Boy Story founders, Kristen Jarvis Johnson and Katie Jarvis, sat down for some tough questions from Play Unlimited, a campaign working towards elimination of segregation of toys along gender lines and promoting the idea that children should e encouraged to learn through the widest possible range of play experiences. The following is our Q&A, originally posted by Play Unlimited here:
Q: Tell me a little about what inspired you both to create Boy Story dolls?
Kristen: The initial inspiration came from my own son. I have two boys (almost 4 and almost 2), and while I was pregnant with my second, I wanted to buy a boy doll for my first son. Naively, perhaps, I sat down at my computer and started searching the internet for a boy doll. My requirements were pretty simple (I thought): A doll in the 15-18″ range that was cool and a similar age to my son. What did I find? Hardly anything! There were baby dolls, girl dolls, plush dolls, and some incredibly expensive special order boy dolls, but nothing under $100 and nothing that was just a basic, boy doll for my son. I was a little taken aback – how on earth did this not exist in the 21st Century? Then I started digging in. It seemed everyone was asking for a cool boy doll, but no one was making them. I thought to myself, I can do this! But at the time I was working overseas as a full-time lawyer and mother. That’s where Katie came in!
Katie: While Kristen was visiting me in January 2015, she couldn’t stop talking about the boy doll idea. She had mentioned it a few times earlier, but now she was obsessed! But I was a little bit shocked when she called me one morning and excitedly asked if I would be interested in starting up a company with her. The timing was perfect for me and the opportunity was one I couldn’t pass up. I’m a designer by trade but was working in a bar to make ends meet since the design market was struggling. Kristen suggested I put my design skills to use by designing the dolls and clothes. I’m a ‘figure it out’ kind of person – so I was up for the challenge. Oh, and I LOVE my nephews and kids in general, so working with toys sounded absolutely perfect. One week later, I quit my job and started up Boy Story! Kristen would give me a little direction and act as a sounding board, but for the next year, I did everything necessary to get things up and running.
Q: What kinds of stereotypes did you see in society, perpetuated by the market place, that you wanted to address?
The blatant double standards were what shocked me the most. There I was, a working mum, struggling with gender-related issues all the time in my own field of law, raising two boys – and I couldn’t even find a basic boy doll. This contradicted the message that I hear everywhere, and teach my own kids, that boys and girls should be sharing the load. We all are in this life together, and we all play different roles. But we are not cast into any one role necessarily (especially not by gender), and we should have choice and flexibility in our roles. A mum might be a super-star engineer who balances her intense job with child care, dinner times and exercise. A dad might teach adult education at night, and while taking care of the kids during the day, he also qualifies as household laundry and shopping manager. We teach this to our kids and aim for it ourselves. Yet as I struggled to fight very antiquated stereotypes at my own job and raise my boys in a gender-equal environment, the toy market seemed to only counteract everything I was working toward.
The world of dolls – which are inherently little people – is completely gender and racially lopsided. How can I teach my sons that they can be anything and should be treating other genders and races equally, if the toy market teaches them from a very young age that they can’t play with dolls? How can I teach my sons gender equality, when there are no dolls like them available? Dolls – of all toys – should be as diverse as the world in which we live. They aren’t, so I am aiming to change that.
Q: Is your approach to marketing the boy story dolls gender neutral?
No, it is gender equal. Dolls inherently are not gender neutral because they are generally perceived to have a gender since they represent little people. My approach is to level out the market and let all kids of all backgrounds feel comfortable with doll play. The way to do this, in my view, is to first break down the harmful messages that have been sent to kids telling them that boys can’t play with dolls – and girls should be playing with dolls. I started with the basic problem: cool boy dolls and racially diverse dolls don’t exist. So let’s make them. First part of the problem solved, but that’s not enough. I can’t just put them into a hugely stereotyped market and expect the problem to disappear. I have to counterbalance: so Boy Story deliberately brings ethnically diverse boy dolls to the market. We do it in a way that partially caters to the current marketplace and norms so that boys who haven’t been encouraged to play with dolls feel comfortable doing so. We also expect that girls will enjoy the ‘boyishness’ of the doll line and pick them up to include in their doll play. We don’t ignore gender at all. We believe gender is something to be embraced and recognized. But it shouldn’t be imposed upon any kid, and gender certainly should not dictate choice in play!
I like to say that ‘you have to break down the barriers before you can share the sandbox’. Boy Story starts breaking down the barriers in the doll market. Once those barriers crumble, Boy Story’s messaging will naturally change. I could see a future major expansion that includes girl dolls as well, but first we want to balance out the market by bringing some diversity.
