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Mattel launches line of gender-nonconforming dolls that are 'free of labels'

“Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms,” said Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel Fashion Doll Design.
/ Source: NBC News

Mattel, Inc., the toy company perhaps best known for bringing the iconic and hyperfeminine Barbie dolls to children across the world, has launched a new line of gender-nonconforming dolls.

The Creatable World dolls come with short hair and a kit with a longer wig and a variety of clothing options, which children can use to customize their toys’ gender expression. Mattel promises that children can create more than 100 distinct looks with each set.

“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel Fashion Doll Design, said in a statement.

Mattel worked with parents, physicians and other experts to develop the product and tested the dolls with 250 families from seven states, including 15 children who identify as trans, gender-nonbinary or gender-fluid. As of Wednesday, the six different doll kits are available for purchase online for around $30. Mattel will be rolling out the dolls’ availability in stores at a later time.

In recent years, companies have been eliminating “boy’s” and “girl’s” sections in favor of more gender-neutral marketing. In 2015, Target removed gender-based labeling in several departments around the store and Disney stopped categorizing its Halloween costumes according to the gender binary. Last year, Mattel, too, opted out of classifying its toy divisions by gender.

Yet, the Creatable World dolls mark a noticeable difference from Mattel’s other toys, which have been marketed in a gendered manner. Polly Pocket, American Girl and Barbie are most often sold as toys for girls, while Hot Wheels and Matchbox toys have been sold as toys for boys.

As a result, the Creatable World dolls present a unique opportunity to represent nonbinary youth, who have traditionally not been the target audience of mainstream toys. Though there are no large surveys of such youth under 10 years old, current research suggests that the number of gender-nonconforming children is growing. A recent study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, found 27 percent of California teens identify as gender-nonconforming, while a 2018 Pew study found that 35 percent of those born between 1995 and 2015 say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like they and them, compared with 16 percent of those born between 1965 and 1980.

“Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms,” Culmone said. “This line allows all kids to express themselves freely, which is why it resonates so strongly with them.”

While the dolls have heightened positive implications for gender-nonconforming youth, they may also play a role in fostering doll play among boys for whom such play has not been routinely advertised, according to Culmone, who said she hopes they “encourage people to think more broadly about how all kids can benefit from doll play.” Research shows that playing with dolls can benefit children of all genders by increasing their fine motor, language and social skills, advancing their imagination and helping them work through strong emotions.

“Mattel’s new line of gender inclusive dolls encourages children to be their authentic selves and is the latest sign that toys and media aimed at kids are expanding to reflect how diverse children and their families actually are," LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD said in an email. "So many children and parents never saw themselves represented in toys and dolls, but this new line raises the bar for inclusion thanks to input from parents, physicians, and children themselves.”