A child opens a box. He starts jumping and screaming with joy—not an unusual sound in the halls of Mattel’s headquarters where researchers test new toys. But this particular toy is a doll, and it’s rare for parents to bring boys into these research groups to play with dolls. It’s rarer still for a boy to immediately attach himself to one the way Shi’a just did.
An 8-year-old who considers himself gender fluid and whose favorite color is black one week, pink the next, Shi’a sometimes plays with his younger sister’s dolls at home, but they’re “girly, princess stuff,” he says dismissively. This doll, with its prepubescent body and childish features, looks more like him, right down to the wave of bleached blond bangs. “The hair is just like mine,” Shi’a says, swinging his head in tandem with the doll’s. Then he turns to the playmate in the toy-testing room, a 7-year-old girl named Jhase, and asks, “Should I put on the girl hair?” Shi’a fits a long, blond wig on the doll’s head, and suddenly it is no longer an avatar for him but for his sister.
The doll can be a boy, a girl, neither or both, and Mattel, which calls this the world’s first gender-neutral doll, is hoping its launch on Sept. 25 redefines who gets to play with a toy traditionally deemed taboo for half the world’s kids. Carefully manicured features betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide. There are no Barbie-like breasts or broad, Ken-like shoulders. Each doll in the Creatable World series looks like a slender 7-year-old with short hair, but each comes with a wig of long, lustrous locks and a wardrobe befitting any fashion-conscious kid: hoodies, sneakers, graphic T-shirts in soothing greens and yellows, along with tutus and camo pants.
Mattel isn’t the first company to notice the trend of young shoppers moving away from gender-specific products. Rob Smith—the founder of the Phluid Project, a gender-free clothing store that caters to the LGBTQ+ community in New York City—says several large corporations, including Mattel, have approached him for advice on how to market to the young masses. “I work with a lot of companies who are figuring out that the separation between male and female is less important to young consumers who don’t want to be boxed into anything,” he says. “There’s men’s shampoo and women’s shampoo, but it’s just all shampoo. Companies are starting to investigate that in-between space in order to win over Gen Z.” Read more via Time