Mattel’s ‘Gender Neutral’ Doll: On the Cynicism of Cheap Gestures towards Change



No, the definition of ‘gender neutral’ is not ‘a short haired woman’.

The American toy company Mattel has just launched a new product, a so-called ‘gender neutral’ doll. I am sufficiently irritated by this news that, instead of making worthy and sensible corrections to my book, I’m writing this post.

Why so? You might imagine this is a praiseworthy initiative, and certainly there are reasons why it could, potentially, be so. Dolls are, overwhelmingly, coded as ‘girls’ toys,’ and we know that restricting certain kinds of toys to one or other gender can be damaging and limiting. Yet, there’s still a stereotype that boys who play with dolls will become ‘girly’ or – worse! – gay. A recent meme, pointing out that little boys playing with dolls might be preparing to be caring fathers, dedicated teachers and nursery workers, and expert paediatricians, sums up the problem. Perhaps if more toddler boys got to play with dolls, we’d have less toxic masculinity in the world?

The idea of the ‘non binary’ doll also – and this is its explicit purpose – promises good things in terms of communicating to children that the visible proof that, if they feel as if binary gender roles exclude them, they are not alone. Yet, here the problem lies.

The press release in Time describes, in starstruck tones, the benefits of this revolutionary doll for a crowd of young would-be buyers aged 7 and 8. Approvingly, it describes how these young children use the doll to reflect either themselves or their younger siblings (as children often do). This role play works so well, gushes the author of this piece, because:

The doll can be a boy, a girl, neither or both … 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. 

Let’s pause and read that last bit again, shall we? Here is a doll that is marketed as being gender neutral, and suited to all children, because it betrays ‘no obvious gender’. This doll, which children are encouraged to use to represent themselves and their prepubescent siblings, has ‘lips … not too full … eyelashes … not too long and fluttery … jaw … not too wide’. It has no breasts or broad shoulders.

I had two, intimately related, issues with this. Firstly, the more prominent placing of stereotypically feminine attributes (enlarged lips and eyelashes) and the greater emphasis on feminine bodily parts implies that femininity is the primary site of artificial constructions of gender. That is: the doll is claimed as ‘gender neutral’ because its feminine vanities of lipgloss and mascara have been stripped away, and the nastily censorious phase ‘too much’ is mobilized to imply there’s something inherently wrong about a doll (or a woman) whose body is ‘too much’. More, too, the phrase conflates gendered attributes that are simply a matter of anatomy – broad shoulders, or breasts – with attributes that are not biological at all, but conditioned. ‘Fluttery’ eyelashes are no more natural to women than men; yet here they stand alongside square jaws as if they were immutable evidence.

This is all bad enough, but what concerns me more is the second issue. The characteristics singled out here are all unique to adulthood, and several of them are associated with adult sexuality. Forensic archaeology acknowledges that it is virtually impossible to tell the sex of a prepubescent subject, without DNA testing or genital remains. There is absolutely no reason why a child who is looking to play with a gender neutral doll needs to see a doll lacking in (adult, stereotyped, patriarchally-conditioned) sexual characteristics. That child already exists in a world of gender neutral bodies, which the majority of us call childhood. The only visible exception to this gender neutrality, for prepubescent children, are the external genitalia … which, famously and enduringly, have from time immemorial been quietly excluded from children’s dolls. Ken has no male parts. Barbie is smooth as a bean.

So is this new doll somehow more obviously gender-neutral? Does it somehow manage to surpass nature (which has already constructed 7 year olds to be remarkably free of the trappings and restrictions of the gender binary, if only we’d let them be)? The quick answer is no. The dolls against which Mattel’s ‘Gender Neutral’ toy defines itself are those sexualised figures – symbols of a brand of capitalist gender enforcement against which feminism frequently defines itself – of Barbie and Ken. As is often stated, Barbie’s teetering high-heel-deformed feet struggle to balance without a stiletto; her implausible bodily measurements leave her struggling to resit the gravitational pull of her enormous mammaries.

Yet, Barbie – sexualised as she is – is sexualised in a particularly prudish, non-sexual way. She has breasts, sure, but no nipples; her partner Ken is reciprocally ill-equipped, with only a smooth plastic landing-strip between his muscular thighs. As if in a darkly humorous nod to these sexual absences, both figures typically lack belly buttons, those most innocent physical signs of human gestation and linkage to a maternal body. To make up for this lack of primary sexual characteristics, Barbie features an abundance of qualities stereotypically – and misogynistically associated with femininity, from her long white-blonde hair to her spiky eyelashes and wide, child-like eyes, tiny facial features and delicate long limbs.

Mattel’s doll – to enormous publicist fanfare – loses a few of these tropes. It does not have the porn-fantasy Barbie body with its exaggerated waist-hip ratio; it does not possess the sculpted abs of the Ken doll. Much is made of the fact that this doll is available with multiple wigs (like, erm, dolls for literally hundreds of years) and that its skin colour need not be restricted to Aryan Pale. Lego has long made dolls with interchangeable accessories, including physical parts such as long hair or mustachioed faces. There is, then, nothing new to a doll that can be made to play different gender-stereotyped roles. One might hope Mattel’s doll would offer something truly new, truly freeing for children seeking to escape a world of binary gender stereotypes and the limitations those stereotypes convey. But Mattel’s doll remains sexualised and – despite the possibility of brown skin – racialised. The unvaryingly wide, almond-shaped eyes with their long, mascara-ed lashes, suggest all the popular caricatures of femininity, and of a femininity that has no space for epicanthic folds. Such eyes, enlarged in relation to the face in which they belong, pointed at a corner, and framed with long spiky lashes, are one of the most basic and reliable symbols of femininity in books aimed at infants and toddlers. Though the doll appears to wear mascara and (despite the lack of comedy boobs) does not have the bodily proportions common to prepubescent children, there are no signs of adult masculinity, such as stubble. The most ‘masculine’ of the many available hairstyles (dominated, you’ll be shocked to learn, by long, flowing locks) is a blonde quiff, which my partner characterised as ‘lesbian 101′.

I love the idea of toys that support children to keep on thinking imaginatively and creatively, to stay away from adults’ restrictive stereotypes for as long as possible. I don’t love the idea of cynically jumping on a bandwagon for sales purposes, especially when that act leads to absolutely no introspection or change of pre-existing stereotypes whatsoever.