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Putting neutral into gear: What’s the toy industry doing for gender inclusivity?

After some 60 years of dominating the fashion doll market with its Barbie brand – not without its fair share of controversies just as much as its successes – Mattel finally drew a firm line in the sand on the topic of gendered play last month, when it launched Creatable World.

A new customisable doll line that encourages kids to create their own characters from a wardrobe of accessories and wigs, the toy line aims to rid itself of gender stereotypes, instead asking children to style and play with their dolls however which way they like.

When the line was revealed earlier this year, Mattel hit the headlines of some of the biggest media outlets in the entertainment space for a move that has since been heralded as a game changer amid the conversations surrounding gender, play, children and toys.

At the time of the reveal, Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel Fashion Doll Design, said of the Creatable World toy 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.”

The Mattel boss went onto to describe how research conducted by the toymaker uncovered that kids “don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms,” championing the Creatable World toy line for ‘allowing all kids to express themselves freely.’

“We’re hopeful Creatable World will encourage people to think broadly about how kids can benefit from doll play.”

The launch was met with high praise from across the toy industry, not least from the UK organisation Let Toys Be Who, a group who has been campaigning for better gender representation, and an end to gender stereotyping, in the marketing and retailing of toys to children and families.

“It’s fantastic to see a product that has been designed and marketed to appeal to boys and girls alike, and allows children to use their imaginations and design the doll they would like to play with,” Tessa Trabue, campaigner at Let Toys Be Toys tells ToyNews.

“The product does very well against our #Just4Asks criteria for manufacturers, including having inclusive packaging that is not aimed at just boys or just girls, and ditching the pink/blue divide, instead using colours like mint green and bright yellow for a refreshing and welcome change.”

Since its foundation in 2013, Let Toys Be Toys has been at the forefront of bringing the conversation into the toy space. Once just a small voice amid the cacophony of accepted marketing norms, the organisation’s message has gradually increased in volume as the gender topic has been brought better to society’s attention.

“Over our many years of campaigning we know that parents don’t want to see their children’s interests limited by gender stereotypes,” continues Trabue. “Mattel has responded to this and created an inclusive product with inclusive packaging, demonstrating to other toy manufacturers that this is not only possible, but perfectly achievable to them.

“The fact that such a major player in the toy industry has taken the lead on launching such an inclusive doll cannot be underestimated – we expect other toy makers will need to start responding similarly, or risk appearing very old fashioned and out of step with the times.”

But as much as Mattel’s newest launch has done for the gender movement, there’s still a lot of ground to cover. Let Toys Be Toys recognises that acting on it now, while the topic is so prevalent among society, is the best way it can hope to finally stamp out gender stereotyping in the toy industry. On a daily basis, the group is fuelling the conversation, highlighting moments of ‘bad practice’ and calling out ‘lazy stereotypes’ as part of a company’s marketing efforts.

While the work certainly has Trabue and the team busy day by day now, it was only some five or ten years ago that changing the mindset and practices of the modern marketer was a nothing short of a mountain of a task set before them.

“Ditching the overt signposting of toys in shops was a major step forward by retailers, resulting in real positive, measurable change on the high street, and it was great that the toy retailers were so responsive in taking the gendered signs down,” continues Trabue.

“However, other areas in the toy industry have been extremely slow to change. For example, toy catalogues remain quite gender stereotyped on the whole, using pink and blue signposting, a majority of all girls or all boy spreads, and almost no children playing against stereotype, such as boys playing with dolls.

“We wonder if this could be down to different departments not linking up on their messaging – for instance, hiring in external agencies to do marketing campaigns or photo shoots for catalogues
– but whatever the reason, we hope to see retailers work harder to ditch these outdated, and actually quite harmful images and develop more positive and ultimately more creative ones.”

Read the feature in full in ToyNews by clicking here

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