Woke parents are applauding Hasbro’s announcement that it will create a gender neutral Mr Potato Head, simply called, Potato Head, as cultural conservatives everywhere are whining about the latest example of political correctness gone mad. Meanwhile, people are suddenly talking about a toy that, like so many Micronauts and Chatty Cathies, could easily have been bound for the dreaded Island of Lost Toys. The only question is what will they do with the profits.
The toy industry has always done a great job of injecting their products into the cultural consciousness by baiting controversy. Suddenly, Mr Potato Head has become the site of a pitched ideological battle: the progressives will claim Potato Head has always represented progressive values (recall his crusade against improper rough handling in Toy Story as well as his adoptive paternity of the Little Green Men), while conservatives will want him to remain the bulwark of the traditional family (his wife packs his lunch and his angry eyes as he heads to City Hall to confront the tax man). On both sides, Mr Potato Head goes from being an ordinary toy to being precious, something worth fighting for… no longer the Italian-American immigrant with an overbearing wife and workerist sympathies, Potato Head is… America.
For Hasbro, it is a no-lose situation, and we publicists ought to commend them for generating universal, free publicity. The rest of us seem to have lost our sense of humour. For years now, Mattel and Hasbro have been the experts of playing with the cultural codes. These brands carefully track these debates in order to inject Barbie and Ken into the public consciousness at every ebb and tide of the culture wars. (Case in point: ‘is Astrophysicist Barbie the way to get more girls in STEM?’, wonder myriad thinkpieces.)
In doing so, the toymakers do exactly what toymakers should do: they convert our polemics into miniature fun-sized versions of themselves. Each time Barbie starts a LinkedIn page for her social enterprise, each time Ken becomes a mindfulness coach (£19.99 with non-slip yoga mat included), they expose the credulousness of progressives and their reactionary nemeses both. Each time Barbie wears a Nike Dry-fit Hijab, every time Ken dons a ‘Love Wins’ shirt, our polemics become their play things—we have become the toys of the toys.