Chris Yang

Build-A-Bear Workshop is a company that allows its customers to create personalized stuffed animals. Children (as well as older individuals) can choose from a variety of animal and creature skins that come in different colors and sizes (see Figure 1). They then involve themselves in the filling, naming, and dressing of their stuffed toys. Despite being a relatively young franchise established in 1997, Build-A-Bear has become a booming toy empire and continued to sustain its popularity even as other traditional toy conglomerates such as Toys “R” Us have fallen to Amazon and other online shopping platforms. The hands-on Build-A-Bear experience has also survived the death of in-person shopping observed during the pandemic. What has made the Build-A-Bear model successful across technological and sociocultural transitions? The answer may lie in cuteness. “Cute” is an adjective that describes something that arouses a feeling of nurture or tenderness. However, what initiates such feelings may come from a place of pity, control, and superiority. What is considered cute is often vulnerable and malleable, and the relationship between the cute object and its viewer is one of power imbalance. In other words, the more vulnerable and malleable an object is, the more control it affords the viewer who can shape it to her desires, and the cuter it becomes.[1] Similarly, through the customization process of a Build-A-Bear toy, consumers are able to shape, create, and control every aspect of the toy’s being. This article will explore the ways in which such vulnerability and cuteness elevate and enhance the creation process of the Build-A-Bear toy, and how Build-A-Bear’s success is dependent upon this experience.

Figure 1. The inside of a Build-A-Bear Workshop in San Jose, California. Photograph courtesy of Yuichi Sakuraba.

Cuteness and the Teddy Bear

It is said that in 1902, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was on an unsuccessful hunting trip, having failed to encounter any bears on his multiple-day excursion in Mississippi. To appease the president, his hunting guides captured and presented a bear, tying it to a tree and allowing the president to shoot it. However, Roosevelt refused, claiming that “it would be unsportsmanlike to kill a defenseless animal.”[2] While the accuracy of this tale is partial at best, it inspired a comic in The Washington Post that would eventually make the teddy bear a highly popular American toy (see Figure 2).[3] Anu Valtonen attributes the success of the teddy bear to three factors: the visible cuteness of the bear’s shape, the subversion of bear-associated masculinity, and the safety and softness associated with the bear. Firstly, the teddy bear shape is considerably cute. With its rounded belly and face, the teddy bear can be seen as rather malleable and harmless and helpless.[4] These qualities subsequently evoke a sense of pity as the original conception of the Japanese word for cute, or kawaii, signified — as well as a need for care that arises from such pity.[5] The overall roundedness and helplessness of teddy bears allows their owners to feel superior, strong, and secure and inspires feelings of care and nurturing. This leads to the second point, in which a somewhat fearful and dangerous animal is reduced to a harmless object. A bear in the wild is a visible, overt threat and often referred to as the king of the forest, connoting masculinity and violence. However, in many cultures and myths, the bear has become associated with warmth and sensitivity, with notable examples including Winnie the Pooh and Paddington.[6] The teddy bear may be successful for the same reason that these myths speak to the desire to transform something large and dangerous into something helpless to the whims of its owner: having power over the powerful is appealing. Thirdly, the softness of the teddy bear makes it easy to touch, squeeze, and hold, inviting physical manipulation and protection. Such pliancy makes the teddy bear even more vulnerable to its caretaker and allows it to enter the bed and other intimate spaces. As other toys made of harder materials like plastic are not as easily pliable or adaptable into these personal spaces, the teddy bear comes to represent the comfort and safety of one’s own bed and home. In this way, the teddy bear was able to become a massive success in its original form, setting the stage for the Build-A-Bear franchise in the present.

Figure 2. Clifford Berryman’s comic depicting President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captured black bear published in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902.

