Sam, a new toy being developed in Canada, is a sort of Russian gender-stacking doll that makes a journey from girl to boy as each new, larger piece is added. On a Kickstarter page, the creators hope to raise $100,000 within the next month for a full line of production.
On Kickstarter, Sam joins hundreds of similar toy fundraisers—many of which are geared towards an inclusivity traditionally lacking in the doll market. There are African-American dolls with natural hair, disabled dolls with leg braces, dolls made just for people with Down Syndrome.
But Sam could be the first toy to physically illustrate the transition from one gender to another: Sam moves from a somewhat miserable-looking girl figure to a smiling, self-actualized boy as each new layer is stacked onto the previous figurine.
In an animated short film, Sam’s story is told alongside that of his twin brother and parents as the family makes the difficult journey through gender transition together.
Sam is a transgender boy, and a girl version isn’t in the works just yet. The Canadian nonprofit Gender Creative Kids worked with researchers, transgender kids and their families, and Montreal-based design firm LG2 to create the prototype. According to Gender Creative Kids vice president Annie Pullen Sansfaçon, Sam’s just one step toward fulfilling a real need among kids.
“We believe that this toy can nevertheless open the conversation, whatever gender identity the child feels, and also promote acceptance of the fact that some people feel different from their assigned sex at birth,” said Sansfaçon.
She said that Gender Creative Kids and LG2 consulted with families of transgender children and researchers to find out what kind of toy was missing on the market.
“We identified the lack of a practical tool to initiate conversation about gender identity with trans children—and with other children that may know a gender creative kid, or who are questioning their own gender,” said Sansfaçon.
Studies have long shown that dolls both impact children and can be used as a litmus test for a variety of issues including self-esteem.
In the 1940’s, doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark used a group of dolls with a range of skin tones to identify internalized racism and low self-esteem in black children. The segregation-era Doll Test’s horrifying results showed that black children overwhelmingly preferred white dolls and assigned negative characteristics and slurs to the darker-skinned dolls that most resembled them.
Research on transgender children and dolls is slim, but one study conducted by the University of Washington’s TransYouth Project and published this April in the journal Child Development found that while trans kids have strong preferences for toys that match their gender identities, they also differ from other kids in their belief that gender is mutable rather than fixed.
“Both transgender children and siblings were less likely than controls to believe that other people’s gender is stable,” read the study’s abstract.
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Study author Kristina Olson declined to comment for this story, but her research shows that transgender children understand the concept of gender differently from other kids—more often seeing it as a process, a movement from one to the other.
Sam does exactly that: he moves through the labyrinth of gender, even stumbles along the way to finally live on the outside as he feels on the inside. While Sam isn’t technically the first transgender doll (that honor belongs to Jazz Jennings, the teen reality star who was immortalized this February by the Tonner Doll Company), it is the first doll that allows children to see a transition happening before their eyes. Sam is a physical manifestation of the gender journey undertaken by trans kids.
As of Tuesday, Sam had raised $14,000 on Kickstarter—less than 20 percent of the goal needed for production, with just 31 days left to go.
But Sansfaçon said that even in a worst case scenario where the fundraiser falls short, Gender Creative Kids plans to use the short film and and accompanying educational booklet to help teach kids about transgender issues.
This fall, both the film and the booklet will be sent to schools across Quebec—and, Sansfaçon said, to any other schools that want the materials.