The Startup Setting Out to Restore Barbie's Missing Bits
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this gift is a heck of a conversation starter.
By Mark Hay
In this fairy-tale world where factories make dolls, machines automatically churn out copies of every human body part. Workers mold all of those parts into the toys we know. All, that is, save the genitals. Believing these bits don’t belong on toys, workers toss them aside in their basements. Of course, in this world, all toys (and disembodied toy parts) are sentient. So these castaways long lived in basement genitowns — happy together, yet under a cloud of shame and isolation. Until two brave genitals, a vulva named Nagavi and a penis named Nipes, left their genitown in Neu York in search of recognition and acceptance in the wider world.
That, their ads and packaging say, is how Nagavi and Nipes became the original Neudies, an indie toy line siblings Enrique and Inés Diaz-Rato launched this year after a successful Kickstarter campaign raised more than $16,000. Standing about 5 inches tall and made of soft vinyl, they are sweet and approachable — a triumph of design, given the instinctive discomfort many feel when looking at human genitals. By challenging those knee-jerk feelings and common depictions of genitalia, the Diaz-Ratos hope the Neudies will be more than novelties. These toys can spark introspection and conversation, helping us move from the shame and stigma about genitalia — perpetuated by smooth action figure crotches — that leads to liberating acceptance on par with any other body part.
Growing up in what Inés calls a “loosely conservative Catholic” context in Spain, the Diaz-Ratos encountered common cultural notions that displaying genitals (in nonmedical contexts) is inherently pornographic, and they must be kept out of sight. That’s why manufacturers don’t put them on toys — and why the few dolls to break the taboo face severe backlash. This omission can confuse kids, says youth sex educator Debbie Roffman, making them feel like a natural part of them is vaguely alien or wrong. That can lead to health risks, she adds, when kids, or even adults, don’t feel comfortable discussing what is going on with their genitals, even with medical professionals.
But the Diaz-Ratos also grew up with an irreverent father who, Enrique recalls, “would ask our friends if they knew how many pubes the average person inadvertently ate at restaurants.” His no-holds-barred humor neutralized some of the awkwardness and gave at least a few members of the family a different cultural context around genitals.
Enrique wanted to make the Neudies anthropomorphic to give them more of a sense of agency and approachability.
In 2017 Enrique, now a product designer in New York, started working on “a long series of genital drawings.” Showing them around, it struck him how uncomfortable they made people. Around the same time, Inés finished an MBA program and decided to move in with Enrique for a while. They fell into a series of long conversations about genitalia and bodily shame. Inés admits that until this point in her life, “I don’t think I had ever looked at a vagina in detail. … For many years I wondered whether mine was normal.”
The discussions led them back to the genital-less toys of their youth — and the question of whether one could make a toy that divorces nudity and anatomy from sex and stigma. They had long wanted to work together and realized they were both free (Enrique, 30, had just left a design agency to start doing freelance work) and had complementary skills (Inés, 32, had worked in merchandising and business development). Rather than making dolls with genitals as others had done, they decided to make genital dolls to focus attention and discussion on this taboo anatomy.
It was not easy. Enrique soon realized that it is hard to find reference images of healthy genitals presented in non-aroused states. (Even Google’s image recognition programs identify the Neudies as pig faces, not genitals.) He also wanted to make the Neudies anthropomorphic to give them more of a sense of agency and approachability, but didn’t want to give them human faces to keep the focus on genitals proper.
The siblings also wanted the Neudies to be representative. But given the variability of genitals, they inevitably fall flat on that count. While the Diaz-Ratos stress that there are more characters of diverse skin tones in their lore, and they may come into the world soon, sex educator Logan Levkoff argues that the Neudies make genitals look “very cute and neat” — like idealized porn genitals, which do not reflect many people’s bodies. She also worries that the Neudies do not, in form or narrative, make space for intersex, nonbinary or trans genitals.
While the Dioz-Ratos clearly succeeded in crafting genitals into something approachable and whimsical, Roffman and others also doubt the dolls’ potential for impact on cultures of genital shame. Parents with hang-ups around genitals would never buy the Neudies for their kids, who Roffman stresses need to see genitals normalized early on to head off such shame later in life. And even if they did, Roffman points out that Neudies lore is clearly written for adult minds.
Inés says they are targeting the Neudies to adults to change culture overall. But Roffman feels that “there are many more direct ways to have adults talking and learning about these things. This project is way too easy to sensationalize.”
The Neudies have had trouble reaching even adults who might be open to them because the very stigmas they are trying to combat are deeply embedded in media and tech. Instagram and Facebook, for instance, banned their ads; Facebook claims they “promote adult products or services like sex toys.” So the siblings have been forced to rely on word-of-mouth and to channel most of their energy into researching new ad tactics — inspired by taboo or tightly regulated industries like sex toys or cannabis.
Yet despite these barriers, the Diaz-Ratos believe the Neudies can still make a splash. They’ve already sent thousands out “for adoption” — their terminology for a sale — across the world through direct sales. They plan to start selling on third-party websites and in European brick-and-mortar shops in 2020, and they’ve recently won a design award that they hope will boost their public profile. In the works, Enrique says, are street-level guerrilla marketing and other awareness-raising campaigns, and even potentially Neudies animations or emojis.
“Whether we gain a fan or not,” says Enrique, “we are fated to spark a conversation.”
- Mark Hay, OZY Author Contact Mark Hay