Rainbow Rant: Parsing the fallout of Potato Head-gate

It’s Potato Head. Mx. Potato Head if you’re nasty.

By Joy Ellison
This photo provided by Hasbro shows the new Potato Head world. (Hasbro via AP)

The world’s most famous plastic potato is going gender-neutral, except he isn’t. 

Recently, Hasbro announced that its signature toy brand will henceforth be known as Potato Head, causing some conservatives to reveal that they’re deeply attached to the assigned genders of inanimate objects.

“Why tf are you doing this. Leave MR potato head alone. #ThereAreOnlyTwoGenders,” wrote one upset Twitter user. Others threatened to boycott Hasbro. But perhaps no one was more devastated than Mark Dice, a YouTuber famous for his conspiracy theories, racism and hatred of LGBT people.

“It’s time for Republican states to secede,” Dice tweeted.

Perhaps Dice harbors a deep investment in the branding of toy vegetables, but I’m going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that succession may have been on his mind already. 

Conservatives, however, needn’t have worried, because Mr. Potato Head isn’t going anywhere. Hasbro clarified that the Mr. and Mrs. Potato toys will not change, only the name of the overall brand. Potato Head will also offer a box set that allows children to create potato families of any gender. 

This is certainly a positive move toward increased queer and transgender representation, but a small one. LGBT parents will likely appreciate it, but kids will probably hardly notice. Nothing about the Potato Head toys was preventing them from giving the spud whatever gender expression they might choose. 

Hasbro’s actions are calculated to increase its profits. Should queer and transgender people even care about Hasbro’s rebranding or the backlash against it? I fear the answer is yes.  

A deeper look at conservative outcry over the Hasbro decision shows that Republican lawmakers and right-wing commentators are using the news as an excuse for hateful jokes degrading transgender people and mocking our political demands. 

Ben Shapiro posted a series of tweets poking fun at urgent issues like bathroom access. “Society is not truly free or safe until all Potato Heads can use the planter of their choice,” he wrote. 

Right-wing blogger Stephen L. Miller tweeted that “the great thing about being a t[r]ans potato head is if it changes [its] mind it can just reach in its own ass and put the penis back on.”

Some of the worst rhetoric came from Republican lawmakers. Matt Gaetz of Florida compared transgender bodies to Potato Head’s plastic pieces. “See, to me the whole concept of the Mr. Potato Head was you could move the parts around,” he said. “Mr. Potato Head was America’s first transgender doll.”

Statements like these portray transgender needs as trivial and our bodies as jokes. Hateful rhetoric inspires violent attacks on transgender people and justifies discrimination. Hasbro undoubtedly didn’t intend for that to be the outcome of its marketing, but trans people will have to deal with the consequences. 

Meanwhile, while the Potato Head announcement has us distracted, some Republican lawmakers are hard at work trying to deny transgender people equality. 

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky fired question after transphobic question at Dr. Rachel Levine, President Biden’s nominee for assistant health secretary. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene hung a transphobic sign outside of her office and misgendered the transgender daughter of Rep. Marie Newman. Republicans have introduced a wave of anti-transgender legislation across the country. Transgender communities are under attack, and jokes about plastic toys are only a small part of it. 

The Equality Act, which would extend Civil Rights protection to LGBT people, has passed the House of Representatives and will be making its way to the Senate. Queer and transgender people and our supporters would be wise to focus our attention on securing its passage. 

The packaging of a plastic potato won’t make our lives better, but changing public policy will.