The Alarming Message of Mattel’s “Gender-Neutral” Dolls

The Creatable World lineup from Mattel
The Creatable World lineup from Mattel. Mattel

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In late September, Mattel announced the launch of a new line of gender-neutral dolls. These dolls, which come in a range of skin tones (though uniform body size), each have two different hairstyle options—short and long—and arrive in cheerful pastel-green-and-yellow packaging with a variety of clothing: jeans, skirts, tank tops, shorts, and so on. The launch of this line has been heralded by Mattel as a move toward inclusivity, a sign that the company recognizes that gender comes in more than two options. The dolls have been welcomed by some as finally providing some recognition, even a sense of validation. And naturally, the dolls have been excoriated by the right as signs of social decay.

As a transgender guy who’s spoken to young people about gender for nearly 25 years, I am happy to see a doll that isn’t a stiff and insistent representation of what it means to be a woman (or a man). But as we head into toymakers’ most shamelessly commercial season of the year, I am also deeply skeptical of what the doll is actually communicating and what it is truly accomplishing.

On a basic level, the doll falls far short of actually embodying or even representing a nonbinary identity. “Gender-neutral,” the term Mattel uses in its marketing of the doll, is not, in fact, a term that many—any?—people use to describe themselves. They use “gender-fluid,” or genderqueer, or nonbinary, or nonconforming.

If you move past that, you get to the body: Yes, Mattel has done away with the impossible waist, the “perfect” plastic breasts of Barbie, and the molded musculature of Ken’s pecs. But instead we have … nothing. There’s always been nothing between Barbie’s legs, nothing between Ken’s, either, and that is a fascinating statement to be unpacked in a different article, but this nothingness of the new line of dolls is more troubling. The bodily blankness erases so much of what the discussions—personal and political—about gender focus on. These dolls do not have bodies that are like ours; these dolls do not have bodies that society reads in a gendered way at all. That sort of misses the entire point.

What these dolls do have is the ability to alter their gender expression. Clothes. Hairstyle. Accessories. The kids who (presumably) will play with them can make them walk and move and sit and engage in whatever activities they want: cooking, weightlifting, driving, lawn-mowing. All of this is easily alterable and incredibly superficial, and yes, it is accurate to how gender operates in some ways. Gender expression is highly mutable, adaptable, and external. These dolls nail that, even as they completely gloss over the much-thornier topic of gender identity, which is internal, a sense of self.

The dolls, in a strange way, present a new sort of paradigm. Their bodies are erased: Biological sex doesn’t pertain to them. Their gender identity—how they understand themselves—is impossible to discern as well. And their gender expression … well, that’s limited to three options: feminine and masculine and half-and-half. That’s still an incredibly binary way to look at gender. To suggest that the “other” option to masculine or feminine is “both” or “in between” is a basic misunderstanding of how many gender-nonconforming people express their gender. Gender is not a line between two endpoints—to be nonbinary is not to be androgynous. These dolls only further entrench that misunderstanding and simultaneously reinforce the idea that gender is “playful” and easy to switch around, accusations that are often leveled at trans youths when they come out.

So what is this doll accomplishing? Perhaps it is, just in its presence on the shelves, educating consumers. (Though it’s worth noting that, for now, the dolls are available online only.) Perhaps the doll is, as some articles have claimed, providing representation for a marginalized group of children. But let’s be real. This line of dolls is intended to accomplish one thing: more sales for Mattel.

In considering this motive, there’s a deeper story of constructed gender at work. I would argue that it is, in part, toy companies that have landed us in our current landscape of an exaggerated gender binary. Look back at toy advertisements (and clothing, too) in the ’70s and early ’80s. You’ll see a wide range of toys—board games and building blocks, especially—marketed to kids. There will be boys and girls simultaneously playing with the toys in the advertisements, and the kids will be wearing strikingly similar clothes and hairstyles. Now, there are problems with this (the kids are nearly always white; the hair and clothes skew masculine), and there are exceptions to this (there were still plenty of dolls that were marketed just to girls). But they also raise a question: Why aren’t many toys marketed to both boys and girls anymore?

It isn’t because boys and girls can’t or won’t enjoy the same products—plenty of studies have debunked the idea of inherently “gendered” toys. It’s because toy manufacturers and marketers realized they can sell far more toys with gender boundaries. Building blocks for girls—make a fairy princess palace. Building blocks for boys—make a ninja hideout. And so on. The further apart the toy companies could drive their markets so that girl toys were unacceptable and unpalatable to boys (and vice versa), the higher likelihood that they would sell more toys.

This gender-neutral doll looks very much like a ploy to create a new market, a third avenue of sales, appealing to parents who want to be attuned to their children’s gender expressions and to companies that, in the Trump era, have found it commercially advantageous to be socially progressive. Mattel has made something safe and palatable: a gender-ambiguous, body-erased, rather androgynous piece of plastic. Whatever its successes or failures, this isn’t revolutionary—this is Marketing 101. What would be revolutionary? What would actually begin to deconstruct the gender binary in toys? How about a doll marketed exclusively to boys—a doll that is designed to be nurtured, dressed, carried, and cared for? Now, that would be something.