Mattel has launched a sexless doll, who has a malleable gender identity, based entirely on accessories. Boys and girls are haircuts and outfits, with bodies that have nothing to do with who they are on the inside or the outside. The plastic shell of the Creatable World dolls allow kids to “create characters that are awesomely you,” but in doing so it reinforces this absurd idea that bodies are irrelevant and identity is all about the “lewks.” That’s what avatars are for.
Mattel’s popular Barbie dolls presented girls with unrealistic beauty standards. Permanently pitched on tippy-toes, ass length hair, proportions of bust, waist, and hips that are only obtainable through plastic surgery, Barbie gave us girls something to aspire to that we absolutely could not become.
Over the years, Mattel opened up the brand to give dolls of different skin tones, hair colours, and ages, but the fantasy depiction of adult female body type remained. Until now. The launch of the new completely unrealistic doll—a sexless one, whose gender can be swapped using costumes of wig and clothes—has new implications for body expectations.
The advertisement advocates for the Creatable World dolls, says “create characters that are awesomely you.” And you can. The dolls come with a long-haired wig, skirts, boots, sneakers, and shorts. They have no visible sex characteristics, and as reported in Time, “Mattel’s first promotional spot for the $29.99 product features a series of kids who go by various pronouns—him, her, them, xem, xir—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.”
The problem is that, in denying the doll a biological sex but saying that it is inclusive of everyone, Mattel proclaims that children are their labels, their outsides, their clothes, and their appearance. This is not inclusive of those kids who are far more interested in their internal rather than external characteristics.
No child is born without a biological sex. When we give them the idea that they can swap sex, we deny the reality of their bodies. Should the kids believe a doll or their own anatomy? The faces are neither male nor female, the bodies exhibit characteristics of a base human form, as though sex is something that is layered over top of bodies, when in fact they are intrinsic to all persons.
The dolls are for sure a fantasy, as all playthings are, but they aren’t being touted that way. Instead, Mattel is launching the dolls as an accompaniment to kids’ personal identities. This was something for which they came under fire with the Barbie series, against which the company created a series of career Barbies. Those came with accessories that accompany the careers the Barbies were shown to have.
Farm Vet Barbie came with a lamb, Doctor Barbie had a stethoscope around her neck, Rock Star Barbie had a mic fitted to her little hand, Scientist Barbie wore a lab coat. Barbies came in careers like architect, astronaut, game developer, and paleontologist, among so many others. Now boys and girls have a new toy to help them aspire to be gender fluid. Dolls should not give us bodies to aspire to. In fact, we should not aspire to bodies, we should get comfortable with the ones we have.
Barbies and other action figures are ripe for imaginary play, and part of what that’s about is imagining stories about what men and women do as adults. Lots of that imaginary play is about sex, also. When I was a tween, I played Barbies with my friend Julie who lived down the hall. She had the Barbie Dream House and we put it on a dolly so we could pull it between our apartments. We had at least a dozen Barbies between us, and in an effort to be inclusive and include them all in the story, we made a whorehouse, a brothel, as her brother called it.
We set up the Italian Barbie whose legs were tied on with gold string since the freak accident with the vacuum cleaner, and the rest were the girls. Our few Kens with their plastic-moulded undies were the regulars, and her brother’s wrestling guys, Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, filled out the clientele. We lamented that these dolls weren’t anatomical. We wanted to fit them together properly. If Mattel truly wanted to be inclusive, they’d give us dolls with all the features so kids could really get to know bodies, not just appearances, without shame.
Instead, Mattel encourages kids to aspire to being sexless but costumed. These gender-free doll bodies are the answer to all the wrong questions. There’s no reason any kid should aspire to be their dolls. We don’t need to train kids to be avatars.