On Toys, Gender and Truth: Mattel Is Not Playing Around

By Jared Bridges | September 27, 2019 | 2:53pm EDT

My five-year-old son's latest craze is customizing his toys. He'll sit for hours with a Sharpie drawing on his Playmobil figures, quickly turning them into distant scribbled memories of what they were intended to be. This usually ends up with more ink on his hands (and whichever article of furniture his toys rub against) than on the toys themselves, but he has great fun changing their appearances. Just like any other kid, he likes to create.

Creativity is a big selling point for toys these days. So it's not all that surprising that toymaking giant Mattel would launch a new line this week called Creatable World:

“In our world, dolls are as limitless as the kids who play with them. Introducing Creatable World™, a doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in -- giving kids the freedom to create their own customizable characters again and again.”

To be clear, Creatable World isn't just about switching hairstyles and clothing. In a press release, Mattel revealed what's really driving this line:

“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” said Kim Culmone, Senior Vice President of Mattel Fashion Doll Design. “Through research, we heard that kids don't want their toys dictated by gender norms. This line allows all kids to express themselves freely which is why it resonates so strongly with them. We're hopeful Creatable World will encourage people to think more broadly about how all kids can benefit from doll play.”

Mattel's rationale is revealing. First, it reveals their thinking about what they call “gender norms.” In Mattel's worldview, male and female are merely labels. As if a person's sex is nothing more than a type of HELLO-MY-NAME-IS sticker that a person can mark up as he or she or they (!) choose. Gender is a function of expression, nothing more.

Second, it reveals that the creators in Mattel's alternate world – the ones who are able to determine the aforementioned “labels” – are the children themselves. Now the idea of kids being creative with their toys isn't new. Lego, after all, has been doing this for years. Any parent who has ever stepped on a Lego knows that all too well that here are infinite combinations kids can create from the foot-debilitating plastic blocks, and just as many worlds of play in which to use their creations.

In the same vein, girls have been inviting their brothers' G.I. Joe warriors to tea parties, and boys have been using their sisters' Barbie dolls for Nerf Gun target practice for as long as each of those toys have been around. There's nothing wrong with that, but in Mattel's Creatable World, it seems that kids aren't merely creating worlds for their toys. It goes much further. Mattel is positioning Creatable World as an arena in which kids can reimagine the real world (labels) through their toy.

“Who told you that you were naked?” It's the question God asks the man and the woman in Genesis 3 after being deceived by the serpent, they sinned and went into hiding from God. Having easily found them, the God who had earlier created them in his own image – male and female, no less – confronts them and gives them clothing to cover their newfound shame. That's God's created world.

In Mattel's Creatable World, it's Mattel that asks the question of children, “Who told you that you were male and female?” Mattel then gives the children interchangeable clothing to cover the shame of their male and female labeling. It's a deceptive twist on an age-old story.

The Creator is usurped by his creation. For Mattel, God's design for male and female becomes a “gender norm” which needs to be hushed.

What, then, are parents to do? It's easy to simply funnel news like this into outrage. After all, a big corporate toymaker – with deep pockets for its marketing budget – is not-so-subtly telling children that male and female are just labels that can be switched as easily as clothing. This should put parents on guard, and it's entirely reasonable and warranted for parents to express displeasure in the marketplace. But we shouldn't stop there.

Parents should be sure that we're not letting any toy corporation (or school, or media company, or fill-in-the-blank) be the source about what's true in the world. Parents should be aware that no area of the world – not even the toy aisle – is immune from the age-old effects of deception. In Genesis, the serpent points the man's and woman's focus away from the Creator toward the created. Likewise, in Mattel's Creatable World, the Creator of the world is someone to be subdued rather than heeded. In an age when the toy business is much more than child's play, parents should be a beacon pointing to God's truth – even at play time.

Jared Bridges is Vice President for Brand Advancement and Chief Brand Officer for Family Research Council, where he is responsible for establishing continuity and consistency for FRC's message across its various platforms.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Family Research Council.

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