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Don’t be a hater of ungendered tater. Kids don’t care if Hasbro Potato Head is ‘Mr.,’ ‘Mrs.’ or ‘they’ | COMMENTARY

Virginia pre-school student Cayden Wright works with educator Khededra Lewis to assemble a Potato Head figure in this 2019 file photo. (Bill Tiernan | The Virginian-Pilot)
Virginia pre-school student Cayden Wright works with educator Khededra Lewis to assemble a Potato Head figure in this 2019 file photo. (Bill Tiernan | The Virginian-Pilot)

When Hasbro announced a corporate decision to drop the “Mr.” from its iconic Mr. Potato Head brand, there were immediate reactions and accusations of “cancel culture” from those resistant to change.

The company will still feature Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters for sale and plans to this fall release a “Create your potato head family” toy set. It will come with a small potato body, two large bodies and a variety of accessories, so youngsters can play with the plastic potato bases in many ways. Some days as “Mrs.” Some days as “Mr.” And some days, presumably, as Ms., they or two married misters.

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As a mother, grandmother and classroom teacher of over three decades, experience tells me that regardless of how the toy is marketed, or how the right decries it, children will play with it exactly how they like — even a plastic potato.

My late mother used to tell a story about her “doll.” As one of eight children (six girls, two boys) being raised by my grandmother, a young widow during the Depression, my mom never owned a store-bought doll. One day, while playing outside, Mom found the head of an old doll in their alley. Over time, my mom and her siblings found many uses for that doll head. Some days it became a “baby,” its non-existent torso wrapped in a blanket. One of my aunts used the doll head as a flying fairy. I think my uncles and aunts also used to play catch with the doll head. My mother would summon up the details of this tale to illustrate her long held belief that less is more.

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I also know Mom would no doubt applaud Hasbro’s decision regarding the Potato Head. Back in 1987, my mother bought my daughter a Mrs. Potato Head. (No alley doll heads for her toddler granddaughter!) My daughter didn’t care if Mrs. Potato Head carried her handbag or wore the earrings. In fact, some days Mrs. Potato Head’s eyes were upside down. There was never any right or wrong way to create the character as far as grandmother and granddaughter were concerned during their playtime together.

I grow weary of the battle cry from those on the right claiming that “cancel culture” is destroying civilization as we know it. Showing empathy, awareness and sensitivity to the feelings and lifestyles of our diverse world cancels nothing other than intolerance.

Again, I point to my mother’s wealth of experiences to illustrate the importance of progressive tolerance and acceptance. In the late 1970s, Mom and my father’s sister managed a small thrift store in Baltimore’s Charles Village neighborhood. Both Mom and my aunt loved that store and the customers who shopped there. One frequent customer often stopped in to shop, he said, for his “sister.” He would hold up various dresses, blouses, and more seeing how they looked against himself in the mirror.

My aunt, a loving, extroverted woman with a keen intuition, was able to realize the man was shopping for his own wardrobe. One day, she breezily suggested to him, devoid of judgment, “Feel free to try on anything your heart desires, rather than having to return purchases that don’t fit.” In time, shoes, accessories and more were added to the customer’s purchases. Not only did the store have a happy and loyal customer, my mother and aunt formed a friendship with a kind person who appreciated being able to relax, have confidence, and be their true self — if only at the store.

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If it takes something as minor as a change in the branding of a plastic potato character to outrage some, we have a long way to go. Throughout time, kids have played using their imaginations. Potato Head will continue to be whatever children create. More important is our capacity as a society to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Whether Potato Head wears loafers or high heels is the least of our challenges.

Carolyn Buck (bucklaz@aol.com) is a local writer and performing arts educator. She is a teaching artist at Baltimore Center Stage.

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