Throughout the history of leisure and play, dolls have always held a special place in the toyboxes of our hearts. Tracing back to the gender-neutral wooden dolls from Ancient Egypt around 2000 BC, or the gendered terracotta dolls of Ancient Greece, these beloved toys have echoed the societal standards and mindsets of their respective eras.
In our contemporary world, we’re observing an exciting trend with the emergence of gender-neutral dolls and LGBTQ+ action figures, reflecting our progressive recognition and embrace of diverse identities.
The highly-gendered dolls of the past
Dolls have long been a reflection of societal roles and expectations. Let’s take a look at some iconic dolls that, while initially reinforcing gender stereotypes, are now breaking free from such constraints:
Launched in the 1960s, Barbie was quintessentially American and heavily gendered. However, Mattel, the parent company, has been consciously rebranding over the years to promote inclusivity. She’s held many unique careers before women were even allowed to pursue them and she’s come in all shapes, sizes, and skin tones.
Ken, Barbie’s beau, also perpetuated traditional male stereotypes with his sports cars, footballs, and toolsets. Interestingly, with his clean-cut nature, Ken is often referred to as one of the first gay action figures, highlighting an unexpected outcome of these stereotypes.
For years, G.I. Joe was a ‘man’s world’ with only male figures. It wasn’t until 1983 that Cover Girl, an overly sexualized female character, was introduced.
Bratz dolls, launched after Y2K, were a stark contrast to the feminist dialogue of the 1990s. They sparked not just a collectible craze but also a serious investigation by the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls established by the American Psychological Association in 2007. Bratz dolls even inspired the TikTok and RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 15 fame of drag queens Sugar and Spice.
Introduced in the mid-1980s as an alternative to Barbie and Ken, the American Girl line initially focused on female empowerment. It took a purchase by Mattel nearly two decades for the first male doll to be added to the collection.
It’s worth noting that all of these dolls have evolved over time, moving away from gender stereotypes towards more inclusive representation.
Embracing diversity in dolls
Societal shifts like the Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement helped lead to increased diversity in dolls.
The first Black “Barbie” was released in 1969, but was technically a friend of Barbie’s named Christie. Her true Black Barbie counterpart was released in 1980, and Mattel has since made efforts to diversify the biographies and attires of Barbie and Ken.
Barbie has even been at the forefront of progress holding many careers before the first women (and sometimes men!) in history did.
The first openly LGBTQ+ doll, Gay Bob, was launched in 1977. Though initially created for novelty, he helped pave the way for future gender-neutral dolls.
Parents’ perceptions of gender-neutral and inclusive dolls
A 2021 study by Czech researchers from the University of West Bohemia highlighted how parents perceive gender-neutral toys.
One of the most interesting findings of the study was related to how the dolls were marketed; for example, some parents were relieved to not see bright pink colors on the doll or the packaging because such details would be considered deterrents to getting toys for boys.
An even more positive finding in the aforementioned study involved learning about the interest of parents in getting diverse dolls for their children because they want them to be aware of diversity at all levels. Modern Czech parents are more concerned about the biography of the doll and whether it can positively inspire their children.
Here’s the cool part from that study – turns out, parents are pretty excited about getting their kids dolls from all walks of life. It’s not just about the doll itself for the Czech moms and dads in the study, it’s about what the doll represents.
Can it inspire their kids? Can it teach them about how beautifully diverse our world is? It’s a total game changer and shows how attitudes are shifting in a major way.
Dolls that broke the mold
Today, the doll industry is increasingly acknowledging and celebrating diversity. Here are some of the pioneers in this revolution:
Cabbage Patch Kids
Launched in the 1980s, these dolls had a unique charm that captured the hearts of children and adults alike. Breaking away from the traditional, often gender-stereotyped doll market, Cabbage Patch Kids encouraged both boys and girls to engage in imaginative play. Each doll is an “individual work of art” that celebrates diversity and inclusivity.
Mattel’s Creatable World
This (now defunct) Mattel collection called Creatable World let children decide on their doll’s identity, breaking free from traditional gender norms. The collection was praised for its inclusive message.
Tikiri’s gender-neutral doll
The Tikiri’s gender-neutral Bonikka dolls are designed to foster empathy in young children, regardless of gender. Keeping the environment in mind, Tikiri’s dolls are also made with sustainable and natural materials, making them a safe choice for kids of all ages.
American Girl dolls Molly and Kira
Launched during Pride Month 2021, American Girl Molly quickly became a symbol for lesbian collectors, despite some backlash from those resistant to change. 2021 ‘Girl of the Year’ Kira Bailey even has a story about her lesbian aunts who live in Australia.
Earring Magic Ken
Ken’s flamboyant makeover from Mattel in 1993, was a result of a survey of young girls wanting a ‘cooler’ Ken. The result was Earring Magic Ken whose look was undeniably reminiscent of gay nightclub culture.
Frida Kahlo Barbie
This bold release by Mattel as part of its ‘Inspiring Women’ series celebrates the life of Frida Kahlo, a woman known for her diverse sexual preferences and gender-fluidity.
A new study reveals that though girls are confident exploring all kinds of play, they’re still restricted by gender stereotypes as they grow older.
Celebrating diversity through play
From ancient figurines to modern-day dolls, the toy industry has come a long way in promoting inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance. As we continue to challenge gender norms and celebrate diversity, let’s encourage our children to grow up embracing every identity through the power of play.
This can have a huge impact on how we teach our kids to interact with each other, and the generations to come.