Tonner’s Transgender Doll: The Next Step

Ten years ago, Jazz Jennings became the youngest documented transgender child when she appeared on an interview with Barbara Walters at age 6.

The world was watching, and so was Robert Tonner, owner and artist of Tonner Doll Company in Kingston. Since then, Tonner has followed Jennings’ journey growing up transgender. At just 16 years old, she has written two books, starred in her own reality show “I Am Jazz” and became an advocate for the transgender community.

Now, she will have her own doll designed by Tonner himself. It will be the first transgender play doll to ever hit the market.

“We’ve gotten the most wonderful comments from transgender people, people who are friends of transgender people and people who think this is socially a step in the right direction,” Tonner said.

Tonner Doll Company produces some play dolls, but mostly novelty pop culture dolls for adults. When Tonner started the company 26 years ago, he said he never expected it to become so successful, noting that he is “more of an artist than a businessman.”

Lo and behold the company has made quite a name for itself, working with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. on licensing projects.

“I think one of my favorite things was the Harry Potter license,” Tonner said. “I think that we did a beautiful job with that. We were the only ones to have the license for eight years and that was quite a ride.”

Every so often, Tonner breaks from tradition, going out of his way to make a doll of a person who is “socially transformative.” In the past, he has made a doll of the first plus-size fashion model and the oldest working fashion model.

“We’ve done a lot for various charities over the years and usually through dolls which is a great thing,” he said. “I can produce what I want to produce and at the same time help others. I absolutely consider that’s what [the Jazz doll] is doing. It’s getting a doll out there that wouldn’t ordinarily be out there.”

After seeing Jennings’ interview with Walters, Tonner underwent somewhat of a revelation. It had a profound effect on him because he previously didn’t understand the struggles of the transgender community. He followed Jennings’ story over the years and in 2015, thought it was time to turn it into a doll project.

“I contacted her parents and they were all for it,” Tonner said. “She loves dolls and she knew of my dolls, I believe, and she really liked them so they were gung-ho.”

From there, Tonner got to sculpting. He and his company sent out a press release earlier this year about the doll, and it was covered by nearly every mainstream news organization. The prototype of the doll was presented at New York Toy Fair on Feb. 17. It is predicted to be on the market by early Fall 2017.

Tonner explained that aside from being based on a transgender person, the doll is no different than any other play doll. Like any doll for ages 8 and up, it has a genderless body. The word ‘transgender’ will most likely not appear on the box.

While Tonner noted that the majority of feedback has been positive, some comments have been harsh. Tonner hopes that the Jazz doll will be able to start conversations about rights for transgender people and breed more empathy for the community.

“I’ve become somewhat of an advocate for this because we just made a simple play doll and it’s that word ‘transgender’ that’s gotten people riled up,” he said. “If I’m getting that for making a doll of a transgender person, I can just imagine what a transgender person has to go through in life. So I’m going to do whatever I can to help, where I can.”


Originally published at oracle.newpaltz.edu.