic, but a topic that is very much at hand.
Before the advent of Barbie — a teenage fashion doll that was curvaceous and sexy — play dolls were baby dolls. Given as gifts to young female children, the baby dolls reflected the girl’s future. For centuries, it had been an expected role as wife, mother, homemaker, and grandmother. Girls grew up to be mommies; boys grew up to be daddies. Their toy boxes were different, separate, and equally restrictive. Girls played with baby dolls, pretend stoves, kitchen appliances, and sewing machines. Boys played with trucks, cars, guns, and military figures. Play was gender-based. Today, Mattel is making clear that their creations can be, and perhaps should be, gender neutral dolls.
On September 24 and 25, Mattel released a flurry of publicity about its latest playtime possibilities. These are gender neutral dolls that physically embody the notion of gender fluidity and gender inclusivity. These dolls belong to Mattel’s Creatable World sets, which include one doll, two types of hairstyle, and a variety of mix-and-match clothing in each kit. The Creatable World boxes are a bargain at under $30. Each included doll, with wig, clothing, and accessories, can assume 100 different identities. It is an opportunity to transform a doll into whatever the child sees and envisions.
“This line allows all kids to express themselves freely, which is why it resonates so strongly with them,” Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel fashion doll design, said. “We’re hopeful Creatable World will encourage people to think more broadly about how all kids can benefit from doll play.”
The first six gender neutral dolls reflect a half-dozen different skin complexions and hair colors. The hair hue includes: black braided, brunette wavy, copper straight, black straight, blond curly, and blond wavy.
With the assortment of clothing, accessories, and wigging, the dolls can easily switch from recognizable girl to boy, to non-binary. The dolls can be dressed and styled to represent a myriad possibility of self-expression.
“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” added Culmone. “Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms.”
When Mattel decided to pursue this gender neutral doll path, it consulted with nearly 300 families that have children who identify across the gender spectrum. The company worked with a team of physicians, experts and sociologists, parents, and the children themselves.
This is a large gamble for Mattel, but they are most likely hoping the initial publicity will give them a leg up. In a world where girls are no longer trained to be mamas, dolls have fallen to the wayside. The girls’ toy box filled with baby dolls, diapers, pretend bottles, and pacifiers is a long-ago relic. Today, many girls engage with virtual games played on their phones or their iPads. Tactile, touchable dolls are no longer a must-have for a Christmas list or a birthday wish. Girls still just want to have fun, and to nurture as well. There is actually an app where the player has to feed, love, mentor, and care for a piece of poop! (Talk about breaking down the barriers of restrictive labeling. Here, tweens and teens are playing “mom and dad” to excrement!)
Because girls are no longer a guaranteed audience for dolls, a gender neutral doll might be a marketing miracle. Boys who might have been fascinated by their sisters’ or their classmates’ dolls now have a chance to play openly and freely. Many of our most famous male doll artists have told stories over the years about craving their sister’s dolls. Doll artists like Mel Odom, Robert Tonner, and Jason Wu have confided in interviews about the judgments they faced for their boyhood love of dolls. The gender neutral Creatable World will ensure that such derision and denial will not happen again. The question, though, is how many children — of any gender or gender identification — will be clamoring for the Creatable World dolls.
This is not the first doll with a non-binary background or a gender-fluid identity. Tonner created the portrait play doll of LGBTQ advocate and transgender activist Jazz Jennings. The doll raised eyebrows because it was paying homage to a well-known TV personality who was born male and was transitioning to female. When Tonner unveiled the Jennings doll at Toy Fair 2017, people wanted to take a peek beneath her party dress. They were searching to see if she was anatomically correct.
This, of course, feeds into the lexicon of a gender neutral doll. Sure, there was some nasty talk on Twitter. Some folks wondered if certain body parts were included in the accessories, to be attached and detached at will. Proponents of gender neutral identities and language would pooh-pooh this. They don’t see the physical differences or the biological distinctions as gender markers. For many people today, it is not what is between the legs that makes a person’s gender. It is what is between the ears.
