Transmissions: A tale of two dolls
by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
In 1976, as Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was elected to the presidency and America went into a patriotic fervor over its bicentennial, the Ideal Toy Company decided to cash in on a popular television show. "All In The Family," a Norman Lear production that was starting to grow a little long in the tooth, graced characters Michael and Gloria Stivic with a child, Joey. The show, no stranger to controversy with its socially conscious scripts centered on bigoted Archie Bunker and his family, added one more notch to its belt by having Bunker become the first character to change a diaper on national television.
Ideal saw a marketing opportunity in little Joey Stivic, creating a baby doll in the rough likeness of the newborns used on the show. This was a largely typical baby doll, featuring vinyl skin and rooted blond filaments for hair. Perhaps so you could relive that important television moment, the doll could "drink" from a bottle, and "wet" its diaper.
While it was not entirely unique at the time, one other feature did make it noteworthy. The doll had genitals. While Mattel Inc. had beaten Ideal to the punch by three years, it was Ideal's Joey Stivic doll that promoted itself based specifically on what was in this doll's simulated diaper.
"This is the new baby in our family. A baby doll. A famous doll. Archie Bunker's grandson, Joey Stivic. So of course he's special. Your child can give him a drink from his bottle, then he wets – and when his diaper is changed, it's clear that Joey Stivic is a physically correct boy doll. My husband and I think that's terrific," boasted the faux mother in the television commercial for the doll. Indeed, it mentions the "physically correct" nature of the doll twice within the 30-second ad.
This was not without contention, which, of course, was exactly what I think Ideal was aiming for. I suspect the company knew it would likely sell more units by courting controversy than it ever could have hawking the doll of a 5-year-old television franchise.
In 1976, I had been on earth only a few years more than "All in the Family," and I can recall the big news about Ideal's Joey Stivic doll. It was controversial, and therefore a hot property. I did not want one, however, having grown too old for a baby doll and moving onto Mego Wizard of Oz dolls and my long-loved Bionic Woman doll, complete with faux hair and bionic modules you could reveal under a roll-up skin sheath on her arm.
Perhaps the Stivic doll was a sign of the sexually liberated 1970s, or a harbinger of things to come. Today, we live in a world where babies are ruthlessly gendered, from parents throwing "gender reveal" parties to endless "pink princess" and "blue action hero" playsets. While anatomically correct dolls never fully caught on, we certainly apply a lot of heavy gendered expectations on our flesh-and-blood offspring.
In 2017, as New York property developer and reality show host Donald Trump assumed the presidency and America felt more divided than ever, the Tonner Doll Company decided to cash in on a popular television show. "I Am Jazz," a reality show on TLC, focuses on the life transgender teen Jazz Jennings and her family. Unlike "All In The Family," the show is likely only controversial in the eyes of those offended by anything to do with transgender people. The show, if anything, shows how conventional the life of a teenage girl in America can be, regardless of trans status.
Much like Ideal, I'm sure the Tonner Doll Company saw a marketing opportunity in a doll in the likeness of Jennings. It's a high quality doll, along the lines of an American Girl doll, and from a company that is more designed to appeal to an adult, rather than child, toy market. The company also expected to retail it at around $90, which is a steep increase over the Stivic doll, which can be found on the secondary market today, in box, for less than half that price.
The Jennings doll itself is, of course, being hailed as the "first transgender doll" in the press, and that may be true. I don't recall any that predate it, in spite of a few Ken doll mishaps and one-offs from doll enthusiasts. There's no Christine Jorgensen or Renee Richards dolls floating around that I know of, nor any other trans celebs.
Unlike the Stivic doll, however, Tonner Dolls does not seem all that intent on pushing the transgender angle on its Jennings doll.
"I don't even know if the word 'transgender' will be on the package," Robert Tonner, the company's owner and sculptor, was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "She's a great kid. She's a very brave, special person. And that's what we're trying to get out there."
Of course, the Jennings doll is only a transgender doll because it is based on a transgender person. If you have a prurient interest, you will not find genitalia under her garments. I might even argue that this is the point: this is a doll of a girl. That she is transgender is, in its own way, irrelevant to the doll. She is, both in life and in doll form, simply another young woman in this world.
If the Stivic doll heralded an era of increasing gender specialization and separation, perhaps the Jennings doll will open doors for transgender people in the decades to come in its own way.
We certainly need some hope in these difficult, uncertain times.
Gwen Smith still plays with dolls. You can find her at http://www.gwensmith.com.