The Ambiguous Body by Rachel Gingrich

Categories essay, submissions

As a child one of your first introductions to gender and gender roles are the toys you play with. Trucks and action figures are for boys while dolls and dress-up are for girls. These toys hold in them a history of assumed behaviors based on the body an individual is born in. The progressive and forward-thinking parents of today work to fight this antiquated assumption by letting their girls play with trucks and their boys wear heels and makeup. Hooray. However, this is still problematic in its perpetuation of a false binary. Whether you’re letting your little girl play with boy things or not, you’re still telling her that girl things and boy things exist, that the dichotomy of male and female exists. Bummer. So do we just not let our children have toys? Do we lecture them on the fact that gender is a social construct when they’re still in diapers? Probably not. The answer is simple: we give them Furbies.

The Furby, originally launched in 1998 by Tiger Electronics, marked a new kind of toy on the market. It’s one that every millennial and their parents will remember, with 40 million sold within its first three years of release. It was an international success and became the must-have toy of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Somewhere between a robot and a stuffed animal the Furby embodies intersectionality and defies categorization. Is it an owl or a hamster? Is it even an animal? Is it closer to a human or robot? It’s native tongue of Furbish lies somewhere between baby talk and a pidgin language. Genderless, the Furby comes as close to not having a body as physically possible, whittling it’s frame down to just ears and feet. Or are they hands? arms? Its soft belly and need for nurture makes it infantile, human. Yet its mechanical eyelids and light sensor remind us again that it’s battery-operated. An amorphous cyborg mechanized to long for affection, the Furby refuses to be categorized and insists on its own ambiguity.

As one of the first robotic toys for children you would think it would be marketed to boys. Anything within the purview of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) fields is generally targeted at boys. Boys are makers, creators. Their toys are more complex and

demand greater engagement and determination from the child. Think Legos and Hot Wheels. Think of any robot movie ever; generally marketed to boys. Boys like robots, we get it. But the Furby is for girls too. It demands a caretaker, a mother. It wants to be loved, tickled, and fed. It starts out speaking Furbish and only gains English through continued interaction. Similar to a child it needs to be taught, and whoever interacts with it becomes its teacher and caretaker. Animal-like and fuzzy the Furby situates itself in the camp of the stuffed animal. All things considered the Furby falls most closely in line with a pet; complex, dependent, and affectionate. Most people like pets. Why then, does nearly anyone you ask say that they hate Furbies?

What happened between the childhood craze of Furby love and the young adult fad of Furby fear? The answer again is simple; we grew up. More specifically we grew up in a world that demands classification. Who are you? What do you do? Are you gay or straight? Are you a boy or girl? This or that? A world that demands not only classification, but classification within a system of pre-existing binaries. As children we’re granted a pass from that world, allowed to exist in the liminal space that grants identity exploration and ambiguity. We’re told it’s okay not to know things, not to have all the answers even when it comes to our own identity. However, as we grow up this pass gets taken from us. In a misfortunate rite of passage, we mature into the world of this or that’s. We must know not only what we want to do and who we are, but also present ourselves in a way that makes those answers clear. Ambiguity is messy and adults aren’t messy. This toy, so resolute in its resistance to classification became the enemy. In our panic to be accepted as an adult in the world we pushed away this once-dear friend and ally, fearful and ashamed of our love affair with the unidentifiable. As adults we became trained to hate what we couldn’t classify. We fear Furbies for the same reason we fear the Gremlins and A.I. We can’t understand a sentient modified body, an ambiguous body that can not only speak, but advocate for itself.

This fear and hatred of that which defies classification is nothing new. The most recent embodiment of it is the backlash met by the push for transgender and non-binary rights. In the era of the Trump administration alone we’ve watched legal protections against workplace discrimination be taken away, and a severe increase in violence and hate crimes against transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. We see in our culture a violent and primitive fear of the unknown that leads to the inability to accept or understand anything that can’t be defined holistically with one word. You must be a boy or girl and there’s no leeway in those definitions. Masculinity has become so tied to being biologically male most people can’t conceptualize what female masculinity would look like. Our culture pushes so hard for these labels and then works overtime to make sure those labels afford no room for nuance or stretch. This rigidity is so steeped in our language we lack even a pronoun for a singular person that isn’t gendered. He, she, it. Maybe this is why the Furby was comfortable for our parents to buy. It was okay it was so unidentifiable because it was an ‘it’. It was exactly its amorphous cyborg nature, its inability to be classified that made our parents accept its intersectional and genderless existence. Just so long as it remained an ‘it.’ Not a person or a child.

Unbeknownst to them – and probably unintentionally – every parent that gave their child a Furby cracked open the door to a truly genderless childhood; to a world of and’s instead of or’s. Human and robot, maternal and complex, girl and boy. Even when we entered into the constrictive adult world of binaries, our messy Furbish childhood couldn’t be taken from us. Not even when we ourselves disavowed it. Like Cady Heron in Mean Girls, as much as we may try to bury our unwelcome past it will always surface eventually. While as a generation we have decided to spurn our hybrid ancestry of the genderless animal robot toy, the lessons it taught us have already taken root. As a culture we still have a long way to go in understanding multifaceted gender identity presentation, but our generation is by far the most knowledgeable and accepting of it. Now more than ever there’s a greater understanding of the complexities of gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Our childhood introduction to the nuances of ambiguity granted us a new way of conceptualizing identity; one that isn’t so steeped in rigid binaries. In the early 2000’s Furbies did what human adults couldn’t; they showed us that identity is ambiguous, and that ambiguity is nothing to fear.

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