In its latest release of contemporary characters announced Tuesday, American Girl has included a boy doll for the first time — “Logan,” the drummer friend of new character “Tenney Grant,” who bears a striking resemblance to country-pop star Taylor Swift in her younger years.
The new dolls are “designed to speak to even more girls' interests, backgrounds, and experiences.” But a spokesperson told the New York Times the move is also in part a response to demand from parents who wanted a character for their sons. “Some parents wanted a doll for their boys to play with, while girls were simply looking to diversify their collections,” she told the Times. “In fact, we know many girls who have created their own boy dolls from our existing lines.”
Meanwhile, American Girl owner Mattel also said Tuesday that the company has inked a deal with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to sell in China through Alibaba marketplace tmall.com. Mattel will also promote educational content through Alibaba’s media ecosystem and work with Alibaba's A.I. Lab to develop new tech-based, interactive educational toys, according to a press release.
At this point in the 21st century, the throwback nature of traditional gender lines in the toy industry is a head-scratcher. The product development, marketing and merchandising of toys remains highly gendered, despite research supporting that girls and boys should be allowed to play how they like.
Experts told Retail Dive last year that the gender lines in toy marketing have come back stronger than ever after being blurred in the 1970s thanks to the rise of feminism and some relaxation of gender norms.
“In 1975, only 2% of toy ads in the Sears catalog were gender-based, meaning they showed a girl with a baking toy or a boy with a building toy. By 1995, 50% were gender-based. It’s moving in the wrong direction,” Dan Nessel, founder of family-focused consumer reviews site Dad Does, told Retail Dive. “The toy industry markets pink and princesses for girls, and builders and blasters for boys. If anyone calls them on it, they say, ‘We did a focus group, and girls want princesses and pink things.’ I say, ‘That’s because you’ve been marketing them for a decade.’”
Parents like Nessel were behind Target’s decision in 2015 to remove the gender lines separating bedding and toys for boys and girls. The retailer has since developed gender-neutral lines of home decor for kids and, along with other retailers, even some apparel.
American Girl, while willing to acknowledge some demand from boys for their dolls, kept their press release squarely tilted toward girls and girl empowerment, suggesting that its marketing may lag behind its merchandising when it comes to breaking down gender lines. That could be leaving money on the table. “There’s a lot of work to be done, by all parties,” Nessel said. “But once sales go up, the toy industry will say, ‘This is great. We’re now selling to twice as many people. Let’s do more of it.’”