Sit still, look pretty: Unboxing the complexities of gender in dolls

She’s part of every girl’s birthday and Christmas wishlist—a friend that comes in a mint condition plastic box with a beaming smile frozen on her face. She makes playtime all the more thrilling—through her, millions of girls across the world can be a princess, a model, a homemaker, and many more. With a seemingly-endless assortment of clothes, accessories, and playsets, the sky’s the limit when it comes to dolls like her. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the doll industry is a multi-billion dollar venture. Companies like Hasbro and Mattel are not just selling fun—they’re selling femininity. And throughout the years dolls have arguably become vessels for the ideal woman—pretty, docile, and in your possession. Jill Filipovic from Time magazine writes, “Barbie is a literally objectified woman, not a superhero or an action figure but a plastic lady notable because she’s pretty,” noting how dolls are crucial in shaping a child’s worldview during formative years. 

While dolls are the gateway for children to understand the basics of gender, their perfect looks carry much more weight when taken out of their packages. 

Tea for two

Esther Lynn Papa, a mother of two (a boy and a girl), ensures that her kids’ playtime is full of fun toys and encourages them to share their toys so they would develop their social skills. Still, it is only natural for a child to have preferences; she’s already noticing how her daughter has been mimicking her using her Baby Alive doll and cooking toy sets. “Ginagaya [ng daughter ko] kapag nagpa-breast milk [yung] baby brother [niya] and kapag [nagco-cooking] ang daddy niya nag-pretend din siya magluto,” Papa explains. 

The same Baby Alive doll is also a favorite of her son’s. Papa reasons that since the doll can train her child in feeding, diaper-changing, and other parental duties, Papa sees no harm done. “In the future magiging daddy or tito naman siya (her son). Maganda ito sa developmental needs niya,” she says.

(He’ll be a daddy or an uncle. This will be good for his developmental needs.)

However, Papa draws the line when it comes to her son playing with her daughter’s Disney Princesses and Barbie dolls. “For me, nagkakaroon sila ng idea agad sa malice at baka maging feminine [‘yung son ko] kapag yun ang lagi laruin,” she reasons.

(For me, my kids might gain the idea of malice early on and my son might become feminine if he plays with dolls often.)

Having her son playing dress up with these dolls just doesn’t sit right with Papa, who says, “Even kasi si Ken [doll] mukhang beki,” she laughs, then quickly adds, “Pero [I’m] not against [beki] gays. I admire them.”

(Even the Ken doll looks gay.)

Pretty in pink?

Jasmine Cruz of the UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies suggests that “When stereotypes are reinforced in play, this is detrimental to the development of the child.”. The pressure to conform to traditional gender norms often starts at home when parents pick and choose the toys that their children play with.  

Furthermore, gender norms are reinforced in the excessively pink and frilly advertisements for doll brands, perpetuating the divide between what is considered feminine and masculine. In fact, Cruz cites that this marketing strategy is present not only in dolls but in other toys as well. For girls, it’s the cooking and cleaning sets displayed alongside miniature make up and dolls. Meanwhile, battalions of army tanks, plastic swords, and toy guns populate the boys’ section. Additionally, Cruz posits that dolls tend to appear thin and fair-skinned, losing out on the diversity of people with other physical appearances. With this lack of representation, young children may unconsciously start to do unhealthy comparisons between themselves and their Barbies. 

“What’s problematic is bombarding girls with messages that make them think they are limited only to these roles,” Cruz fears. While there’s nothing wrong with being feminine nor choosing to be wives, mothers, or homemakers, these norms can become suffocating when society punishes girls for deviating from the script. 

This early social conditioning negatively impacts boys, too, as they are raised to be averse to expressing emotions or engaging in any feminine-coded behavior in fear that their masculinity will be challenged. This, in turn, can subtly breed views that can result in treating women as inferior. As Cruz puts it, “What seems like innocuous aspects of reality are actually part of a larger culture of misogyny that can, at the least, limit, but, at the most, endanger and traumatize women.”

No strings attached

Mary Rose Baranda, a famed doll collector, started building her menagerie of nearly 800 dolls in 2012. For her, it’s more than just the thrill of acquiring more and more dollsーit’s building a community with other collectors of all ages and genders who have found the freedom to express themselves. 

Among her prized possessions are all kinds of dolls from brands like Integrity Toys, Fashion Royalty, and Ball Jointed Dolls. But her absolute favorite is Dracalaura, a spunky Monster High doll with pink hair and dark makeup. “Beauty can come in any form and it takes away this Barbie doll image,” she explains. 

In her years-long pursuit of her passion, it became clear to her that dolls often reflect society’s expectations for women. She notes that the doll market in the Philippines is skewed heavily toward the conventionally-attractive dolls. “The black Barbie[s] ay palaging naiiwan sa shelves, kaya ‘di na daw masyadong nag-oorder [yung] dealer,” she shares.. 

(The black Barbies are always left on the shelves, so dealers don’t order them anymore.) 

But Baranda is happy to report that the doll industry is slowly moving toward inclusivity. More and more brands such as Mattel, Rainbow High, and LOL OMG are diversifying their lines by including dolls with darker skin tones and more natural facial features. She welcomes this change, saying “Nowadays, dolls are made [to represent] a variety of cultures, skin tones, and physical features.”

Anything is possible

When all is said and done, Baranda believes that we shouldn’t ascribe dangerous ideals to “innocent” dolls. “I believe that society should be open-minded and let children be happy with their choice of toys,” she asserts, “The problem is not the dolls but the ignorance and bigotry of some people.” 

While unlearning gender labels can start with changing our perspectives on our childhood toys, dolls are only a fraction of the larger problem at hand. As Cruz points out, “[This] system is so complex and pervasive that the members of that society are made to believe that this imposed system is normal and even morally right.” 

But hopefully, as dolls continue to break free from their boxes, so can our perceptions. By challenging our own boundaries, we give children more role models of different careers, body types, and cultures. This allows our children and our society to understand that—through these dolls—anyone can be anything.  

By Magz Chin

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