Cepeda column: Gender-neutral dolls reflect true rainbow of people better than Barbie ever did
CHICAGO — When I was a kid, I hated Barbie.
I mean I hated her.
But Christmas 1980, I found “Western Barbie” under my tree. This was long before I knew the terms “race,” “ethnicity” or “identity,” and long before learning about the groundbreaking research that Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark did in the 1940s, when they found that black children internalized white supremacy and preferred Barbies to black dolls.
Unwrapping Barbie was a blow.
The dreaded doll came from my favorite uncle, the one who seemed to understand that I liked playing with his toolbox and hanging out in the garage more than organizing tea parties, so it really hurt that he gifted me a reminder of all I would never be.
She was tall, thin, blond, blue-eyed, busty and had impeccably straight teeth — everything every man and woman in America seemed to cherish. I could take one look around at the women in my family and know that there was zero chance I would ever measure up. Even my teeth were hopelessly crooked.
Plus, Barbie was boring. I had wanted a Lego set, but what I got was a stiff, plastic white woman with a ridiculous cowgirl outfit and high-heeled boots. What was I supposed to do with that?
I tore her hair out and threw her in the garbage long before New Year’s Day. I never told my uncle, who had merely attempted to give his favorite niece the “hot” toy of the season, that I had been insulted.
But that was all eons ago, long before there were brown and black Barbies, Barbies in wheelchairs, Barbies with prosthetic limbs, Barbies wearing hijabs and short Barbies with curves.
There are now professional Barbies, including military, artist, politician and banker Barbies.
And, today, there are queer Barbies, too.
The new line is called “Creatable World,” and it is touted by Mattel as “designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in — giving kids the freedom to create their own customizable characters again and again.”
The labels in question are gender-identity labels and, boy, does that make some people mad as heck! So does the very premise, which sounds like it accurately reflects real, current life and is not subversive: “Switch long hair for short hair — add a skirt, pants or both. It’s up to you! Mix and match, swap or share.”
A post on the conservative website Vigilant Citizen captured a certain type of outrage, with the uncredited author writing: “The Mattel dolls are yet another attempt at indoctrinating children while they’re young, planting the seeds of gender confusion in their developing minds.”
Another post, on the progressive website Medium, had its own criticisms.
“Even if it is a craven, trendy cash-grab, it does reflect how far society has come in terms of trans and nonbinary acceptance in just a few short years,” wrote Devon Price, a nonbinary person who teaches sociology at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
Still, they — “them” and “they” are the pronouns that nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people like Price (and me) use to avoid being gendered — were disappointed.
“Associating moderate/soft features with androgyny is a problem because it is racist,” wrote Price. “What types of people have small foreheads, narrowish jaws, relatively little body or facial hair, and lips that aren’t ‘too full’? White people. White [assigned female at birth] people, to be exact. In so many ways, our commonly accepted social portrait of gender neutrality is just a rehashing of norms of white, female beauty — the ideal nonbinary person is expected to be a stereotypically pretty, lithe, thin, light-skinned white person, with relatively little body hair, no facial hair, and features that are narrow and European.”
Realistically, thoughtful parents of all political persuasions worry that they’ll accidentally indoctrinate their children in some negative way. And yes, trans and nonbinary people are misrepresented, demonized and fetishized far too much in the media.
But there is one important truth: These dolls look like America’s public school children.
All races, all bands of the gender spectrum, all styles of clothing and hair. Girls who “dress like boys” and boys who love pink and sometimes pretend they are feminine, in addition to girly girls and scrappy boys. Plus, shaved heads on either gender.
I work in an elementary school in rural Wisconsin — trust me, even there both boys and girls disregard “traditional” gender norms.
So, if it’s no biggie for kids, let’s not let it cause too much fuss among the so-called grown-ups. And we might even think about adding this new line of Barbies to our shopping lists this holiday season.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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