Mattel’s gender neutral dolls don’t have “private parts,” and that is what makes them an innocuous sale to the public. Very few play dolls are anatomically correct. RuPaul’s fashion doll was, with the wink-nudge selling point that his doll came with something extra. His gender-bending drag queen doll was made for adult collectors, so that little secret something wasn’t so shocking.
Creatable World dolls are being peddled to children aged 6 and up. The dolls don’t have anatomical differences—each doll is flat chested, thin, long legged, and fresh faced. Their sexual differences are all in the length of hair and the length of shirts or blouses.
These are gender neutral dolls in the way that all dolls are gender neutral. Dolls really don’t have genders because they are not human. They are pieces of plastic or vinyl or resin. Years ago, there were Topsy Turvy dolls that were two dolls in one. A child would hold one side of the doll up and the doll would be smiling. Then she’d fold the doll’s skirt up over the smiling face and there was a second doll hidden below. That doll would be crying.
The opposite dolls were connected: two heads on polar ends of the dolls with polar characteristics. So, there could be Red Riding Hood on one end and the Wolf on the other. Or Belle on one end, and then the Beast on the other. Early on in their creation, the Topsy Turvies would have white and black dolls stitched together. (Frequently, these dolls would smack of racism, with white little misses and black cartoonish mammies.) These dolls disregarded the confines of human anatomy, gender restrictions, and even species limitations—a girl connected to a wolf. The Topsy Turvy dolls turned biology on its head.
“Gender neutral” is a buzzword that can trigger many emotions. Some people will celebrate Mattel for its open-mindedness. Others will point a finger and say that the gender neutral dolls are cashing in on a temporary hot topic. Any doll can, in essence, be gender neutral. Look at Madame Alexander’s Wendy and Billy dolls. Billy has to be one of the prettiest dolls ever made, and he was sold as a boy doll. There was nothing that separated Billy from Wendy. They shared the same face mold; the difference was in the costuming and haircut.
Wendy had long curls; Billy had a short coiffure. Pretty Wendy wore dresses and skirts; cute Billy was garbed in pants and shorts. If an adventuresome child wanted to switch the wardrobe, he or she would have performed a gender illusion. Magically they could morph into one another and pass as one another.
In the doll world, gender neutral is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t believe the Creatable World creations are the “gender neutral” in the equation. Truly, I believe the gender neutral is the marketing campaign and who they hope will play with the product. Slim-legged, thin-bodied gender neutral dolls are as masculine or feminine or as neither as you want. It can’t be a coincidence that Mattel just released their David Bowie Barbie where the female doll masquerades as gender pioneer Ziggy Stardust. Bowie made his bones as a rock star, seemingly neither male nor female. David Bowie played with the notion of what was a man or a woman. I think Mattel is also hoping that adults who loved Bowie and other Glam Rockers will embrace this.
The Creatable World gender neutral dolls are blank slates. (Sasha Morgenthaler pioneered dolls as blank canvases in the 1960s.) They are Rorschach tests for what you feel at the moment, and what you want to express. I don’t think the country is filled with gender neutral children—certainly not enough to justify a brand-new doll category. I don’t think children are screeching for dolls. Perhaps parents who know their son secretly wants a doll will gravitate to this. Or it will attract parents wanting to make a point that their son can, should, and will play with dolls. Yes, of course, children who are not aligned with one gender will find a comforting ally in this brand and its spokespeople. However, I don’t know that the world is populated by vocal doll-collecting gender neutral children.
The Mattel Creatable World gender neutral dolls are an invitation for all collectors who like BJDs and their customizing versatility. Again, I don’t think the social-justice aspect will spread out to the majority of children. That will only happen if school boards buy them for use in public school classrooms.
Otherwise, they will appeal to grown-ups. Always on the hunt for new options, adult collectors will mix and match to their hearts’ content. Welcome to the gender neutral dollhouse of the 21st century!