Toy industry tinkers with gender bending And Barbie's Ken sports an earring


Will this be the year the gender barrier falls, or at least shows a few nicks? Will boys play with trolls? Will girls go for action figures?

And is America ready for Ken's make-over?

Ken, of course, is Barbie's boyfriend, a clean-cut, athletic-looking guy, handsome as a prince. The new Ken has gone MTV. His brown hair has been lightened by blond streaks. And one more touch: he wears an earring in his left ear.

Herewith, childhood in America, the 1993 model, as presented by the toy industry. With the opening in New York last week of the American International Toy Fair, which runs through Wednesday, the $15.3 billion industry began feeding new products into the toy-store pipeline. It is an annual process that culminates in a crescendo of Christmas buying.

The industry, which has been built on a solid foundation of sexual stereotypes, is beginning to register the unraveling of those stereotypes in society at large. It learned a lesson last year when a talking Barbie elicited an outcry because she was programmed to say "Math class is tough!" -- reinforcing the myth that facility with numbers is dependent on the Y chromosome. Mattel, the manufacturer, was forced to cut the sentence from the doll's voice box.

This year, some toy makers see dollar signs in gender blurriness. They are trying to sell certain kinds of toys to both sexes. The concept of "gender bending," which is creating a buzz in the industry, tells all.

Gender bending is an attempt to broaden business by moving toys across the rigid boundary that divides the toy world into two camps: pink and blue. This year, manufacturers are trying to interest boys in trolls, which have been a favorite with girls. Likewise, they are trying to sell girls on action figures and dinosaurs, popular among boys.

The very idea is formidable, given the industry's history. The pink camp consists of dolls, makeup, fluffy animals and acres of synthetic hair. On the blue side are cars, trucks, warriors and awesome arsenals of weapons.

Each side has its own vocabulary. Pink parlance has words like "nurturing," "love," "magic" and "extra-long hair." Key words on the blue side are "hero," "warrior," "battle" and "speed."

So, how is the industry executing gender bending? Not by

bending gender stereotypes at all, but by reinforcing them.

The trolls for boys are actually old-fashioned action figures. Turtle Trolls from Playmates, Troll Warriors from Tyco and Battle Trolls from Hasbro are highly armed, battle-ready characters with troll faces and stand-up hair.

Likewise, Playtime's Little Miss Dinosaur and Meritus Industries' Darlin' Dinos are outgrowths, so to speak, of a longtime favorite for girls, the pony with a long mane and flowing tail. Like the pony, which is touted in the toy industry for its "hair play," the dinosaur has a full head of hair. The potential in this cross-selling is considerable. Paul Valentine, a toy analyst for the Standard & Poor's Corp., said sales of trolls to boys could exceed $150 million.

There has not been an action figure for girls since She-Ra, He-Man's sister, expired five years ago. Mattel is trying to fill the void with its new Wonder Woman and the Star Riders.

These characters, with fluffy hair that tumbles past their waists, bear no resemblance to heroic male action figures. Whereas males battle for nothing less than the salvation of the universe, the mission of the Wonder Women characters is to protect jewels that provide colors for nature. Moreover, the women fight not with swords or machine guns, but with "special powers," like a wand that sprays bubbles.

Toy industry executives say research shows that boys and girls have different play patterns -- aggressive for boys, nurturing for girls.

"I don't believe it," said Dr. Anita Landau Hurtig, associate professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Children don't have natural proclivities to express themselves with dolls or soldiers."

Dr. Karen Shanor, a Washington psychologist who advises parents on buying toys, said sexual stereotypes in the toy industry are stronger than ever. "I believe it's part of a backlash," she said. "Some people in power in the industry are nervous about boys not being macho enough and girls becoming too powerful."

The derring-do of the new Ken doll represents another toy tradition. Ken's revised look is the latest example of Mattel's knack for incorporating the latest societal fads and images in its phenomenally successful Barbie business.

Still, even for Mattel, Earring Magic Ken was a stretch. "This is a big breakthrough," said Lisa McKendall, manager of marketing communications for Mattel. "We never would have done this a few years ago. But now you see more earrings on men. They are more accepted in day-to-day life. We are trying to keep Ken updated."

A new doll from Tyco, Mommy's Having a Baby, represents the latest effort in the toy industry's quest for a successful pregnancy doll. Most previous attempts were controversial and short-lived.

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