BY GWENDOLYN ANN SMITH
In 1976, as a Georgia peanut farmer 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 Normal 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 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 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,” boasts the faux mother in the television commercial for the doll. Indeed, it mentions the “physically correct” nature of the doll twice within the thirty-second ad.
This was not without contention, which of course was exactly what I think Ideal was aiming for. I suspect knew they would likely sell more units by courting controversy than they ever could have hawking the doll of a five-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 the 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 moved 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 dome. Today we live in a world where babies are ruthlessly gendered, from the parents throwing a “gender reveal” party, through endless “pink princess” and “blue action hero” play sets. 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 a New York property developer and reality show host assumed the Presidency and America feels 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 teenaged girl in America can be, regardless of trans status.
Much like Ideal, I’m sure the Tonner Doll Company a marketing opportunity in a doll in the likeness of Jazz 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. They’re also expected to retail at somewhere around $90.00, which is a big step above the Stivic doll, which can be found on the secondary market today, in box, for less than half that price.
The 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 nor 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 their Jazz 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 the person it is based on is transgender. 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 Joey Stivic doll heralded an era of increasing gender specialization and separation, perhaps the Jazz Jennings doll will open doors for transgender people in the decades to come in its own way.
We certainly need sort of hope in these difficult, uncertain times.