If you’re a parent, you probably go to your fair share of children’s birthday parties – just last Saturday we had a back-to-back double-header, both for boys. Birthday parties necessitate gifts, and gifts generally necessitate a trip to the local toy store.
So on Thursday we stop off after school at a toy superstore in one of these big box shopping complexes, and I’m struck once again by an obvious fact.
The store is color-coded.
Since we’re looking for boy toys, we don’t even bother to glance at one third of the store. The pink third. We steer to the left, passing displays of race cars, building equipment, trains. Past plastic guns, tanks, artillery. Past construction sets galore.
The packaging depicts boys in active play, and are emblazoned with words like force, power, adventure, build, speed, action.
Out of curiosity I have a peek at the packaging for girls’ toys, on which, in swirly, girly font we find words such as house, best friends, fashionista, salon, nails, spa and, of course, princess. A lot of princesses.
We pop over to the Lego area, where heroes – super and otherwise – dominate the scene. Batman battles the forces of evil next to Lego City police officers apprehending scruffy-looking bad guys. But wait, there’s a wall of pink here – the Lego Friends collection.
Ah yes, here’s Olivia, lying on the beach next to her speedboat, working on her suntan. And there’s her friend, Mia, selling baked goods and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
I would say that there are subtle messages here, except that they aren’t subtle at all. The boys are portrayed as protectors, fighters, bad guys even. The girls are cooks, providers, consumers.
You might think that since we’ve made great strides in workplace equality, and since in a record-breaking 40% of American homes with children it’s the woman who is the primary or sole breadwinner, and since more and more men are opting to stay at home with their children as caregivers, that toy companies would be creating fewer gender-specific products than ever before.
In fact, just the opposite has been happening.
Using Sears catalog toy advertisements as a reliable benchmark, journalist Elizabeth Sweet found that “in 1975, very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building…and boys cooking in the kitchen. But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to mid-century levels, and it’s even more extreme today.”
A study conducted by Professor Judith Blakemore of Indiana University demonstrated that “girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys’ toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous. The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as neutral or moderately masculine.”
Which brings us back to our local toy store. In the end, we picked up two educationally-oriented toys for the birthday boys. But where were the “educational” toys to be found in this store? Yup, in the “boy section.”
Only one ‘learning’ toy was aimed specifically at girls. It was a perfume-making kit. A child’s introductory-level telescope had a photograph of both a boy and a girl, but on every single one of the others that depicted a human figure, that figure was male.
According to Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, the message being sent by gender-specific toys is that boys should be creating things and solving problems, while the girls should focus primarily on nurturing, mothering, and looking pretty.
“Kids get a lot of ideas early from play about what they can do, what they like and what they can aspire to,” says psychology professor Deborah Tolman of the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York. “By making those themes gender specific, it leaves out a whole range of possibilities.”
And it’s not just the toy industry. Have a peek at these children’s magazines from a UK magazine subscription website. The site has a drop-down menu that separates children’s magazines into age and gender groups. These were for “Primary School Girls.”
First of all, the whole damn thing is pink, and vomitously twee. I particularly enjoy the selection of chihuahuas in sweaters. Secondly, look at the language: bake and make; cuties; puppies and kittens; butterfly; furry friends. Once again, it’s back to baking, nurturing, and being pretty/cute.
Clearly, this one could be appealing to both boys and girls, but it was, you must remember, only offered in the boys’ section, and not the girls’.
And yes, okay, the meerkat is wearing a Santa hat. But look at the color, formatting, and language: superpowers; ghost towns; shipwrecks; forbidden zones; saving natural wonders. It’s adventure, discovery, protection and, of course, superpowers.
Which magazine do you suppose is more informational? Which boasts a “free puppies and kittens posters mini-mag!” and which contains “8 pages of activities, puzzles, and origami”?
There are those, however, who are pushing back. The organization Let Toys be Toys has successfully campaigned against stores separating and labeling toys by gender, leading the UK retailer Boots to take down signs labeling toys as being for boys or girls.
Harrods, Britain’s biggest department store, recently underwent a makeover, reorganizing toys into six “interactive worlds” rather than sorting them by gender. Trucks and dolls now live side by side on Harrods’ shelves.
Toys R Us and other major retailers in the UK have followed suit.
Then there’s Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter start-up toy company GoldieBlox, whose videos of girls making Rube Goldberg machines went viral, helping to spark a debate about what toys are actually good for girls. Goldieblox makes engineering and building toys aimed at girls (yes, many are pink, but still), after Sterling noted that there was a conspicuous absence of women in her engineering program at Stanford.
The video campaign was so successful and the products so impressive that GoldieBlox beat out 15,000 other entrants to score a free 30-second spot during the Superbowl, the $4 million price tag paid for by the host of the contest, Intuit. GoldieBlox has had tremendous success, and is leading toy retailers and toy makers to rethink their gender-targeted strategies.
The fact is, we as parents don’t have to buy into the pink v. blue dynamic that has increasingly polarized children’s toys. We can support groups that are working to reverse the trends of the past 20 years by writing to toy makers, by voting with our wallets, and by letting our local toy stores know that their present model of gender segregation is bogus, that kids can play with whatever damn toys they choose.
I don’t think I could say it any better, so I’ll let young Riley, whose toy store rant has gotten nearly 5,000,000 views on YouTube, sum it up:
“Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheros, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheros, some boys like princesses!”
Amen, Riley. Amen.