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‘A Doll For Everyone’: Meet Mattel’s Gender-Neutral Doll

19 minute read

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.

But the Creatable World doll is something else entirely. Unlike model airplanes or volcano kits, dolls have faces like ours, upon which we can project our own self-image and anxieties. Mattel tested the doll with 250 families across seven states, including 15 children who identify as trans, gender-nonbinary or gender-fluid and rarely see themselves reflected in the media, let alone their playthings. “There were a couple of gender-creative kids who told us that they dreaded Christmas Day because they knew whatever they got under the Christmas tree, it wasn’t made for them,” says Monica Dreger, head of consumer insights at Mattel. “This is the first doll that you can find under the tree and see is for them because it can be for anyone.”

The population of young people who identify as gender-nonbinary is growing. Though no large surveys have been done of kids younger than 10, a recent study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 27% of California teens identify as gender-nonconforming. And a 2018 Pew study found 35% of Gen Z-ers (born 1995 to 2015) say they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like they and them, compared with just 16% of Gen X-ers (born 1965 to 1980). The patterns are projected to continue with Generation Alpha, born in 2010 and later. Those kids, along with boys who want to play with dolls and girls who identify as “tomboys” and don’t gravitate toward fashion doll play, are an untapped demographic. Mattel currently has 19% market share in the $8 billion doll industry; gaining just 1 more point could translate into $80 million in revenue for the company.

Mattel sees an even broader potential for Creatable World beyond gender-creative kids. In testing, the company found that Generation Alpha children chafed at labels and mandates no matter their gender identity: They didn’t want to be told whom a toy was designed for or how to play with it. They were delighted with a doll that had no name and could transform and adapt according to their whims.

Shi’a, left, and Jhase play with Mattel’s gender-neutral dollPhotograph by Angie Smith for TIME.

But it’s parents who are making the purchasing decisions, and no adult is going to have a neutral reaction to this doll. In testing groups, several parents felt the “gender-neutral” branding of the toy pushed a political agenda, and some adults objected to the notion of their sons ever playing with dolls. Mattel’s President Richard Dickson insists the doll isn’t intended as a statement. “We’re not in the business of politics,” he says, “and we respect the decision any parent makes around how they raise their kids. Our job is to stimulate imaginations. Our toys are ultimately canvases for cultural conversation, but it’s your conversation, not ours; your opinion, not ours.”

Yet even offering customers that blank canvas will be seen as political in a country where gender-neutral bathrooms still stir protests. Mattel joins a cohort of other companies that have chosen a side in a divisive political climate. Just in the past two years, Nike launched a campaign starring Colin Kaepernick after the NFL dropped him from the league for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism. Airbnb offered free housing to people displaced in the face of President Trump’s travel ban. Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault-style weapons after the Parkland shooting. All these companies have reported eventual sales bumps after staking their claim in the culture wars.

When pressed with these examples, Dickson admits that staying neutral is not an option if you want to be perceived as an innovator. “I think being a company today, you have to have a combination of social justice along with commerce, and that balance can be tricky,” Dickson says. “Not everyone will appreciate you or agree with you.”

In fact, dissent among boomers, Gen X-ers and even millennials may be a positive sign, according to Mattel’s own researchers. “If all the parents who saw the dolls said, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for,’ we wouldn’t be doing our jobs,” says Dreger. “That would mean this should have already been in the market. So we’re maybe a little behind where kids are, ahead of where parents are, and that’s exactly where we need to be.”

Walking into Mattel’s headquarters, it’s difficult to imagine a gender-neutral world of play. A huge mural depicts some of the company’s most recognizable toys. A classic bouffanted version of Barbie in a black-and-white bathing suit and heels squints down at visitors. In another picture close by, a little boy puffs out his chest and rips open his shirt, Superman style, to reveal a red Mattel logo that reads “Strength and Excellence.” Even a toddler would be able to discern the messaging on how a woman and a man are expected to look from these images.

But the evolution within Mattel is obvious once visitors make their way past the entryway and into the designers’ cubicles. Inspiration boards are covered with pictures of boys in skirts and girls in athletic gear. The most striking images are mashups of popular teen stars: the features of Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse, who play Veronica and Jughead on Riverdale, combine to create one androgynous face, and Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard, who play the main characters on Stranger Things, blend into a single floppy-haired, genderless person with sharp cheekbones.

In the past decade, toy companies have begun to tear down gender barriers. Smaller businesses like GoldieBlox, which launched in 2012 and builds engineering toys targeting girls, and large companies like Lego, which created the female-focused Lego Friends line the same year, have made STEM toys for girls more mainstream. Small independent toymakers have pushed things further with dollhouses painted green and yellow instead of purple and pink, or cooking kits that are entirely white instead of decorated with flowers or butterflies.

Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that nobody has beaten Mattel to creating a gender-neutral doll. A deep Google search for such a toy turns up baby dolls or strange-looking plush creatures that don’t resemble any human who ever walked this earth. Nothing comes close to the Creatable World doll that Mattel has conjured up over the past two years.

Scientists have debunked the idea that boys are simply born wanting to play with trucks and girls wanting to nurture dolls. A study by psychologists Lisa Dinella and Erica Weisgram, co-editors of Gender Typing of Children’s Toys: How Early Play Experiences Impact Development, found that when wheeled toys were painted white — and thus deprived of all color signaling whether they were “boys’ toys” or “girls’ toys” — girls and boys chose to play with the wheeled toys equally often. Dinella points out that removing gendered cues from toys facilitates play between boys and girls, crucial practice for when men and women must interact in the workplace and home as adults. She adds that millennials (born 1981 to 1996) have pushed to share child-care responsibilities, and that battle ought to begin in the playroom. “If boys, like girls, are encouraged to learn parental skills with doll play at a young age, you wind up with more nurturing and empathetic fathers,” she says.

And yet creating a doll to appeal to all kids, regardless of gender, remains risky. “There are children who are willing to cross those gender boundaries that society places on toys, but there’s often a cost that comes with crossing those boundaries,” Dinella says. “That cost seems to be bigger for boys than it is for girls.” Some of those social repercussions no doubt can be traced to parental attitudes. In Los Angeles, the majority of the seven parents in an early testing group for Creatable World complained the doll “feels political,” as one mom put it.

“I don’t think my son should be playing with dolls,” she continued. “There’s a difference between a girl with a truck and a boy with a Barbie, and a boy with a Barbie is a no-no.”

The only dad in the group shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “My daughter is friends with a boy who wears dresses. I used to be against that type of thing, but now I’m O.K. with it.”

In videos of those testing groups, many parents fumbled with the language to describe the dolls, confusing gender (how a person identifies) with sexuality (whom a person is attracted to), mixing up gender-neutral (without gender) and trans (a person who has transitioned from one gender to another) and fretting about the mere idea of a boy playing with a doll. A second mom in Los Angeles asked before seeing the doll, “Is it transgender? How am I supposed to have a conversation with my kid about that?” After examining the toy and discussing gender-fluidity with the other parents, she declared, “It’s just too much. Can’t we go back to 1970?”

After the session, Dreger analyzed the parental response. “Adults get so tied up in the descriptions and definitions,” she said. “They jump to this idea of sexuality. They make themselves more anxious about it. For kids it’s much more intuitive.”

Why, exactly, a new generation is rejecting categorizations that society has been using for millennia is up for debate. Eighty-one percent of Gen Z-ers believe that a person shouldn’t be defined by gender, according to a poll by the J. Walter Thompson marketing group. But it’s not just about gender — it’s about authenticity, whether real or perceived. Macho male actors and glam, ultra-feminine actresses have less cultural cachet than they used to. Gen Z, with its well-honed radar for anything overly polished or fake-seeming, prefers YouTube confessionals about battling everything from zits to depression. When the New York Times recently asked Generation Z to pick a name for itself, the most-liked response was “Don’t call us anything.”

Perhaps their ideas of gender have expanded under the influence of parents who are beginning to reject practices like gender-reveal parties that box kids in even before they are born. Jenna Karvunidis, who popularized the gender-reveal party, recently revealed on Facebook that her now 10-year-old child is gender-nonconforming and that she regrets holding the party. “She’s telling me, ‘Mom, there are many genders. Mom, there’s many different sexualities and all different types,’ and I take her lead on that,” Karvunidis said in an interview with NPR.

Perhaps it’s that a generation of kids raised on video games where they could create their own avatars, with whatever styling and gender they please, has helped open up the way kids think about identity. Perhaps the simple fact that more celebrities like Amandla Stenberg and Sam Smith are coming out as gender-nonbinary has made it easier for other young people to do the same. Generation Alpha, the most diverse generation in America in all senses of the term, is likely to grow up with even more liberal views on gender.

“This is a rallying cry of this generation,” says Jess Weiner, a cultural consultant for large companies looking to tap into modern-day markets and navigate issues of gender. “Companies in this day and age have to evolve or else they die, they go away … And part of that evolving is trying to understand things they didn’t prior.”

