'A child opens a box. He starts jumping and screaming with joy—not an unusual sound in the halls of Mattel’s headquarters where researchers test new toys. But this particular toy is a doll, and it’s rare for parents to bring boys into these research groups to play with dolls. It’s rarer still for a boy to immediately attach himself to one the way Shi’a just did.
An 8-year-old who considers himself gender fluid and whose favorite color is black one week, pink the next, Shi’a sometimes plays with his younger sister’s dolls at home, but they’re “girly, princess stuff,” he says dismissively. This doll, with its prepubescent body and childish features, looks more like him, right down to the wave of bleached blond bangs. “The hair is just like mine,” Shi’a says, swinging his head in tandem with the doll’s. Then he turns to the playmate in the toy-testing room, a 7-year-old girl named Jhase, and asks, “Should I put on the girl hair?” Shi’a fits a long, blond wig on the doll’s head, and suddenly it is no longer an avatar for him but for his sister.
The doll can be a boy, a girl, neither or both, and Mattel, which calls this the world’s first gender-neutral doll, is hoping its launch on Sept. 25 redefines who gets to play with a toy traditionally deemed taboo for half the world’s kids. Carefully manicured features betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide. There are no Barbie-like breasts or broad, Ken-like shoulders. Each doll in the Creatable World series looks like a slender 7-year-old with short hair, but each comes with a wig of long, lustrous locks and a wardrobe befitting any fashion-conscious kid: hoodies, sneakers, graphic T-shirts in soothing greens and yellows, along with tutus and camo pants.
Mattel’s first promotional spot for the $29.99 product features a series of kids who go by various pronouns—him, her, them, xem—and the slogan “A doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in.” With this overt nod to trans and nonbinary identities, the company is betting on where it thinks the country is going, even if it means alienating a substantial portion of the population. A Pew Research survey conducted in 2017 showed that while 76% of the public supports parents’ steering girls to toys and activities traditionally associated with boys, only 64% endorse steering boys toward toys and activities associated with girls.
For years, millennial parents have pushed back against “pink aisles” and “blue aisles” in toy stores in favor of gender-neutral sections, often in the name of exposing girls to the building blocks and chemistry kits that foster interest in science and math but are usually categorized as boys’ toys. Major toy sellers have listened, thanks to the millennial generation’s unrivaled size, trend-setting ability and buying power. Target eliminated gender-specific sections in 2015. The same year, Disney banished “boys” and “girls” labels from its children’s costumes, inviting girls to dress as Captain America and boys as Belle. Last year, Mattel did away with “boys” and “girls” toy divisions in favor of nongendered sections: dolls or cars, for instance.'
Read more: 'A Doll For Everyone': Meet Mattel's Gender-Neutral Doll
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