Anatomy of a stigma: Will American boys really embrace dolls?

Marketers have stuck gold marketing STEM toys to girls. But will the pendulum swing the other way?

It’s been five years since GoldieBlox, the scrappy manufacturer of science toys for girls, went from a Kickstarter campaign to $1 million of pre-orders in less than a month, starting a revolution of STEM toys marketed to girls. Today, Project MC2 declares "smart is the new cool," Jewelbots teaches girls how to code through programmable friendship bracelets and STEMBox sends girls monthly experiments like extracting DNA from a strawberry. Even Amazon has jumped on the bandwagon, launching a subscription service similar to STEMBox.

Clearly, the toy industry had been overlooking a huge opportunity by marketing science toys primarily to boys, and was quick to correct course.

Yet that same industry has remained largely uninterested in marketing historically "girl toys" to boys. Browse the aisles of any Toys R Us store in December, and you’ll find nary a tea set, sewing kit orgasp!—plush infant doll marketed to boys.

Until now. This month, Mattel announced its first male American Girl doll, Logan Everett, becoming the first major toy company to do so—following the lead of start-ups like Boy Story, which launched in November. And just last week at the New York Toy Fair, Adora introduced green-hued doll accessories with the intent of attracting more boys to its line. It’s starting to look like guys and dolls are having a moment.

That it took the industry this long to embrace boy dolls can’t be attributed entirely to inertia. The truth is, the history of boys and dolls is a complicated one, marked by false starts, incorrect assumptions and paralyzing social stigma. And while a healthy desire for profit and gender parity is driving the current surge of boy dolls, the question of whether boys—and their parents—will actually buy male-oriented dolls is far from settled.

"It’s not the case that there have never been dolls that were marketed to boys," said Elizabeth Sweet, Ph.D, sociologist and lecturer at California State University, Sacramento. "If you look at the short term, things look one way, but if you look at the longer term, it looks different."

She says doll, he says action figure
If you look at history, says The Strong National Museum of Play curator Patricia Hogan, boys have played with dolls since the turn of the 20th century. She points to sociologist Stanley Hall’s 1906 survey of school-age children, which discovered that a significant number of boys played with dolls. But the dolls boys played with weren’t the baby dolls we think of today. They were more adult-like, she said. "They’re still called babies, but they look like women. Back in the 19th century, children were thought to be incomplete adults," and the dolls reflected that.

The shift started in the 1910s and 1920s, when doll makers started to produce infant dolls. "The kind of play that those infant dolls encourage is more nurturing," said Hogan, "so that’s when doll play becomes more associated with girls, because it’s so closely tied to the childcare of mothers."

Fast-forward to 1964, and Hasbro has to answer to Mattel’s smashing success with Barbie. "And of course, we’re still very entrenched in Eisenhower, post-war gender roles, so boys wouldn’t play with dolls, because they were seen as being girlish," said Chris Byrne, toy book author and content director at Toys, Tots, Pets and More. So the company developed four dolls representing the four branches of the American military: Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. "They thought, ‘If we change the name from doll to action figure, that takes away the linguistic curse off it, if you will, and puts it into adventure,’" he added.

The result was the ultimate boy’s toy, GI Joe. 

And it was a huge success. By the end of the first fiscal year, Hasbro sold $18 million worth of GI Joes, and a new category of boy-targeted doll was born (just don’t call it a doll). In 1966, Mattel came out with an astronaut line called Major Matt Mason, and Rosko Industries launched sports jock Johnny Hero for Sears. GI Joe even changed as the Vietnam War was winding down, becoming rescuers at home and then alien fighters in the 1980s. And thanks to the runaway success of Star Wars merchandise in the late 1970s, a whole generation of boys grew up collecting plastic, un-huggable, heavily armed aliens.

In 1982, Cabbage Patch dolls, despite being primarily marketed to (and embraced by) girls, became a crossover hit, and brought back the idea of nurturing play for boys. To capitalize on that, Hasbro in 1985 introduced My Buddy, a Cabbage Patch-like doll that was larger and, in theory, more acceptable to boys.

And boys did embrace My Buddy, thanks to an infectious marketing effort. "My Buddy had an amazing advertising campaign targeted to kids, so kids wanted it," says Byrne. "You can’t underestimate the power of the marketing." It was so succesful that it launched a slew of copycats.

But My Buddy was not without controversy. Even today, people commenting on the original commercial on YouTube share stories of being appalled at the idea of a cuddly doll for boys. "The commercial raised my brows even at age five, and aside from the feeling that I'd rather be dead than be caught in public with the thing, the only other feeling I came away with was jealousy at the little yuppie's clubhouse," writes one YouTube commenter.

A number of factors contributed to the decline of My Buddy, not the least of which was "Child's Play," the 1988 horror film about a murderous doll named Chucky that closely resembled the product. But that wasn’t the end of cuddly dolls for boys. In the 1990s, Mattel had a hit with Wrestling Buddies, plush doll versions of famous wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. 

