In a world where even toy cars are boys or girls, Mattel’s new gender-neutral doll is a win for inclusion and creativity

In a world where even toy cars are boys or girls, Mattel’s new gender-neutral doll is a win for inclusion and creativity

Mattel either struck a blow for inclusivity on Wednesday or enlisted a doll in the culture wars. Both, probably.

The toy company just announced the release of Creatable World, a line of gender-neutral dolls that come in a range of skin colors, two different length wigs and wardrobes that include pants, skirts, T-shirts and hoodies.

Just as notable is what the dolls don’t have —facial features that point to an obvious doll gender (long lashes for a girl, square jaw for a boy) or Barbie’s breasts and hips. Mattel says the dolls are intended to be kids, with kid bodies and imaginary kid lives —unlike Barbie and Ken with their careers and their cars and their Dream Houses.

The company also calls Creatable World (tagline, “a doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in”) the first of its kind. The development process took 18 months, and Mattel consulted with physicians, gender identity experts and 250 families with children across the gender spectrum to come up with a doll that could be a boy, a girl or neither.

One doll set retails for $29.99.

Time magazine wrote an extensive, behind-the-scenes report on the research and market potential for a gender-neutral doll, citing a 2018 Pew study that found 35% of Gen Z-ers (born 1995 to 2015) say they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (they, them), compared with just 16% of Gen X-ers (born 1965 to 1980).

“The patterns are projected to continue with Generation Alpha, born in 2010 and later,” Time reports. “Those kids, along with boys who want to play with dolls and girls who identify as “tomboys” and don’t gravitate toward fashion doll play, are an untapped demographic. Mattel currently has 19% market share in the $8 billion doll industry; gaining just 1 more point could translate into $80 million in revenue for the company.”

But there’s also this:

“Mattel will launch Creatable World exclusively online first, in part to better control the message,” Time reports. “Store clerks will have to be trained in what pronouns to use when talking about the doll and how to handle anxious parents’ questions about it. And then there are practical concerns. Dickson admits the company is ready for the possibility that protests against Creatable World dolls could hurt other Mattel brands, namely Barbie.”

I hope not. I hope we can skip the outrage part of this rollout.

For kids who don’t feel at home in a body labeled “girl” or a body labeled “boy,” for boys who want to play with dolls but have found the options rather limited, for girls who want to play with dolls who look a little more like the kids around them —this doll is a win.

It’s also a win for creativity. For getting out of the way of kids’ play. So many dolls and toys come with a complete script, a whole backstory and marketing campaign, often an entire movie franchise. We know a character’s gender (even if that character is, say, a race car or a troll), but we also know its name, personality, love interest, hobbies, hometown, best friend’s name and so on.

Kids can —and do —work around all that, giving their favorite toys new lives and new adventures that far exceed whatever Disney or Mattel or Hasbro had in mind.

Still, it’s refreshing to see a toymaker offer kids a blank slate of sorts. Here’s a doll. Make it what you want. There’s no wrong answer. It’s play.

I hope grown-ups aren’t so threatened by that notion that they boycott or protest.

It’s a doll. It invites kids to go delightfully off-script, and maybe see a little more of themselves in the process. A win-win.

Heidi Stevens

The Associated Press

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