We all grew up with some form of doll: if the 80s and 90s weren’t exactly the heyday of gender-neutral toys, they were the heyday of toy culture. Remember Jingle All the Way, a film whose premise concerned Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inability to get his child the new hot toy at the mall on Black Friday? Remember Furbies? Honestly, it’s a miracle we didn’t have more Black Friday deaths back in the day when buying things online wasn’t an option.
But there was a reason why parents rushed to the mall in the hopes of snagging the newest toy: our preschool lives depended on it. Whether we were enthralled by Stretch Armstrong’s flexibility, obsessed with Pound Puppies or entranced by Small Soldiers, dolls made our lives worth it during those years.
For Doll Week, INTO and Q Digital staffers put their heads together to dig up memories of some of our most enduring doll obsessions. Here they are, in all their glory.
When I was a kid, Stretch Armstrong was one of my favorite action figures. My twin brother and I had lots of typical “boy” toys — like Hot Wheels and K’NEX. But Stretch Armstrong, with his super buff body and tight briefs, really stood out. He hung out with our G.I. Joes, and together they kind of gave off this tough-guy vibe.
From the Barbies to Bratz, explore how dolls have both reinforced gender stereotypes and been at the forefront of progress over the years.
Looking back, I can see how these toys might have given me some early ideas about what being a “man” meant that carried into my queer experience. But even so, I still have fond memories of playing with Stretch Armstrong. — Ian Helms, Contributor at INTO
Cabbage Patch Kids
I still have an original Cabbage Patch Kid that perpetually sleeps on the spare bed in my parent’s condo. Nobody thought it strange that I was in my mid-teens when I became obsessed with the doll bearing its own birth certificate. My adoption needs were specific: it had to be a boy with green eyes (much like my first boyfriend about a decade later.)
Looking back, it was merely a variation on a visualization that I had explored years earlier in my neighbor’s basement, where I snuck off to wash Barbie’s hair in the laundry sink with a towel wrapped around my head as if I had those luxurious synthetic locks, too. — Matthew Wexler, Features Editor
The line between dolls and “action figures” is blurry, at best, but my ‘90s childhood was rife with hyper-masculine heroes and high-femme Barbies, each occupying their own distinctive aisles of the toy store. Perhaps that’s why I was so enamored with Joe Dante’s largely forgotten 1998 family film, Small Soldiers, which both leaned into and satirized the gender essentialism of the Toys “R” Us era.
You had your violent, square-jawed Commando Elite antagonists versus the peace-seeking creatures known as Gorgonites — who, in retrospect, were definitely one of my first examples of queer chosen family. Plus, there were the glamorous Gwendy fashion dolls (voiced by icons Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci), later Frankenstein’d into lethal killing machines. So, did Small Soldiers actually have something smart to say about dolls and the ways we experimented with queerness through play? Eh… not really. But this movie really should be considered a camp classic. — Cameron Scheetz, Entertainment Editor at Queerty
Polly Pocket Prince
I was never a Barbie kid, but I was a Polly Pocket kid. I loved the tiny worlds you could create after opening up those smooth plastic clamshells, and I especially liked that you could take them anywhere: on car rides, on boring errands with your parents. So many outings would have been interminable if not for my ability to instantly get lost in some imaginary drama Polly was going through. And not just Polly: there were sometimes boy Polly Pocket figures, and these always felt rare and precious to me. I remember a favorite castle-themed Polly Pocket that came with a Polly figurine, a horse-drawn carriage, and lamps that actually lit up. It also came with a Prince: he had a quizzical, almost stoned expression on his face that I couldn’t help but identify with. So was it the most tragic day of my life when I managed to lose my beloved prince figure after playing with my Polly Pocket on someone’s lawn? It absolutely was. Have I gotten over it? Of course not. I often think about that little prince and hope he’s doing ok, wherever he is. — Henry Giardina, Editor in Chief at INTO
When I was a child, my grandma made me a baby doll that looked like a Native American child because I loved “Little House on the Prarie” and western stories. He had buckskin pants and jacket and a woven shirt. I named him Squanto and took him with me everywhere I went. After a while, I outgrew him, but he still stayed on my bed like a stuffed animal. When I went away to college, I took him with me and kept him tucked away for years. In 2019, over 40 years after he was made, Squanto finally got a new home at the Indiana State History Museum. He’s on display currently as part of their display of childhood items of LGBTQ Hoosiers. – Bil Browning, Executive Editor
I grew up with a massive collection of action figures—specifically Transformers—that I absolutely loved, but I have many fond memories of playing with my cousin’s Barbies – specifically her doll of R&B icon Brandy. When I would visit my cousin, I had the chance to not only play with her dolls, but to also explore femininity in ways in which I never had before. One of my favorite memories is when the two of us watched the animated movies Anastasia and Pocahontas, while we meticulously styled and groomed her Barbie dolls. There wasn’t a hair out of place on these dolls and as a young Black queer kid, I didn’t feel out of place either. – Joshua Mackey, Assistant Editor at INTO.