The Problem With Mattel’s Gender-Neutral Dolls
By conforming to a stereotype of what it means to be androgynous, Mattel’s dolls do more harm than good
Recently, Time magazine broke the “news” that Mattel will be releasing the “world’s first gender-neutral doll.” The article, which is admittedly quite well-written and well-reported for what amounts to a full-page toy advertisement, describes the features of the new dolls this way:
“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.”
I saw a couple of really well-intentioned, informed cisgender allies sharing this announcement excitedly this week. Even a few trans people said they felt validated by it. And I can kind of see why.
The world of toys, after all, is notoriously gendered and binary. Girls get soft, babylike objects to feed and care for, while boys get hard metal cars and rugged superheroes to smash together and break. And the toy world has actually gotten more gendered over time — things like Legos, which were once marketed to both boys and girls alike (in a very egalitarian way) are now divided into distinctly blue-and-pink categories.
Even if it is a craven, trendy cash-grab, it does reflect how far society has come in terms of trans and nonbinary acceptance in just a few short years.
In 2015, when Target announced they would stop separating their toy sections by gender, they were met with a conservative firestorm of outrage and mockery. Never mind the fact that now, years later, their stores still look pretty traditionally gendered, in terms of how toy types are divided up. You can take the gender label off of Hot Wheels and Shopkins, after all, but that doesn’t undo the fact that the two products were created with different consumers in mind, and were informed by very distinct gender stereotypes.
So yeah, I get it. The toy world is sexist, obsessed with binaries, and relentlessly forces tired old gender norms onto kids. We need options that don’t impose those worn-out, cissexist standards onto developing brains. And I welcome that Mattel sees a demand or a need for gender-neutral dolls. Even if it is a craven, trendy cash-grab, it does reflect how far society has come in terms of trans and nonbinary acceptance in just a few short years.
But even taking all of that into account… these dolls are not especially progressive. They’re not good nonbinary representation. They aren’t going to make the world better or safer for the vast, vast majority of transgender kids. And that’s because most of us don’t fit the idealized picture of androgyny that these products try to promote.
Gender-neutral doesn’t mean thin
The first thing that jumped out to me in the Time article was how the gender-neutral dolls were described as “slender.” It set off major alarm bells for me because I know that people often equate being androgynous with being slim, and lacking obvious secondary sex characteristics like bulky muscles or large breasts.
Even though we ought to know better, most of us still tend to treat people as though they chose the body type they have. People regularly refer to me as “femme presenting” merely because I have a large chest, despite the fact that my entire wardrobe is men’s clothing at this point, and every presentational choice I make is pretty damn masculine. People perceive my body’s features a particular way, and then they act as though their perceptions were created and projected by my body itself.
I am far from the biggest victim of this. Fat nonbinary people are erased and ignored all the damn time. If your body fat is in your chest, hips, or butt, you’re considered too “curvy” to be androgynous. If your fat is in your stomach, you’re too “masculine” to be nonbinary. Fat writers have tackled this topic far better than I’ll ever be able to, but suffice it to say: Fat nonbinary and trans people are caught in a ridiculously confining double-bind, with their bodies constantly being gendered, hypersexualized, objectified, and dehumanized all at the same time.
The thinness of these dolls also equates being gender-neutral with not having visible muscles or wide shoulders. Those features, too, are heavily gendered by society, often to the detriment of trans women and trans femme people. Very few trans people actually have the straight up-and-down, skinny bodies that people stereotype us as having.
And sure, the Mattel dolls are supposed to represent the bodies of seven-year-old kids. So, of course, we can’t expect them to have breasts, ripped muscles, or other adult bodily features. That doesn’t make the slenderness of these toys any less of a problem. Fat kids exist. Fat trans kids exist. And to use a doll’s thinness as a way to signal their androgyny is dangerous — because androgyny comes in all sizes and shapes.
Gender-neutral doesn’t mean tomboyish
Time describes the dolls as having short hair and coming equipped with clothing that is distinctly utilitarian: hoodies, sneakers, T-shirts. There is an option to equip your doll with a tutu, but that item stands out as an exception, a feminine-coded item in a pile of otherwise neutral-to-masculine attire. And while there are more clothing options on the Mattel website than the Time piece acknowledges, most of them do err on the side of the tomboyish and practical. Which does make a certain kind of sense, given that the dolls are supposed to be active, playful seven-year-olds.
The problem with all of this is that it generally equates gender neutrality with moving away from the feminine and toward the masculine or tomboyish — the built-in assumption is that most nonbinary or gender-neutral people were assigned female at birth (afab), and are walking away from that assignment and its associated norms.
Some of the most prevalent nonbinary characters in media are tomboyish or masculine people who were assigned female at birth. Asia Kate Dillon’s character on the show Billions is a menswear-adorned, afab nonbinary person with a shaved head. Nearly all of the nonbinary Crystal Gems on the show Stephen Universe have female voice actors and female-coded body types, and wear practical, battle-ready clothing. And while all the divine beings in Good Omens are technically genderless, the only one that actually uses they/them pronouns is Pollution, a thin, angularly faced afab person in slightly masculine attire.
