Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
A toy may not seem like a big deal and certainly isn’t an object we usually expect to save lives, but to a child, a favorite truck or doll can appear larger than life. A toy can spark play that reflects a child’s hopes and dreams, or fears and uncertainties. The representation of that toy – whether it reflects their skin color, gender expression, or body shape or size, whether it matches the child’s sense of self – can go a long way in making them feel like they fit in.
The historic lack of diversity in Barbie dolls specifically when it comes to gender representation, was one of the first touchpoints in my life that made me feel like I was different, somehow manufactured wrong. That’s why Wednesday’s news that Mattel is releasing a line of gender-neutral dolls is so profoundly important.
Mattel announced it is releasing a line of dolls with a kit offering both feminine and masculine-presenting options for clothes, accessories and hairstyles so that kids can mix and match and create a diversity of representations of gender expression. Through their own play, they can make a doll that best reflects who they are or who they’d like to see.
“Some options are more feminine-presenting, while others are more masculine-presenting, which allows kids to combine the elements anyway they want to,” said Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel Fashion Doll Design.
In a world where gender sparks fierce debate, this move is an extra big deal. Mattel’s push for inclusivity in their dolls will go a long way in making tomorrow’s adults feel more secure in who they are.
I should know. I grew up feeling like there wasn’t a place for me because of my gender expression.
I am and have always been a bona fide tomboy. As a kid, I refused to wear dresses or skirts unless I had to (which I did only begrudgingly and usually in tears), and much preferred loose-fitting boys clothes and neutral or dark colors. I played softball and street hockey and felt awkward doing traditionally feminine activities like aerobics or ballet.
But I knew I was still a girl, and I always liked dolls, Barbies in particular. I loved to play parent and teacher and make my dolls follow my command, whether they were pupils in my pretend classroom or a family in their home, gathering around the dinner table or hanging out with friends. Only, I always felt like something was off. Barbie’s dresses were too frilly, her heels too high. Why didn’t she have jeans and sneakers? Why did her accessories include a purse and not a baseball glove?
I was a girl who liked to get messy and play sports. I liked to be in charge and didn’t feel intimidated by boys with louder voices or bigger muscles. Why didn’t my dolls reflect the type of girl I knew myself to be?
Most of us promote male and female gender norms without even realizing it. We do it when we dress our children, when we choose what toys to buy them (or what toys we allow them to play with that others purchase for them).
My friends and family reinforced those binary gender norms, however well-intentioned. They bought me pink dresses and sparkly skirts for my Barbies, but I often stuffed them away and instead dressed my Barbies in Ken’s clothes. I put Barbie in scenarios that were typically reserved for Ken in Mattel’s commercials and in the games I saw my female friends playing – Barbie on a motorcycle; Barbie at the head of the dinner table; Barbie with a briefcase and a men’s suit going to the office.
My school also reinforced the limiting gender categories. Girls and boys lined up separately, used separate bathrooms, had separate gym time in separate spaces, had different dress codes. Everywhere I went as a child, I was reminded that I wasn’t who everyone wanted me to be. It stung. Still, I’m lucky. I made it to adulthood. We know how dangerous it is to force our children to be someone they’re not. Bullying, depression and other wellness issues can arise when we force a child to conform to a standard that doesn’t match who they are.
It is more nuanced than being transgender or being gay or lesbian or lumping someone into a larger identity bucket. There are thousands of moments and forms of expression in our lives that ask us to align ourselves with gender norms. And there are thousands of variations in how we connect with our gendered self. The two – who we are and who we are expected to be – don’t always line up.
You can be a black girl who loves to wear traditional boys’ clothes; or a straight Chinese boy who loves to wear heels and dresses; or a Jewish transgender woman who wears boys’ clothes on Tuesdays and girls’ clothes on Wednesdays. The point is, it shouldn’t matter. We are all human, and we all want roughly the same things – security for our families, hope for future opportunities, the freedom to be our authentic selves.
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It is only when we realize that there is nothing scary about the beautiful expression of our own gender in all its infinite possibilities that we will see the full spectrum of human lives and experiences emerge. And for a lot of us, that starts in our toy box.