This week the world said goodbye to Mr Potato Head. Hasbro, the company that makes the popular plastic tuber, announced that in future it will be adopting the more inclusive name ‘Potato Head’, so that everyone can feel ‘welcome in the Potato Head world’.
This news was greeted by the usual suspects in the usual manner–with either rapturous applause or thundering condemnation. The LGBT organisation GLAAD congratulated Hasbro on helping kids to ‘be their authentic selves outside of the pressures of traditional gender norms’; Piers Morgan complained that ‘woke imbeciles’ were ruining everything. But then Hasbro issued a clarification:
While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the `MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD.
So, apart from some minor tweaks to the toy’s packaging (moving the ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ names from the top to the bottom of the box) the Potato Head world remains unchanged. You will still be able to create the familiar figures of Mr Potato Head and Mrs Potato Head (who hasn’t even become a Ms, let alone reverted to her unmarried name, Maris Piper), and the resources provided for that purpose will still be a set of stick-on bits and pieces that include a luxuriant moustache, eyes with or without long mascara’d lashes, a bowler hat, heeled red shoes, heavy black spectacles and a pink handbag. Of course, if you want to mix things up by teaming the bowler with the heels or sticking the moustache and the mascara’d eyes on the same potato-face, you will now be totally free to do so. EXACTLY AS YOU WERE BEFORE.
Hasbro’s ‘rebranding’ of Mr Potato Head is an example of what’s been dubbed ‘woke capitalism’, where corporations seek to associate themselves with progressive political causes in the hope of burnishing their public image on the cheap. We see this every year when International Women’s Day rolls around, and big companies start putting out feelgood messages about women’s empowerment—last year, for instance, the energy company Shell temporarily rebranded itself ‘She’ll’—even if their Boards are 95% male and their gender pay-gap hasn’t shifted since the last time they made this gesture.
Often these corporate messages are bland and uncontroversial, but sometimes they’re designed to manufacture controversy. Hasbro’s announcement looks like a case in point: the company must have known that its ‘Potato Head goes gender-neutral’ message would immediately get dragged into the ongoing culture war around gender, generating thousands of words of free publicity. It worked like a dream: the announcement made headlines around the world. Yet all Hasbro had done was make a formulaic statement about its commitment to ‘gender equality and inclusiveness’. The product itself remains as gender-stereotyped as ever (not to mention as plastic as ever, and as dependent as ever on overseas manufacturers whose labour practices have raised questions).
But even if Hasbro really had decided to phase out the titles ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ and call the toy simply ‘Potato Head’, what impact would that have had on the way it was perceived and used? In my opinion, none. Whatever the characters were called on the box, I’m betting that most kids would still (a) use the pieces provided to make the traditional Mr and Mrs, and (b) treat the male version as the default or prototypical version. The world they inhabit, and are actively trying to make sense of, is one where both gender differentiation and androcentrism are the norm. You don’t have to give a toy a clearly gendered name for kids to impose a gender on it. Of course, if you want to change this, it makes sense to pay attention to language, but we shouldn’t think of language-change as a panacea. Gender-neutral terms, though undoubtedly useful in some contexts, are not a sure-fire way of eliminating bias.
In 1973, two researchers set out to investigate this question by asking students to suggest visual illustrations for a fictitious sociology textbook. Half the students were asked to find images to illustrate chapters with titles like ‘Urban Man’ and ‘Economic Man’; the other half were given alternative titles like ‘Life in Cities’ and ‘Economic Behavior’. The question was whether the use or avoidance of ‘man’ would influence the students’ choice of images. The researchers found it did have an influence. Nearly two thirds of the ‘man’ group’s suggestions were images that showed only men. But while women were better represented in the other group’s selection, they still only featured in around half of the suggested images. Both groups, in other words, showed a tendency to treat men as the human prototype; this tendency was strengthened by using androcentric language, but avoiding androcentric language did not eliminate it. The bias isn’t just in language, it’s ingrained in the way we’ve learned to think about the world.
This point about ingrained ways of thinking was dramatized in another story about toys that appeared this week, though it got far less attention than Mr Potato Head. Toni Sturdivant, a researcher based in Texas, has done a quasi-replication of a 1947 study which used dolls to investigate Black children’s ideas about race. The children who took part in this famous study had been presented with Black and white dolls, and asked questions like ‘which doll is the nice doll’? They showed a strong preference for the white dolls over the Black ones. The study’s findings were later used in the 1954 court case that paved the way for school desegregation in the US—Brown v. Board of Education—and they were also one inspiration for Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye.
Several decades later, Toni Sturdivant set out to investigate the perceptions of Black pre-school children by looking at their spontaneous interactions with a diverse selection of dolls. She didn’t want to repeat the original study’s somewhat unnatural and potentially stress-inducing design by quizzing her subjects directly; rather she provided four different dolls—one white, one Latina, and two Black (one with lighter and one with darker skin)–and observed how the children (in fact, girls) played with them. Here’s how she describes her observations.
The girls rarely chose the Black dolls during play. On the rare occasions that the girls chose the Black dolls, they mistreated them. One time a Black girl put the doll in a pot and pretended to cook the doll. That’s not something the girls did with the dolls that weren’t Black.
When it came time to do either of the Black dolls’ hair, the girls would pretend to be hairstylists and say, “I can’t do that doll’s hair. It’s too big,” or, “It’s too curly.” But they did the hair for the dolls of other ethnicities. While they preferred to style the Latina doll’s straight hair, they were also happy to style the slightly crimped hair of the white doll as well.
The children were more likely to step over or even step on the Black dolls to get to other toys. But that didn’t happen with the other dolls.
In 1947 the finding that Black children preferred white dolls to Black ones was put down to the effects of segregated schooling. Toni Sturdivant’s study, however, suggests that the root of the problem isn’t so much what kind of schools children attend as the messages they absorb from a culture pervaded by racism. Her findings also raise questions about the idea that the self-esteem of children who differ from the cultural prototype—Black and brown children, children with disabilities, gender non-conforming children—is automatically enhanced by giving them toys which look like them, and which they will therefore (it’s assumed) identify positively with. This diversification may be a necessary part of trying to create a more equal world, but on its own it clearly isn’t sufficient: it doesn’t override all the other messages kids are getting about what, and who, their society values.
Stripping Mr Potato Head of his gendered title (while leaving him his hat, his moustache and his handbag-toting wife) will not override those messages either. It’s ridiculous to present this as striking a blow for equality and inclusiveness, or enabling children to ‘be their authentic selves outside the pressure of traditional gender norms’ (has the GLAAD spokesperson who wrote those words ever looked at Mr and Mrs Potato Head?) And it’s even more ridiculous to suggest, as some conservative commentators appeared to be doing, that a gender-neutral Potato Head will somehow mislead children about the nature of reality. If that were in any way a reasonable concern then the toy should surely have been banned years ago for blurring the natural distinction between humans and root vegetables.
This is what happens when the goodness or badness of of gender-neutral/inclusive language becomes a tribal article of faith instead of a question to be assessed on its merits, which will vary with the context and the case. People talk embarrassing nonsense, and the result is to create an even more hospitable climate for cynical PR stunts like Hasbro’s.