There’s a reason why society’s portrait of androgyny is of slightly masculine people who were originally labeled as “female” by society. People like that — people like me — are far less threatening or confusing to cis folks than other trans people are. It makes sense to most people why a “woman” might want to wear men’s clothing and be seen as something like a man. Being a man is desirable. It’s practical. Being feminine is seen as frivolous, false, and unpleasant.
Lots of people with stereotypically gendered features have nonbinary identities, and their appearance doesn’t negate that one iota.
So while these dolls are meant to look genderless, they project a version of genderless-ness that is made to appeal to afab kids, whose nonbinary-ness often manifests in masculine or tomboyish looks. That erases a huge swath of the nonbinary and trans population, however. For many trans kids who were assigned male at birth (amab), moving toward a more gender-neutral or affirming style means wearing makeup, owning tons of skirts, and growing out one’s hair instead of chopping it off.
Ignoring that fact is not a small thing. Trans women and trans femme people are regularly subjected to violence, they are policed for how they express their genders, and are seen as predatory or suspect. An afab kid can get away with wearing whatever men’s clothing they want, but if an amab kid puts on a dress, they’re likely to get beaten up or harassed. It’s not helpful for Mattel to continue the trend of celebrating only the palatable, boyish flavor of gender neutrality — in fact, it promotes stereotypes that can actively make trans women less safe.
Gender-neutral doesn’t mean soft-featured and elflike
The facial features of these dolls are also a problem. Time describes the dolls as having eyelashes that aren’t too long, lips that aren’t too full, and jaws that aren’t too wide. The toys are moderate-featured little elves, pretty but not too pretty, with no large, striking features that betray a particular gender assignment.
The first problem with this is a problem I’ve already outlined in the above sections: it assumes that a particular set of features is inherently more neutral. In reality, we don’t get to select the length of our eyelashes or the largeness of our jaws, so those features don’t tell people a thing about how a person identifies.
You can have a “large” jaw and a completely feminine identity. You can have the longest eyelashes in the world and be a total man’s man. Lots of people with stereotypically gendered features have nonbinary identities, and their appearance doesn’t negate that one iota. My pretty, bright eyes are nonbinary eyes because they are a part of my nonbinary body. They don’t detract from who I am, they’re a core part of it because they’re a core part of me.
Another problem with Mattel’s choice of features is how transmisogynistic it is. Trans femme people often have physical features that signal they went through testosterone-based puberty: “wide” jaws or necks, brow ridges, and the like are common, though certainly not universal. These types of facial features are stereotyped as being very masculine by society, but the truth is, they’re a natural consequence of life for a huge portion of the population, and therefore ought to be treated as generic and neutral.
People often point to these features as a way to judge and undermine trans femme people, or even to claim that they are “scary” or dangerous. And as long as our mainstream portrait of androgyny remains the soft-featured, elflike tomboy, this will continue to be the case.
Finally, associating moderate/soft features with androgyny is a problem because it is racist. What types of people have small foreheads, narrowish jaws, relatively little body or facial hair, and lips that aren’t “too full”? White people. White afab people, to be exact. In so many ways, our commonly accepted social portrait of gender neutrality is just a rehashing of norms of white, female beauty — the ideal nonbinary person is expected to be a stereotypically pretty, lithe, thin, light-skinned white person, with relatively little body hair, no facial hair, and features that are narrow and European.
The truth is, anybody can be gender neutral. Nonbinary identity can come with any type of body or face.
Lots of people are harmed by this idea. Cis women of color often have features that are maligned or seen as masculine according to European beauty standards, because our popular conception of “womanhood” is really only the womanhood of colonizers. Trans femme people, especially trans women of color, are subjected to a great deal of violence and alienation because they’re seen as deviating too far from the white female ideal. And fat people, disabled people, and people with conditions such as PCOS also have their identities undermined by stereotypes like this.
All bodies and faces can be gender-neutral
I know that Mattel isn’t maliciously setting out to harm trans women, fat people, and people of color with the creation of these dolls. They’re merely regurgitating a very commonly held set of stereotypes about what being gender-neutral looks like. But by thoughtlessly reinforcing those same tired old norms, they’re perpetuating a lot of damage nonetheless.
The truth is, anybody can be gender-neutral. Nonbinary identity can come with any type of body or face. Barbie, with her large chest and narrow waist, can just as easily be nonbinary as one of these slim, short-haired dolls. A wide-shouldered Ken doll with beard stubble and pectoral muscles can be a perfect portrait of gender neutrality too. We don’t need to create dolls that are scrubbed of all gendered features. Instead, we need to stop gendering features that people don’t have control over.
If we really want to accurately represent trans folks, in all their diversity and variation, we need to have toys that are fat, and curvy, and muscular, and hairy, with deep-set or strong facial features. We need trans dolls that wear dresses, makeup, and high heels, as well as camo pants and sweatshirts. We need to prioritize representing trans feminine people, and work to make it safe for amab kids to grow out their hair or use the girl’s restroom. And we need to do away with the notion that gender neutrality is a thing that can be easily seen. Sadly, these toys do the exact opposite.