When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Barbie dolls. I’d ask for them at every holiday and birthday, and beg my parents to let me walk through the toy section at Walmart to look at them. None of them looked like me then, and none of them look like me today.
I didn’t know I was nonbinary when I was a kid. I didn’t know there was anything outside the man/woman binary until college.
Even after that, it took me until I was 26 to understand that not only did nonbinary people exist, but that I was one of them.
In September, Mattel announced the release of their new gender-neutral Barbie dolls. Some people are glad to finally have representation outside the gender binary. Others feel that the dolls will provoke questions that some parents aren’t ready to answer. And others still, especially gender-nonconforming folks, don’t feel that these dolls accurately represent nonbinary people.
The dolls have interchangeable hair and clothing, and bodies that don’t represent stereotypically male or female anatomy. No more tiny waists. No more defined abs. No toy model of what society says bodies should look like.
I don’t remember thinking of Barbies as models for who I should be, but that doesn’t mean that learning about nonbinary identities as a child wouldn’t have led me to understand and explore my own gender identity sooner.
Maybe these dolls will open up questions that parents aren’t ready for, but does that mean that kids aren’t ready for them? After all, if you can teach a child about gender binaries basically from birth through gendered toys, clothes, and language, why can’t you talk about nonbinary identities?
If it’s not too soon for them to conform to a prescribed binary, it’s not too soon for them to break away from it.
But just because I’m glad to see these dolls released and getting attention doesn’t mean I can’t look at them critically, too. After all, the things we love still deserve to be critiqued.
While these dolls may be “gender neutral,” they don’t exactly represent the nonbinary community’s experiences. This Slate article explains it best when the author points out that “these dolls do not have bodies like ours; these dolls do not have bodies that society reads in a gendered way at all.”
As that article also points out, of all the nonbinary people I know and have known in my life, not one of us has called ourselves “gender neutral.” That doesn’t mean no one does, and everyone has a right to the label they choose for themselves.
But in the case of these dolls, the implication seems to be that being gender neutral is to have no gender identity at all—that outside the binary, our identities can boil down to nothing.
Many people have opted to use the term “gender-inclusive” when referring to non-cisgender groups. When it comes to awareness, language is important.
The problem with the dolls isn’t the effort at inclusivity—it’s that the effort doesn’t quite go far enough. It wouldn’t have been that hard to take it one more step. For example, call them “nonbinary” or “genderfluid” instead of “gender neutral,” to reflect the entire gender spectrum.
There’s also the issue of names—these dolls, as far as I can tell, have none, which sets them apart from the rest of the Barbie dolls. Barbie has an entire family with first, middle, and last names, but it seems almost like Mattel was afraid to choose a name for the gender-neutral dolls. Gender-nonconforming folks still have names, after all, and there are plenty that are not gender-specific.
The dolls don’t need to be nameless and shapeless to represent us as nonbinary people.
Despite what’s missing from these dolls, there are features that will allow kids to really dive deep into expressing themselves. In a study by Jos Twist and Natasja M. de Graaf, the three most significant factors in most young people’s gender expression are external appearances, names and pronouns, and their bodies.
Think about your style—your clothes, your hair, your choice to wear makeup or not. These things we choose show who we are. Even if these dolls’ bodies don’t represent us, their styles can.
In many ways, these dolls are a great way to introduce kids to the idea that gender isn’t binary. They’re a safe way for children to explore who they are without having to choose between being a boy or a girl.
These dolls step outside the binary box, and despite my own critiques, I think we need them. The dolls can create an opening for necessary conversations, whether those talks happen between a group of kids or between a child and their parents. They may help more people understand just how flexible gender is, and why the previously accepted binary isn’t actually a binary at all.