We were once approached about why Boy Story wasn’t ‘gender neutral’. Our dolls are suitable for ALL kids and are promoted to ALL kids. But they are boys. That’s because boys haven’t been represented in the doll market, and that’s sent some incredibly old-fashioned and harsh stereotyped messages to our children over the decades.
By promoting boy dolls, we are sending the message that dolls are good for everyone. Girls are already told that dolls are fine for them. Let’s include boys in that messaging and let them know that dolls are fine for them too!
Q: Why do you think it’s so important for kids have an alternative male doll to the superheroes we currently see everywhere?
This is huge for us! It was one of my requirements in seeking out a doll for my own son. I wanted the doll to be the same age. Don’t get me wrong, superheroes are awesome! But they fill a different pretend-play role. With dolls, we interact on a more social level. Our kids relate to dolls, they take care of dolls (compared to superheroes that are usually the ones flying in to solve problems), they cook for dolls, they use dolls as companions, they read books to dolls, and they interact on a human level. Superheroes are just that: super-human. They emphasize powers, muscles, imagination, and adulthood. But they don’t really emphasize relationships. Kids sometimes just need that little doll friend of their own to tote around and maybe take care of while daddy or mummy are busy. Maybe they need someone to talk to. Maybe they need someone to be a leader for. There are all sorts of experiences that come with dolls that don’t necessarily come with superheroes. For all the reasons girls have been encouraged to play with dolls for years – those are the same reasons ALL kids should be encouraged to play with dolls!
Q: Tell me a little about the experience of doing market research for this project with kids?
We had the dolls in a classroom recently of 4-5 year olds. First, we asked all the kids to bring in their favourite people toys to share with us. The boys had action figures and the girls had dolls. It was a straight split. We showed them our dolls and let the kids play with them. Hearing from the kids was both validating and heartbreaking. They had never seen a boy doll. They didn’t know why. They wanted to play soccer and basketball with them. The girls wanted to add them to their doll collections. The boys seemed shy at first but loved touching their cool hair, playing with their clothes, and moving their joints. And after a few minutes of play, none of the kids seemed to think having a boy doll was boring or strange – the boy dolls were included immediately in their play. In the end, kids just want to play. They are largely accepting of the toys they are presented with. We have a responsibility as adults to present them with fair and equal choice in their playthings.
Q: What has the response been from kids – and parents?
Kids love them. They want them. They can’t stop moving their arms and legs. I had a few kids try to take the prototypes home with them! Oh, and we’ve had lots of requests for blue hair!
Parents are a mixed bag. Some totally get it and love them. We had a huge showing of community support on Kickstarter last month. The articles written by parents completely embrace the idea. Most of our surveys have been incredibly positive and recognize the gap in the current market.
Other parents have told me ‘No way, I won’t buy a doll for my son, he won’t play with it’. I’ve heard that for children younger than two. Retailers are concerned that walk-in purchases will be slow. They don’t even know where to stock them – with the dolls (traditionally girls’ stuff) or somewhere else. There isn’t really a spot in the ‘boy aisles’ for dolls. It saddens me because it means the stereotypes aren’t going away any time quickly.
Q: Has the toy industry embraced the concept of Boy Story dolls? Do you think their response reflects wider changes in consumer expectations when it comes to toys and toy marketing?
We’re waiting to see whether the toy industry will embrace the concept. I mean, right now they have not – because the toy industry hasn’t consistently offered a cool boy doll. Many of the big companies want to sell to the masses, and they do not believe the masses will embrace boy dolls. The advantage for us of being small is that we don’t need the masses right now. We just need a strong core of customers who want to offer their kids choice in play and are willing to buy our products. We can be sustained through direct sales online and the support of local retailers. We are seeing some slow shifts in the toy industry in general to be more accepting and offer more diversity, but big changes are yet to come. Perhaps Boy Story (I hope) is leading the way for a wider change.
Q: Are there plans to expand the range of Boy Story dolls available anytime soon?
We have two more dolls in development now that should be out early next year. Aspen is a Caucasian doll with blonde hair and blue eyes and Kenji is Japanese with black hair and dark brown eyes. All our face molds are unique to capture diverse facial features, which lengthens our average development time per doll. We also are producing richly illustrated chapter books with adventure stories to accompany each doll. After we have four boy dolls, we will be taking customer polls for the next dolls, and may even include a girl doll in the mix. We like to introduce our dolls in pairs.
Q: Where can we buy Boy Story dolls?
Our dolls will be hitting the market this Autumn (Spring in Australia)! Our Kickstarter has ended, but for now we are accepting pre-orders on our website boystory.com and you can sign up for our newsletter on the website. We will soon be listing retailers who will carry our dolls in store, so you can go see them in person and pick one up for yourself or a special kid in your life!