Column: Genderless Potato Heads are no cause for panic

Robin Abcarian
·5 min read
The genderless Create Your Own Potato Family toy is two adult potatoes and a baby
In the new Potato Head world, gender is fluid. (Associated Press)

As someone with a three-story pink Barbie Dream House in the middle of her living room, I can tell you that I pay closer attention to gendered children’s toys these days than is normal for a woman my age.

I have noticed, for instance, that the profusion of Barbies sprawled across my floor are not always light-complexioned and blond, with impossibly attenuated torsos, as they were when I was little. My 10-year-old niece’s dolls have a range of skin colors and body sizes; some Barbies, you might even say, are thicc, current slang for a full-figured curvy body. This is a fantastic development, and if I need to explain why, you have not been paying attention.

Now comes the less important but far more hysteria-inducing news that Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head brand will be dropping the “Mr.” and become simply … Potato Head.

A new toy kit, “Create Your Potato Head Family,” will hit the shelves later this year. It will include, a Hasbro spokeswoman wrote, “enough potatoes and accessories for kids to create all types of families.”

That’s right, folks: Gay potatoes. Transgender potatoes. Cisgender potatoes. Nonbinary potatoes. Whatever kind of spud families kids can imagine. Personal potato pronouns will be interchangeable. If a child wants to call a Potato Head with a mustache and a dress “Miss Thing,” who is to stop him … or her … or them?

This development set off a new wave of gender panic among the right-wing commentariat, self-appointed guardians of sexual standards and gender identity, though some tried to cover their agitation with sophomoric humor.

Gender panic has been described by the sociologist Kristen Schilt of the University of Chicago as a deep, cultural fear that is inflamed when the “naturalness” of a male-female gender binary is challenged. Schilt told UChicago News that when challenges affect public policy, “that’s when the panic starts to get really hot.”

The guardians of traditional morality have decisively lost the battle against same-sex marriage, so now they have had to find other outlets for their anxiety.

Their current hot-button issue (other than genderless Potato Heads) is the fear that individuals born with male genitals will invade spaces reserved for women, places like locker rooms, bathrooms and sports fields.

Anyway, you know the type: People like conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro, who brazenly misgender people like Zoey Tur, the famous Los Angeles helicopter pilot and news reporter, because they are incapable of grasping the scientific truth that gender is fluid, exists on a spectrum and is not necessarily a function of genitalia. Shapiro’s motto, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” is in fact a refutation of his own position.

And people like QAnon’s own Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who posted a sign outside her Capitol Hill office Thursday announcing, “There are TWO genders: Male & Female. 'Trust The Science!'” The science, which she would learn if she had an ounce of intellectual curiosity, totally disputes this.

Greene’s office neighbor, Illinois Democrat Marie Newman, who has a transgender daughter, had hung a pink-and-blue transgender pride flag outside her office, an affront to the poisonous Ms. Greene, after Greene tweeted, “Your biological son does NOT belong in my daughters’ bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams.”

Their kerfuffle arose because the House voted Thursday on the long overdue Equality Act, a sweeping law that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The act, which Greene called “immoral,” passed 224 to 206. Only three Republicans voted in favor.

Keeping Shapiro and Greene company in this basket of anti-trans deplorables is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who launched a bizarre attack against the transgender community on Thursday as he grilled Rachel Levine, President Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of health.

If Levine, a pediatrician who is Pennsylvania’s top health official, is confirmed, she will become the highest ranking openly transgender federal official in history.

Levine’s very identity seemed to rock Paul, who began his questions by talking about the horrors of female genital mutilation, as if that barbaric practice, which ensures a woman cannot pleasurably engage in sex and has been widely condemned as a human rights violation, has anything to do with hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.

“We should be outraged that someone’s talking to a 3-year-old about changing their sex!” said Paul, wrongly implying that toddlers whose gender identity does not conform with their physical characteristics are subject to medical interventions. (They are not; though it is not uncommon for transgender children to make social adjustments, such as in their clothing and names.)

Levine refrained from taking his bait: “Transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care that have been developed,” she replied, offering to discuss the subject with Paul at length in his office.

Ungendering the Potato Head family may be only a minor step toward embracing the notion that heterosexuality is only one component of the human sexual kaleidoscope and gender can be more than the sum of the parts a person is born with. But Hasbro's action is important. The games we play as children teach us not just what the world is, but what it can be. A potato, it turns out, is not always just a potato.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.