I’ll admit this straight up. I had mixed feelings when I sat down to pen a piece on Mattel’s new “gender neutral doll”. I don’t believe we need to feed the narrative of blonde hair, blue eyes, impossible waist and permanently stilettoed feet, but isn’t it alright if a little girl (or boy) wants a doll to have long hair and wear a dress or conversely have short hair and wear a superhero outfit?
So no Barbie breasts, no wide Ken shoulders, this particular doll is a sleek androgynous figure that dresses in uber cool street hip clothes and handily packs along with it, a wig and a tutu.
I think this is where my discomfort stems from; Mattel says, that it hopes, with the launch of this gender- neutral doll, it gets to redefine a toy that has traditionally been marked as taboo for half of the world’s kids.
Interesting. So it’s not okay for little boys to play with a doll that looks distinctly female in form and shape?
But let’s flip the argument. What makes any of us feel safe, accepted? Right off the bat, sameness. A sign that what you’re looking at, is looking back at you with a common thread. So, the new girl at school may find comfort in spotting someone with the same water bottle. The little boy may find a friend and comrade in a fellow fan of The Incredible Hulk.
Seeking Sameness and Comfort
Perhaps then, it is that which our children (and we) seek. The comfort that there are others who look, sound, speak like me. And that I am loved for it.
For instance, my daughter and her hair have been the source of unending streams of advice for me; “How did you let her hair get so curly?”, “Haven’t you tried taking it all off?”, “She must feel so awkward about the way she looks.”
Actually, she feels none of that. Her little self-portraits involve several squiggly lines depicting her capricious curls. And her favourite doll has a bright smile, a yellow backpack and a curly mop. Much like her.
I think I feel more convinced about this gender-neutral doll now, when I think of a little boy or girl who’s standing in a toy store that’s split down the middle in pink and blue, and is trying to find something that reminds them of, well, them.
Research also shows that playing with dolls helps children build on social skills, responsibility, imagination, language, empathy & compassion.
My son and daughter often play “parents” to the several babies they own, rushing the battery operated wailing infant from one set of arms to another, trying their best to calm their little plastic bundle.
And that, to my mind is the bigger point about dolls, gender-neutral or otherwise.
Let’s Let Our Little Boys and Girls Play With Dolls
All and any kind. Let’s help them build ideas that are larger than physical form – ideas of kindness, stories of adventure and learning, the innocent joy of playing “mum” or “dad” to someone and caring and tending to them.
More than the doll they choose to pick, let’s make it gender neutral in our minds.
Your son is not odd because he’d rather not play a sport and your daughter is no different from other little girls because all she wants to do is play a sport.
Shapes and forms of dolls may come and go. Let’s make it okay for our kids to feel loved and accepted just the way they are.
Perhaps then, in this flawed, broken but essential community we all live in, it is a doll that will teach our children the idea that there is no one shape, colour or context that defines any of us.
And to Mattel’s gender neutral doll, I quote the incomparable Dr Seuss, “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”
(Mitali Mukherjee is a business journalist with close to 20 years experience in the TV & digital industry. She also as a Masters in Management of Learning Disabilities. She loves reading, theatre and working with children)