The tragedy of the annual Toy Fair New York is that most people can’t go. The Jacob Javits Center is crammed full of the coming year’s hottest toys, games, and dolls but the only people who can play with them are toy industry professionals. Plus a few lucky journalists. This Gay City News reporter was among the fortunate few who got to run amok in this dream house, where I learned what the cool kids will be playing with this year.
Actually, it isn’t enough to just play with toys anymore. Kids today have to “unbox” them. Among the major trends are products with surprise accessories that are revealed dramatically as the packaging is opened. The “LOL! Surprise” dolls were a hot item this past Christmas, and this year they won the prestigious Toy Of The Year Award in two categories. These dolls come in little balls that are unwrapped layer-by-layer, revealing a series of stickers, clothes, accessories, and — eventually — the toy itself.
This year, the “Slime” fad from the ‘90s returned in full force, although the toy industry’s collective term for slime, foam, sand, and clay is now “Compounds.” The compounds also mesh with the unboxing trend because many slime kits also have little collectible creatures and charms hidden inside.
Another advantage of these modern descendants of Play-Doh is that they appeal to boys, girls, and non-binary kids. One such compound is Playfoam by Educational Insights. I spoke with Lee Parkhurst, an out transgender staff member at the company Insights who told me, “The gender norms of play have been blown out of the water. We have boys playing with fairy wings and girls playing with power tools.”
This mentality is reflected in traditionally gender-specific toys like baby dolls, too. Madame Alexander dolls have added the color mint green to the usual pink/ blue dynamic for their baby dolls. A company spokesperson explained that this is partly to avoid enforcing gender stereotypes, but also because the mint green dolls make good gifts for expecting parents who don’t yet know the gender of their child or don’t want a sea of blue or pink.
Speaking of pink, no Toy Fair can be complete without Barbie, the feminist lightning rod, gay icon, and trans role model. This year is a special anniversary for her, she first hit shelves in March 1959, which means that her 60th birthday is nearly upon us. Aside from a set of signature dolls inspired by her early outfits, she also comes in a couple of new body types this year. One is a sportier body with “more defined arms” and a less dainty waist.
Barbie’s other new body type has a prosthetic leg. This is a first for Barbie and was highly requested by fans. Hardcore Barbie enthusiasts will recall Barbie’s friend Becky, who has used a wheelchair. This year, Barbie can come with her own wheelchair, and it’s the first time we’ve seen disabled Barbie rather than just one of her friends facing such challenges.
Although the general public couldn’t play with any of these dolls at the Toy Fair, Mattel’s PR team assured me that there will be a Barbie pop-up event open to the public happening in New York City when her 60th birthday arrives on March 9.
For years, the Toy Fair has seen miniature video game cabinets, in various sizes, some as small as keychains. This year, Arcade1Up found the sweet spot for these, at a 3/4 scale. The company’s 48-inch tall arcade cabinets won Tech Toy Of The Year. I spoke to David Mackintosh, a PR rep for Arcade1Up, who explained that this size provides “an authentic arcade experience.”
He mentioned that smaller-scale products from competitors have tiny buttons and joysticks that break easily, while the Arcade1Up models have full-sized controls, adding that their popularity at the Toy Fair was based on “partly nostalgia, partly a high quality product.” Among the company’s upcoming line of cabinets is the ‘90s fighting game “Final Fight,” which featured a female villain named Poison, who happens to be one of the first transgender characters in a video game.
Aside from big companies, Toy Fair New York also gives the little guys a chance to shine. At a small booth we met Dan Abramson, owner of Yoga Joes. The company’s products are classic green Army Men but instead of carrying rifles and throwing grenades they are doing peaceful yoga poses. Abramson, explaining that he discovered yoga after a back injury, said, “I was trying to get more people into yoga, especially macho men who thought it was only for women,” He later added that injured veterans who practiced yoga “came out of the woodwork” when he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his business.
Aside from the traditional army green, Abramson offers a new line of rainbow-colored Yoga Joes. When we asked if that was a gay-specific idea, he responded, “I just thought it was cool. Rainbows are cool. It’s irreverent no matter how you look at it.” With a serene yogi smile, he added, “It’s happy and irreverent.”
Another small company is Brooklyn’s FCTRY, that displayed an eclectic set of products that ranged from political action figures like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to a line of glitter cosmetics called Unicorn Snot. I spoke with FCTRY’s Douglas Dale about the company’s booth and its massive vanity table where attendees were encouraged to try on various Unicorn Snot cosmetics. “It’s toy fair, if you’re not having fun what are you doing?,” he said.