Mattel, maker of Barbie and Ken, launches gender-neutral dolls for all kids

Mattel launches its first line of what it calls 'gender-inclusive dolls.' (Mattel)
Mattel launches its first line of what it calls 'gender-inclusive dolls.' (Mattel) 

The toy aisle is catching up to the idea that not all kids want to play within the pink and blue boundaries of gender-specific playthings.

On Wednesday, Mattel launched its first line of what it calls "gender-inclusive dolls," in which the figures in both form and fashion are not coded as stereotypically male or female. The dolls come with a kit that includes wigs with long and short hairstyles and clothing options like skirts, jeans, leggings and denim jackets.

The six dolls in Mattel's new 'Creatable World' line also come in different skin tones. Each kit retails for $30.

"We never talked to a kid who didn't flip from joy when they saw the doll," said Monica Dreger, who oversees research of new toys as Mattel's vice president of global consumer insights. The doll "was relatable and self-expressive. Kids saw an open canvas and felt they were in charge of their play."

The new line was roughly two years in the making and comes at a time when the company recognised that some people are moving toward gender neutrality. Dreger, who described her job as a "psychologist of consumers," said one particular trend was emerging among kids about two years ago.

"One of the things they pushed back on a lot was labelling. It was this big, huge force, almost like, if you're constricting them, they really pushed away," Dreger said. "When you take away the labels, it becomes for everybody."

Transgender and gender-fluid kids said they felt they could see themselves in the doll, Dreger said, while cisgender kids told researchers the doll reminded them of their friends.

More importantly, she hopes the doll put an end to a story she heard throughout the two years of research and development.

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"Some kids said birthdays and Christmas were their worst days because they didn't feel it was acceptable to ask for what they wanted," as was often the case for young boys who wanted a doll, Dreger said.

The Creatable World dolls are a bit of a departure from some of Mattel's best-known creations. The iconic Barbie doll has been criticised for idealising a narrow view of femininity and promoting unrealistic beauty standards. Even as the dolls were tweaked to be more representative of modern women (being a fashionista and an astrophysicist are no longer mutually exclusive in Barbie's world), they weren't peerlike; the most popular toys marketed to grade-school-age children are usually adults or baby dolls.

Mattel's new line of dolls, meanwhile, more closely resemble the company's pre-adolescent target market: there's no makeup, facial hair, bosoms or broad shoulders to be found. The aging down of the doll makes it easier to achieve a gender-neutral appearance, but Dreger said it was also important for kids to have a doll who they could relate to like a friend.

"It's not aspirational; it's a way they can imagine themselves," Dreger said. "A slightly cooler version of themselves."

But while few parents would object to buying a doll that wears a trendy leather jacket instead of a fairy-tale ballgown, Dreger admits not all of the adults in the 250-family research pool were as receptive as their kids were to a doll that couldn't be neatly labelled "boy" or "girl."

"Many parents saw the doll for what it was, and a lot of parents do feel there's a need for the gender-neutral toys. Where the confusion lies is before some parents saw the doll," Dreger said. She noted that Mattel drew from seven cities across the country that were a mix of progressive areas to deeply conservative ones, where there may be less visibility for gender concepts like non-binary or fluidity. "A lot of parents had a hard time and confused identity and sexuality - and felt they had to explain it to their kids."

The other sticking point was social stigma. "Parents said, 'I think this is cool and I like the idea, but what will my neighbors think?'"

Dreger said that even among the most conservative groups, the concerns ultimately dissolved when they saw the doll. Dreger recalled one mother, a hairdresser from "a pretty conservative state," who was struggling with understanding her young son's transition. Looking at the doll made her feel less alone because it signaled to her that there were other kids out there like her son.

"They wouldn't make this doll for just one person," Dreger recalled the woman saying.

Mattel is the first toy manufacturer of its size to create a line of dolls that aren't specifically gendered but gender-neutral toys, and kids products are becoming an increasingly visible part of the market targeted at young consumers (or the adults who buy for them).

In 2015, Target said its stores would end labeling toys and bedding as specifically "girl" or "boy." Two years later, Amazon removed "boys" and "girls" from its toy search categories. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). While the move to sell toys and market beyond traditional gender binaries is still growing in the United States, countries such as Sweden have had non-gendered toys and classroom setups for years.

That's not to say Mattel isn't expecting pushback; Dreger knows some people will view an intentionally gender inclusive doll as a political statement. But she sees resistance to the idea as affirmation that the company has created the right toy at the right time.

"It shows me that we're exactly where we need to be. If there was no pushback to something that right now is a hot topic means we're either not authentic, or we're too late," Dreger said. "The kids are behind it. We know we're on time for them."

The Washington Post