Wrestling Buddies were so successful that Mattel still sells them, with versions of The Rock and John Cena available for $29.99. Why the difference in staying power? "Boys were encouraged to hug and play with them, but also to wrestle them to the ground," Byrne said. "That was a more acceptable play pattern. ‘Oh, it’s alright that you’re being violent! You can cuddle them later, as long as you’re being violent now—and boy-like!’"

Nature vs. nurture
This cultural shift is troubling for psychologist and Abilene Christian University professor Jennifer Shewmaker, Ph.d., who believes nurturing doll play is integral to male child development. "We see this promotion of this very aggressive, competitive stereotype with boys," she said. "But of course, in real life, when we’re working with men, we don’t want to always be working with people who are aggressive and ridiculously competitive and who can’t cooperate, who can’t build relationships with others. And so it’s this very strange dichotomy that we’ve created especially with our toy marketing."

Shewmaker cites money as the motive behind the pink versus blue toy aisles that became prevalent in the past 15 years, not a biological imperative being played out in stores. When researching her book, "Sexualized Media Messages and Our Children," Shewmaker found that starting in the ‘90s, toy manufacturers started to produce gender divisive toys. "I can make more money if I have girls who buy these things in a family, and boys who buy these things, and thus, I’m selling twice as many toys to the same family," she said. "As we move through the 2000s, you see that become more stabilized. The girl aisle is just a sea of pink and purple. The boy aisle is all black and dark blue. That has not always been the case."

The solution, according to GoldieBlox CMO Kenny Davis, is to make dolls fun for boys, just as GoldieBlox made STEM fun for girls. It’s all in the marketing approach.

"Those who have tended to look for this change have done it from this standpoint of ‘I want to change the world,’" he said. "And kids smell that out. As much as the kids would love a better world, they also want to grow up and be successful and make friends. So when you present a boy with, ‘I really want you to do this, but it might get you beat up,’ 3- and 5-year-olds say, ‘No thanks.’"

That’s why the business and cultural perspectives need to come together, he says. "It’s not that the play patterns can’t appeal to boys and girls, but boys and girls can see that there are identity threats out there, and if they’re going to pioneer those play patterns, they’re probably going to deal with consequences."

Jo Paoletti, Ph.D, author of "Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America," agrees. When researching her dissertation, she found that ridicule plays a strong role in shaping the male identity. "One of the ways that you know that you’re a boy is you’re not a girl, so you have to learn all the girl rules and then avoid them," she said. "The way that those are enforced are through social interactions, whether your friends admire you or beat you up, your parents praise you or ridicule you." Boys are under a lot of pressure, she adds.

It’s the argument of nature versus nurture. Will boys play naturally with dolls if marketers make them cool or will they automatically reject them because of an innate preference?

Spin Master CMO Nancy Zwiers belongs to the nature camp. "One of the things that I’m absolutely passionate about is ‘child-directed play,’" she said. "I think adults sometimes bring their own agendas into the play sphere, and I’m not in support of that. I’m in support of parents paying attention to their child’s naturally expressed interests and then serving those preferences with the purchases that they make."

Instead of making Spin Master toys gender neutral, Zwiers prefers "gender inclusive." She notes that 2016’s most popular toy, Hatchimals—which is grounded in a nurturing play pattern—has upwards of 20 percent boy fan base, according to company research. Likewise, Paw Patrol has cross-gender appeal thanks to its mix of male and female characters, she says. Fifty-five percent of boys and 45 percent of girls watch the TV series, but the toy users tend to skew toward boys.

Parental Guidance
Both Davis and Zwiers believe the battle of the sexes in toyland seems to be coming to an end, however, and the reason is millennial parents. 

"There’s a new relationship forming with the sort of young, Gen X and millennial parents and their kids," David said. "Research has been showing this for years, that there’s this increasing trust among kids that their parents are actually cool. What for decades was the kiss of death, a parent saying, ‘You might like this’ is not true anymore."

Zwiers adds, "Younger parents are more sensitive to the need to be gender inclusive. It is coming to light that there are children whose gender identities don’t match their physical sex, and while they’re in the minority, they need the same opportunities to express themselves through play as anybody else."

Consumers are already seeing it with American Girl’s Logan. But in a sign of just how deeply ingrained the boy-doll stigma is in our culture, even progressive voices felt the need to mock its existence. "Are mediocre white men not prevalent enough in today’s society, so now their avatars must haunt even our tea parties?" The New York Times asked.

And, of course, more conservative voices were quick the condemn the whole idea. "Now you are going to have little boys playing with baby dolls and that's not cool," said Rev. Keith Ogden of Hill Street Baptist Church in North Carolina.

Mattel Director of Communications for North America Michelle Chidoni notes that, despite the recent attention, the company has been gender inclusive for a few years now. Both Barbie and Hot Wheels have included both sexes in their advertising, she says; a boy even played with a Barbie Dream House in one.

"But just to give you an example of how the industry at large is evolving, every year there is an awards show called the TOTYs. It’s the Toy of the Year Award," she said. "Previously, up until this year, they had a category that was Best Boy Toy and Best Girl Toy, and they killed the categories. So the industry as a whole is starting to get there."

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