Never a doll moment: New line of toys challenge gender stereotypes
Popular 'Lottie' dolls aim to encourage healthy and positive body image among children - and parents
Action-oriented mums may be relieved that their little girls now have an alternative to conventional princess or model dolls.
Consider instead a pirate who sets off on a treasure hunt, a karate expert who breaks bricks with her bare hands or a tinkerer who builds robots from recycled materials.
These unusual scenarios have proved to be a winning formula for British toy start-up Arklu, which presents its Lottie dolls in a range of activities. The idea is to celebrate the different ways to be a girl, say founders Lucie Follett and Ian Harkin.
“Girls can wear pretty dresses but they can still wear corduroy trousers and jeans to get muddy,” Follett says. “They can do science projects, climb trees, dress up as pirates. There are many ways to be a girl. That’s the message we try to get across.”
Many parents seem to like this approach: designed for girls aged from three to nine, the 12 different Lottie dolls have been selling well worldwide since their release in 2012, especially in Britain and North America.
The dolls are now available in 14 countries and are scheduled for release in Hong Kong at the end of May.
The collection got off to a great start, perhaps because it hit stores just at the right time. Even though Arklu did not advertise on television, the dolls drew considerable media attention and had a waiting list for more than 700 pieces within two days of release.
“There’s a movement among parents now who want children to be children. They don’t want children to grow up too quickly. The dolls sold out in the UK. It went on to sell out in the US,” Follett says. “We have people who really like the idea behind the doll development.”
Their business started when Follett first had the notion of creating dolls to mark Kate Middleton’s engagement to Prince William and, before long, they were on a roll.
“Lucie came to me with the idea. And after the engagement doll came the wedding dolls,” Harkin says.
After that successful debut, the pair researched the dolls business and decided there was an untapped market.
Follett came across a newspaper article written by Dr Margaret Ashwell, a former director of the British Nutrition Foundation, which discussed the effect that fashion dolls had on young girls’ body image.
That led to collaboration with Ashwell and David McCarthy, a professor of nutrition and health at London Metropolitan University, to create a doll based on the proportions of an actual child instead of the busty, elongated Barbie physique.
“There’s a niche for us,” Follet says. “We try to create a healthy and positive body image [for Lottie], instead of just being slim. She doesn’t like high heels, make-up and jewellery. She does the kinds of activities that children really do.”
The packaging for each of the 12 dolls features different storylines. Robot maker Lottie builds a robot herself in the hope of winning a prize at the science fair at school.
Lighthouse keeper Lottie explores the lighthouse and explains how it saves ships and lives. The dolls are inspired by real women who are accomplished in their respective fields, Follett says.
Their karate doll, for example, is based on a woman instructor who set up a karate school for girls in London, as well as self-defence classes for women in India.
For their robot-making doll, they collaborated with robotics experts in Canada and the US to develop science activities and robot projects that children could do after getting downloads from their websites.
The butterfly protector doll offered an opportunity to teach biology, so the set includes collector cards depicting the four stages of a butterfly’s life cycle.
“We try to make the dolls fun and educational,” Follett says.
But for those who enjoy playing princesses bedecked in sparkly dresses, Lottie also takes on more traditional roles. The collection features Lottie dressed as a snow queen, ready to attend a masked ball. There’s also ballerina Lottie who performs at a magnificent theatre.
The world of Lottie won’t be confined to toys; the Arklu team is already working to spin off books, animation and apps.
“There will be educational apps about maths, a little bit of history, apps that have function and learning elements instead of just entertainment that children can play with parents on smartphones,” Harkin says.
“We are working with publishers at the moment and there will be a book accompanying each doll. But the dolls will still form the core.”
There’s even a boy version of Lottie in the pipeline, set for release in the autumn.
“Traditionally, boys play with cars and train sets. But we got feedback from parents that boys love playing with Lottie, too,” Harkin says
“In the UK there’s a pressure group called Let Toys Be Toys. They have been active in breaking down [gender] stereotypes in [toy] stores. They try to [get toy sellers] to stop saying toys for boys or girls.
There’s more awareness among parents now who want toys for both girls and boys,” Harkin says. “We cannot tell [what the boy doll will be like], but it will be along the line of Lottie.”
While savouring the flush of success, Harkin says he and Follett had taken a big chance to set up Arklu.
Unlike a toy company he formed with a friend and external investors, Arklu is a self-funded start-up, he says. “I sold my house. Lucie remortgaged hers. It’s a risky move for us.”
As they begin to recover their investment, Follett says their next step will be to crack the Asian market.
“There’s huge emphasis on education in China with the whole tiger mum phenomenon. As our toys have lots of educational elements, they offer more value to both Asian parents and children.”