Mattel, which calls this the world’s first gender-neutral doll, is hoping its launch redefines who gets to play with a toy traditionally deemed taboo for half the world’s kids.Photograph by JUCO for TIME

Mattel isn’t the first company to notice the trend of young shoppers moving away from gender-specific products. Rob Smith—the founder of the Phluid Project, a gender-free clothing store that caters to the LGBTQ+ community in New York City—says several large corporations, including Mattel, have approached him for advice on how to market to the young masses. “I work with a lot of companies who are figuring out that the separation between male and female is less important to young consumers who don’t want to be boxed into anything,” he says. “There’s men’s shampoo and women’s shampoo, but it’s just all shampoo. Companies are starting to investigate that in-between space in order to win over Gen Z.”

Still, Mattel enters a politically charged debate at a precarious moment for corporations in America, where companies that want to gain customer loyalty are being pushed to one aisle or the other. A study from the PR agency Weber Shandwick found 47% of millennials think CEOs should take stances on social issues. Some 51% of millennials surveyed said they are more likely to buy products from companies run by activist CEOs. Now, if you walk into a Patagonia store, you’ll see a sign that reads, “The President stole your land. Take action now.”

Such activism is often born of self-interest: companies want to appeal to liberal customers and retain young employees and their allies. They face little risk by speaking up but major consequences by sitting on the sidelines. In August, customers boycotted Equinox and SoulCycle—two companies that have aggressively courted the LGBTQ+ community—when reports emerged that their key investor was holding a fundraiser for Trump with ticket prices as high as $250,000. According to data analyses by Second Measure, in August, customer purchases were down almost 13% compared to a month earlier.

Weiner says SoulCycle’s experience should serve as a cautionary tale. “I think businesses of any size now recognize that their consumer base values transparency over any other attribute. They want to know that your board is reflective of your choices, and that’s caught a lot of businesses off-guard,” Weiner says. “You can’t talk about gender equity in your commercial and then have no women on your board. They have to be savvy.”

Now, a toy company has chosen to make a product specifically to appeal to the progressive part of the country. Lisa McKnight, the senior vice president of the global doll portfolio at Mattel, says major retailers have been enthusiastic about Creatable World. “They’re excited about the message of inclusivity,” she says. “The world is becoming a more diverse and inclusive place, and some people want to do more to support that.” When pressed on the risks, she lays out the alternative. “Candidly, we ask ourselves if another company were to launch a product line like this, how would we feel? And after that gut check, we are proceeding.”

The dolls faces betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide. Here, the dolls faces are painted at Mattel's headquarters on September 5.Photograph by Angie Smith for TIME

Mattel will launch Creatable World exclusively online first, in part to better control the message. That includes giving sneak previews to select influencers and leaders in the LGBTQ+ community. Selling the doll in retail stores will be more complicated. For one thing, there’s the question of where to place it in stores to attract the attention of shoppers who might not venture into a doll section. Store clerks will have to be trained in what pronouns to use when talking about the doll and how to handle anxious parents’ questions about it. And then there are practical concerns. Dickson admits the company is ready for the possibility that protests against Creatable World dolls could hurt other Mattel brands, namely Barbie.

Mattel has taken risks before. Most recently, in 2016, it added three new body types to the Barbie doll: tall, petite and, most radically, curvy. It was the first time the company had made a major change to one of the most recognizable brands—and bodies—in the world in the doll’s almost-60-year history. The change helped propel Barbie from a retrograde doll lambasted by feminists for her impossible shape to a modern toy. She is now on the rise. Her sales have been up for the past eight quarters, and she saw a 14% sales bump in the past year alone, according to Mattel.

But Mattel felt late to the game when it changed Barbie’s body: For years the Mindy Kalings and Ashley Grahams of the world had been championing fuller body types. Parents had been demanding change with boycotts and letter campaigns. By contrast, Creatable World feels like uncharted territory. Consider children’s media: Disney hasn’t introduced a major gay character in any of its movies, let alone a gender-nonconforming one. There are no trans superheroes on the big screen. Even characters whose creators say they are queer—like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series—haven’t actually come out on the page or the screen. In that pop-culture space, a gender-neutral doll seems radical.

Even though there is no scientific evidence to prove that this is the case, there will be customers who say that even exposing their children to a gender-nonbinary doll through commercials or in a play group would threaten to change their child’s identity. This debate will spin out into sociopolitical questions about whether the types of toys children play with affect their sense of identity and gender.

That conversation, if it comes, is worth it, according to Dickson. “I think if we could have a hand in creating the idea that a boy can play with a perceived girl toy and a girl can play with a perceived boy toy, we would have contributed to a better, more sensitive place of perception in the world today,” he says. “And even more so for the kids that find themselves in that challenging place, if we can make that moment in their life a bit more comfortable, and knowing we created something that makes them feel recognized, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Correction, Oct. 2

The original version of this story misstated the SoulCycle metric tracked by Second Measure. It is customer purchases, not attendance.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com and Diane Tsai at diane.tsai@time.com