Mr Potato Head and the cult of gender neutrality

27 February 2021

1:52 AM

27 February 2021

1:52 AM

Another pillar of the patriarchy has fallen. His name is Mr Potato Head – or rather, it was Mr Potato Head. US toy giant Hasbro has decided to make the branding for this nearly 70-year-old range gender-neutral, so it will just be Potato Head from now on. According to Hasbro, this is all part of an effort to ensure that ‘all feel welcome in the Potato Head world’ and to ‘promote gender equality and inclusion’.

Neither Mr Potato Head nor his wife, Mrs Potato Head, are being shelved entirely as characters, Hasbro was later forced to clarify. But the overall brand will change, and a new family set will allow kids to create their own Potato Head families without being bound by the old range’s apparently outdated assumptions about gender and sexuality. Or something. It seems all those outraged letters from genderfluid three-year-olds forced Hasbro’s hand.

To say this is an odd story is putting it mildly. Not least because the formality of Mr Potato Head was always part of the joke. ‘That’s Mr Potato Head to you’, he said, voiced by Don Rickles in Toy Story, when Woody addressed him too informally for his liking. But apparently messing up the entire brand is a small price to pay for Hasbro buying some woke brownie points and getting a heap of free coverage in the process.

Hasbro has form on this front. In 2019, having launched hundreds of versions of its classic Monopoly board game, it came out with Ms Monopoly, ‘the first-ever game where women make more than men’ – female players collect £170 ($240) when they pass go, while men collect only £140 ($200). As with the gender-neutral Potato Head, the culture-war debates these products provoke allows established brands to shoot up the news agenda.

But underpinning it all is a very real and alarmingly influential idea that toys are essentially a tool of oppression. ‘When kids grow up without toys that reflect them and their experience, they don’t feel that they belong’, said Wendy Cukier, academic director of Ryerson university’s ‘diversity institute’, in a recent interview. Which is absurd when you think about it for a minute, given all the dinosaur or animal toys your average toddler plays with.

While no one objects to Barbie launching a more ethnically diverse range, or Lego introducing some disabled figures, are we really saying kids’ self-esteem is mortally harmed by them not ‘seeing themselves’ in their toys? Do we really think a generation of female entrepreneurs will be unleashed by the arrival of Ms Monopoly? Are there gender non-conforming kids out there who felt oppressed by Mr Potato Head? Of course not, and yet the charade goes on.

And it is a charade. For if Hasbro really was a force for progress in the world, perhaps it would think twice about which Chinese factories it uses. In fact, next time you see a corporation make some ostentatiously woke statement, Google its name and ‘China’ and see what pops out. Nike and Apple were two enthusiastic supporters of Black Lives Matter last year; both have faced allegations that forced labour exists in their supply chains.

The politicisation of absolutely everything, from Gillette to Ben & Jerry’s to the toy formerly known as Mr Potato Head, is utterly bizarre. But it is also completely hollow.

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