Mr Potato Head Has Gone Genderless. Or Has He?

Tanvi Akhauri
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Mr Potato Head is a mister no more! Well, in part. Toy giant Hasbro announced on Thursday that its iconic brown moustached spud will soon go genderless in a bid for more inclusivity. Additionally, there will be an aim at infusing more sustainability in their plastic playthings.

Starting fall, the multinational is set to introduce a new line of gaming kits called 'Create Your Potato Head Family.' Presented with an assortment of detachable body parts and three slate-clean plastic potatoes (two adults and a baby), children will have room to create diverse family units and gender orientations of their own choice.

Claims of Mr Potato Head's departure raised alarms at first. Because with a legacy as impressive as this spud's - clocking in at over 70 years - any deviation in identity, notwithstanding progressiveness, may be subject to very personal readings. Generations of Americans have grown up with personalised potato heads in their hands.

So the brand set out to clarify that "your main spud" Mr Potato Head "isn't going anywhere." The genderless potato family kit reportedly only comes as an addition to the already existing line of gendered potatoes.

Mr Potato Head: A Complex Towering Legacy

When the idea of it was first incepted in 1949 by artist George Lerner, Mr Potato Head was just a wild jumble of plastic facepieces attached to pushpins that could be stuck onto vegetables and fruits to create fun characters. Despite the novelty, there were imminent concerns of food wastage among parents who had survived World War II on limited sustenance.

When Hasbro bought Lerner's toys in 1952, it throttled Mr Potato Head to the front of the toy line. Its televised advertisements were groundbreaking and popularity skyrocketed with a million sales in the first year alone. It is said the kits originally included hands, feet, eyes, ears, two mouths, four types of noses, hats, glasses, a pipe and eight hairpieces.


Mrs Potato Head joined the family a year later, and ultimately so did Brother Spud and Sister Yam. And thus completed Mr Potato Head's compact, conventional, upper-middle-class family.

Through phases of design and redesign, the toy finally resulted in the form recognisable today with the potato body that began to come with the set in 1964. Mr Potato Head took on a life of its own, appearing in various renditions and collaborations with its fellow pop culture toons.

Its towering status, however, has not shielded the celebrated spud from criticism that is highly pertinent. It has been pointed out by many that Mr Potato Head proffers racist stereotypes of Black persons, evident through its features that come "exaggerated." Similar complaints had in 2000 led to the removal of a six foot tall Mr Potato Head from Rhode Island, US.

And this is not the first Hasbro is facing such a controversy. We reported last year in August that the company's Troll Dolls contained sexual messaging wherein pushing a button on the toy's private parts released squeals. Other complaints of sexism came in 2012 when a teen petitioned to have boys too on kitchen game sets and in 2015 when Rey, a major Star Wars character, was left out of its Monopoly board game.

How much praise must a conglomerate then be showered with, when it is all but only reacting to changing times, not leading them? Alternatively, mustn't any change, especially that which seeks to rid the world of gender conditioning and convention, be welcomed, even if with a pinch of salt?


Are Changes In The Toy Market More Than Competition?

Buzz on the toy block is that Hasbro's stroke is a face-up to its primary competitor Mattel Inc, the mammoth name behind the Barbie line of dolls. Barbie has been a household name globally since its creation in 1959 by Ruth Handler. While its sales fell by double digits during one period in the last decade, as per the Wall Street Journal, there are reports of it having picked up again with an introduction of diversity to its line.

Mattel has in recent years launched several figurines honouring inclusivity, with Barbies of Black poet Maya Angelou, para-badminton champ Manasi Joshi, ecologist Nalini Nadkarni, astronauts, the list goes on.


Mr Potato Head vs Barbie: A Battle Of Inclusivity

Obviously, in a competitive market, Hasbro coming up with a messaging of gender inclusivity should only have been expected. Encouraged, even. A toyland for children to take on meanings of gender and family and love as per their individual sensibilities, with no instructions to condition them, makes this world seem a more hopeful place and worthy of their inheritance.

Although how much substance this campaigning of gender neutrality by Hasbro actually holds demands questioning. Is it more than just a net over a larger market share? What does the sheer speed with which the company rushed to clarify that the OG Mr Potato Head isn't going anywhere say? How much of it is lip service inclusivity and how much is authentic?

Many on social media haven't taken well to the gender-neutral Mr Potato Head line, claiming it is all a needless gimmick. Reasons vary, with some saying they never took the toy to be representative of any one gender in the first place, given its detachable and replaceable parts. Some say its deference to "liberal" culture should have been avoided.

With the stronghold they have in the lives of tiny humans soon to grow up into adults of the real world, the toy industry sure does need a re-examination of every hint of subliminal messaging it sends out, vis-a-vis gender, age, habits, values, tolerance, everything. That influence, in fact, spans even beyond childhood games with those directed towards grownups. The scope of learnings in inclusivity has no end.

Change is coming in small odd pockets, such as with this Dutch woman who designed gender-neutral cards, as it is on bigger platforms with Hamley's, Toys R Us, Mattel, Hasbro and others leading the fore. The kind of real-time pervasive reverberations it causes remains to be seen.

Picture Credit: Hasbro

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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