By Jonathan Alexandratos
Hasbro announced today that they will remove the “Mr.” title from their iconic “Mr. Potato Head” brand, paving the way for more gender-expansive, as well as traditional, play. The new “Potato Head” brand will allow consumers to buy two-packs of plastic potatoes, in addition to typical “Mr. Potato Head” and “Mrs. Potato Head” sets, that come with all sorts of facial and body add-ons, furthering the toy’s advancement from the 1952, 98-cent original product for which you had to supply your own potato. This essentially allows one to create the potatoes of their dreams without the constraints of accessories that follow traditional Western gender norms. You can make the conventional Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters, or you can abandon those templates with the parts you’re given. This move aligns with roughly 50% of Gen-Zers and 56% of Millennials who stated that binary gender labels are outdated in a recent Bigeye study. In other words, the toy is changing to fit the lives of those in its audience.
When Hasbro’s press release landed, the Internet’s usual suspects took to their keyboards to denounce this as a sign of speech restrictions and some imaginary mandate of progressivism, when in fact it is just a company trying to create an umbrella term for a line that contains all sorts of Potato Heads, Spudtroopers, kid potatoes, Hulk potatoes, and rotating casts of new characters each year. “Mr. Potato Head” simply isn’t an accurate brand name for all of that, as they aren’t all that particular character, but “Potato Head,” indicating a shared Potato Head universe, is a bit closer to what they’re going for. You can, for instance, still buy a “Mr. Potato Head” in the “Potato Head” line (see box picture at the end of this article). That hasn’t changed. It has been added to, and, with the new brand name, it has been more accurately identified. The conservative backlash on this is baffling.
That said, if there are benefits felt in the play patterns of Trans and Non-Binary kids, I celebrate that inclusion, intentional or not. I could imagine some consumers feeling seen by the play-as-you-wish/play-as-you-are implications of a removed gendered honorific, which is fantastic. As a Trans Non-Binary person myself, I’m always happy to see companies think critically about the gendered messages in their toys. Mattel has done some of this work with the release of their Creatable World dolls and the inclusion of boys in their American Girl line. A year ago, Squishmallows released Bobby, a Non-Binary rabbit, for their plush collection. And, in a bare-minimum nod to the shift in gender roles, Hasbro Gaming removed the image of the mother and daughter washing dishes in the background of a father and son playing Battleship on their retro re-release of the game. So while “Potato Head” will not be the first example of gender-expansive thinking by toymakers, it is still laudatory, especially when the toy in question is an Alan Hassenfeld favorite. It also signals an interesting potential business trend, in which gendered toys, created because of their profitability, may not need to hit the binary so hard in order to make money.
However, Trans people didn’t ask for this. I want to be clear about that so I’ll say it again: Trans people. Did not. Ask for this. I’m repeating that point because, when news like this emerges, some imagine the following scene: A Trans person, possibly in a trench coat, approaches a Hasbro executive in a parking lot. They say, “Hey, HazDweeb, yeah, it’s me, the entire Trans community. Listen. You and I both know that it’s our dollars keeping Potato Head alive, so you listen to us. You better drop the ‘Mr.’ or else we’ll pull all our money and mash that toy but good! And another thing! Don’t even say ‘Mr.’! Don’t say ‘Mrs.’! Wear a grey jumpsuit, shave your head, and forget that gender exists, or else we’ll be back in force!” In case you didn’t pick up on this already: that is ridiculous. It is a spin that commentators put on a change that has a perfectly simple explanation. The idea that the Trans community, which has to fight to get into the right bathrooms, can somehow influence a toymaker’s 70-year-old product is illogical at best. If we did have that power, we’d use it to make sure Black Trans women aren’t being murdered at astronomically high rates, not futzing with the name of a toy. We love gender! Be a “Mr.”! Be a “Mrs.”! Be “Ms.”! Be “Mx.”! Be them all! Be other options! Be none! Be whoever you are. But also maybe know that potatoes aren’t any of those things, so do what you do best: create characters from your imagination using toys as vessels for that creativity without worrying which box a company has tried to put them, or you, in.
As the reports of “Potato Head” start making the rounds, my biggest fear is that they’ll be used to fuel a bonfire that distracts from Trans death, Trans discrimination, and other real transphobia. Detractors will turn the conversation toward, “See! We can’t say anything anymore!” when that entirely misses the truth of the matter: a company decided to stay meaningful to modern kids using the means at their disposal. If you’re in this group, and I’m somehow getting to you before you send me a death threat (it happens), maybe ask yourself these questions: (1) Are you a potato? (If not, you’re not at risk of witnessing misgendering or erasure in this case.) (2) Are you a “Mr.”? (3) If so, will you stop being a “Mr.” if “Mr. Potato Head” is just referred to as a “Potato Head” set as if this is some sort of gender Horcrux? (If the answer is no, you will be fine, and I congratulate you for feeling at home in your gender! If the answer is yes, you may want to think about ways to build a foundation for your gender that is stronger than a plastic toy.)
If you see those questions for the comical gedankenexperiments that they are, then I’d bet your gender North Star is shining bright. You can follow it to organizations supporting Black Trans women that truly need your help. Here are some.
Beyond that, back here in the world of toys, we now have another addition to the tradition of “Make Whatever You Want!” as firmed up on the company-side by LEGO, but as enacted by kids for centuries. I can’t wait to meet your Potato Head.