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On Representation

By Nik Shultz

Representation has been a hot socio-political topic for much of my life. As I have talked about before, I grew up in a fairly progressive home. I have an uncle who is gay and my parents always expressed to me that I had nothing to worry about when it came to that. But I’ve also mentioned before that I was entrenched in princess-media as a child. I’ve talked about the games I would play with my Barbies, all of them competing for my one Ken doll. When I began to realize that I might be gay it was a horrifying shock, a possibility that I had never considered. And I didn’t even know that being a different gender was an option until I saw a Buzzfeed video about it in high school.

Thus the big push for representation in media. Children (and adults) need to be able to see themselves and others in media. It’s key not only to self-esteem and self-acceptance but to developing empathy and respecting difference. Maybe if I there had been a gay Barbie princess or a Trans Disney character when I was growing up, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to come to grips with myself.

Most dolls lines have been criticized for failing to represent someone or representing the wrong thing. Barbie, as pretty much the main fashion doll line for a long time, has been criticized for various such issues over time. Before the 20th century, Barbie had almost no real competition, but in 2001 Bratz dolls were introduced to the market and gave Mattel a run for their money because they were a racially diverse line of dolls. On the other hand, Bratz has been criticized for making dolls that are too sexual for their target audience.

Barbie has had dolls of different skin tones, but the first Black Barbies were the same dolls made with a different colored plastic poured into the mold. Mattel obviously managed to keep the brand alive and well despite the competition, and today has a line of dolls devoted specifically to diversity, and not just racial diversity. The unrealistic body standards of Barbie are almost an inside joke in our culture, but recently Mattel has added dolls of varying body types such as “tall,” “petite,” and “curvy,” and “broad” and “slim” for Ken. There also many face molds for these dolls, and varying hair styles, dolls with prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, and vitiligo. I can’t deny that I enjoy the variety, but there is a fair bit of argument about whether or not it is enough.

From Mattel’s website

Mattel hasn’t gone so far as to make a fat Barbie or a movie in which Barbie or one of her friends is explicitly queer. They have created, separate from Barbie, a line of dolls meant to be gender neutral or fluid, called Creatable World. These dolls come with masculine and feminine clothes and a wig so that their hair might be short or long, and were marketed as a toy for kids of all gender. If I had a doll like this when I was a kid it could’ve changed my life.

My own Creatable World doll

 Having one as an adult proved to be a bit tricky, because despite the excitement and conversation leading up to this dolls release, they’re not so easy to find in stores. I was able to order one online as a little Christmas gift to myself in January, but I wonder about how quickly they dropped out of conversation in the toy world, despite being so groundbreaking. Was Mattel receiving too much backlash? Is a genderfluid doll simply too disruptive to our culture to be profitable?

Of course doll companies are limited in how much variety can be had in a mass produced line, where each difference requires a different mold. And one doesn’t want to spend all their time fighting for representation when as a marginalized person there are often more important battles to fight. But it’s clear to me that companies making products for kids are only willing to go to a certain point with representation. Racial diversity is more expected than it was in the 1960s, but gender diversity is still struggling to be on the agendas of everyday liberal Americans. Perhaps there’s simple too much risk of backlash and not enough belief of support from the parents buying these toys for their kids, for anything truly revolutionary to happen. But what if it could? What would it mean if an entire generation was introduced to dolls that could be whatever they wanted them to be, and dolls that actively worked against arbitrary societal rules?