Build-A-Bear and Commodified Control

Originally advertising the slogan “where best friends are made” (adapted in 2013 to “the most fun you’ll ever make”), the Build-A-Bear franchise is well-known for the many options from which customers can select to customize their teddy bear (see Figure 3). You-Jin Lee describes her experience taking her daughter to a Build-A-Bear Workshop, noting that she found it easy to pay the extra mark-up “because [a Build-A-Bear toy] seemed special, unlike other ready-made toys.”[7] Her daughter, Netty, first chose from the available shapes ranging from the original teddy bear to trademarked favorites like Pokémon or Disney animal sidekicks. Next, Netty gave her bear a voice through a small recording device, chose a felt heart, and stuffed her toy. Afterward, she selected an outfit and accessories for her stuffed animal and finished the process by naming and packing it into a house-like box.[8] Clearly, Build-A-Bear has commercialized the creation of the teddy bear, offering up the body, voice, and fashion of the toy for purchase. In this way, customers pay to create an identity for their toy, furthering their sense of control and the cuteness of their purchase. Customization makes the toy more precious because of the extent to which it needs its owner for its very existence. Yet, where does the desire to imprint influence onto others come from? Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan suggest that this desire allows human parents to justify the extreme costliness of having such vulnerable and helpless offspring.[9] Compared to other animal offspring, human babies are extremely altricial, meaning that they cannot do anything on their own and have no means for independent survival. Rosenberg and Trevathan hypothesize that this vulnerability not only inspires an impulse to care for human babies, but also the desire to imprint culture, personality, and identity onto children.[10]

Figure 3. Customized bears and other plushies lined up inside a Build-A-Bear Workshop. Photograph courtesy of Ged Carroll.

Build-A-Bear and Gender

However, the desire to create and raise offspring is not simply one of biology and evolution. Toys and other forms of entertainment surrounding the creationism model have been around for some time but are more often associated with traditional feminine interests. Caretaking is a common theme among girls’ toys, as seen in baby dolls that require feeding and diaper changes and figurines in which the hair, accessories, and career of the doll can be carefully changed and customized. On the other hand, boys’ toys, marked with blue and flames, are marketed as violent and adventurous, perpetuating gendered expectations from a young age. This may account for one business analysis that found that Build-A-Bear's target market is girls ages five through sixteen.[11]

Cuteness and its feminine connotation rely on gender roles that are indoctrinated into everyday culture. Build-A-Bear does not attempt to subvert this expectation, opting to market much of their toy fashion lines toward young girls. However, Build-A-Bear does have stuffed animal options that cater to what may be considered more traditional male interests, such as Pokémon, dinosaurs, and Super Mario. Interestingly, Build-A-Bear seems more concerned with making these stuffed animals accurate to their original form or trademark than making them cuddly or cute, choosing to retain Bowser’s spikes, the dinosaurs’ sharp jaws, and Groku’s long and winding tail instead of smoothing them down. In contrast, an example of prioritizing cuteness over accuracy in toys aimed at girls can be seen in Tsum-Tsums, a stuffed toy adaptation of characters such as Mickey Mouse and Captain America that simplifies their images to round shapes and simple features, making them cuter and softer. Likewise, for traditional female-interest toys, such as of the Disney Princesses, Build-A-Bear does not aim for any realism or replication, instead opting to sell princess outfits that can be purchased for cute bears and other toy shapes. 

Overall, through its marketing and products, Build-A-Bear continues to perpetuate cuteness and its adjacent femininity. Evidently, the company builds upon the cuteness already present in traditional teddy bears and offers consumers an even greater amount of control over the manufacturing of their toy, adding to its cuteness and preciousness.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 815-16.

[2] Elizabeth Nix, “Who Invented the Teddy Bear?”, History, February 10, 2023,

[3] Anu Valtonen, “Teddy Bears,” Consumption Markets & Culture 19, no. 3 (2016): 259.

[4] See the previous reference to Ngai.

[5] Hiroshi Nittono, “The two-layer model of ‘kawaii’: A behavioural science framework for understanding kawaii and cuteness,” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 2, no. 1 (April 2016): 81.

[6] Valtonen, “Teddy Bears,” 260.

[7] You-Jin Lee, “Build-a-Bear Workshop: Its Aesthetic and Ideology,” Art Education 61, no. 6 (November 2008): 21.

[8] Lee, “Build-a-Bear Workshop," 22.

[9] Karen R. Rosenberg and Wenda R. Trevathan, Costly and Cute: Helpless Infants and Human Evolution (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

[10] Rosenberg and Trevathan, Costly and Cute.

[11] “Build-A-Bear Workshop SWOT Analysis,” MBA Skool, April 12, 2020,