With its new line of genderless Creatable World dolls, Mattel is embracing and mass-marketing a new world in which identity can exist outside of pre-existing gender norms. But will children, and more importantly, parents follow suit?
Experts weigh in on how parents should encourage children to explore and play and whether this new direction in toys could spell a bigger shift in acceptance.
Since its release on Sept. 25, the Creatable World line has been the center of conversation from consumers and experts alike, who both praise and malign the toy’s gender inclusivity. But according to experts, the most important thing parents should do is let their kids play as kids.
Stefani Goerlich, a sex therapist and guest lecturer on minority sexual communities at Northwestern University, noted the existing benefits of playing with dolls as well as the possibilities for including gender fluid toys — toys that don’t ascribe to a fixed gender — in play.
“One of the benefits of imaginative play is that it lets kids experiment with different kinds of world-building. For the first time, trans identities and gender variance can be included in the imaginative worlds that all kids build through play,” Goerlich wrote in an email.
Other experts note that while a step in the right direction, the dolls likely won’t lead to a significant shift in perceptions worldwide about the role of gender.
Dawnn Karen, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and pioneer of the fashion psychology field, an academic discipline that examines how fashion choices like color, shape, and style impact human behavior said that digitally and online, the world is becoming more gender inclusive, but in the real world, it may take some time for gendered thinking to be phased out.
“It’s going to take more time to move that dial. But I think digitally we’ve moved it.”
Dr. Joshua Safer, an endocrinologist and the executive director of Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York, also said he thinks the new toy release won’t lead to a quick or huge adjustment in how the world views gender.
“There’s no political agenda. Nobody’s getting pushed to do anything. It just creates opportunity for a few people who were kind of invisible in society to also have their imagination be addressed,” Safer said.
But all of the reactions to the new line of toys haven’t been positive. Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author of “Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets,” said she thinks the dolls are part of a propaganda agenda that parents can use to try to persuade their children to identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.
“There’s nothing wrong with having more wigs or clothes to choose from when playing with a doll, but it’s the underlying message that is extremely harmful — encouraging children to think of themselves as gender neutral, when they have been born with sexual organs of a boy or girl,” Lieberman said.
While Lieberman says she thinks that a person can identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, she says children should reach this realization on their own without the influence of parents, toys or literature in schools.
“Kids go through phases. ... Of course I believe that people should be accepted, but not convincing them that they are a boy or a girl when they’re 3 years old,” she said, citing one case in particular that she says she handled at her practice.
While there are societal perils for children who don’t identify as strictly male or female, other experts note that it doesn’t have much to do with toys or parental persuasion. Safer says that it’s possible for parents to influence a gender expansive child to present as trans or gender nonconforming, but it’s not a huge concern. Safer said it’s unlikely that anything life-altering will result from allowing children to play with genderless toys.
“Parents can be somewhat reassured that if they let their kids explore, their kids won’t accidentally brainwash themselves. ... If that could happen we probably would have succeeded in the past when the medical establishment was intentionally and aggressively trying to brainwash intersex kids (children born with characteristics that don’t align to typical definitions of male or female bodies) to have a gender identity opposite of what would have been predicted.”
Safer said that raising intersex children in a sex stereotypical way to align with their outward gender presentation, regardless of genetic makeup, was unsuccessful and indicates that outside influences don’t have a high impact on gender identity.
“Wherever they’re going to end up, they’re still going to end up there. You won’t have accidentally facilitated something,” Safer said.
Creatable World, with its 100+ options for clothing and hair, as well as its gender-neutral body type, clearly is tapping into a new acceptance.
According to a study in late 2018 by Pew Research, younger generations, including millennials and Gen Z, are more likely to know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. These generations also tend to believe society should be more accepting of individuals who don’t identify as male or female.
Experts agree that parents should give their children the freedom to play and imagine as kids, with or without Mattel’s help.
“We don’t have all of these differences as children, we’re very open and free with our thinking,” Karen said.
“You don’t want to be too extreme,” Safer said, “Just let the kids be.”