The Pink Section: What Our Toy Stores Are Telling Our Children

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, buildspeed, 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.

Part of the "Boy's Section"

Part of the “Boy’s Section,” filled with construction equipment and sporting goods. The words in the upper lefthand corner mean ‘outdoors.’

And part of the "Girls' Section." The words at the top of the shelves say "dolls and beauty."

And part of the “Girls’ Section.” The words at the top of the shelves say “dolls and beauty.”

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.

lego ninja

Epic Dragon Battle!!!!

lemonadestand

Cookies and lemonade, anyone?

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.

girls toys

Hair, nails, and tiaras

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.”

Superheroes, builders, creators

Superheroes, builders, saviors

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.”

The 'educational section' of the shop

The ‘educational section’ of the shop

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.

perfume factory

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.”

girls' posters

This was part of the selection for “Primary School Boys.” boys' magazines

Do you notice anything different about them? Well, let’s have a look at two specific selections, both nature/animal magazines, the first targeting girl audiences, the second boys. ANIMALS-AND-YOU_NO-178

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.

ECO-KIDS-PLANET_Issue-3

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.

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Harrods’ Toy Kingdom

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.

 

 

 

24 thoughts on “The Pink Section: What Our Toy Stores Are Telling Our Children

  1. Thank you for this. My three year old son loves action figures and disney princesses. I hate to think that we live in a society that this is not ok. I don’t want him to think of things as “girls” and “boys”. I want him to be well rounded and play with appropriate toys that encourage ALL of the things they are meant to including nurturing and loving.

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    • And thank YOU for visiting and reading! I know, to me the whole think is just wonky. It bothers me that marketing departments make these stupid decisions that actually have long-term impacts on kids. Ah well. If enough of us complain, maybe we can turn it around.

      Like

  2. In an attempt to create a gender neutral environment for our son and daughter, my wife and I have let the kids decide specifics such as colors and types of toys. For instance, our almost two year old son has a blast playing with a toy kitchen and dishes. Anyhow, thank you for the great post.

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  4. Good for Boots and Harrods! I’d love to see more of that push back in the United States. I’ve been complaining about color segregation and all that comes with it since I was a kid and this whole nonsense with marketing was poking it’s head in the market.

    I was looking for a boy doll for my daughter as a birthday gift for when her brother was born. I went to three stores and could not find ONE baby doll that was specifically meant to be a boy gender. They were all named “baby girl”; we already had several girl baby dolls. It was pink, pink, and more pink with a cursory dash of lavender. Not even a single boy doll dressed in pink. And then I was aghast to see that they were manufacturing separate PINK themed Lincoln Logs just to fit it into the marketing pigeon hole. Girls weren’t complaining about the color of the building block toys, they were complaining about there not being one female figure in all the sets. They just wanted Lego gals to play alongside the Lego dudes;not a color shift.

    There I go, getting all worked up again!

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  5. This has been a big issue in my family, concerning my nephew. It’s not because he wants to be a princess, but over the fact he still likes a cartoon about fairies, called the winx club. I feel like he shouldn’t be taught to be ashamed at a young age to like the things he likes, while everyone else in my family feels like its their job to help him conform to society’s expectations.

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  7. Such a true observation. I myself as a child used to play Pretty Pretty Princess, wore those pink plastic dress up shoes, had an easy bake oven…I am now also the sole provider for my family with my husband becoming the stay at home dad. Needless to say, gender stereotypes in my adult life have been shattered. Now that I have a daughter I hope to provide her with a balance! My sister in law offered to buy her a “tool kit” when she gets a bit older to which I say YES!! I wish someone had fostered that at least a bit more in my life – it would have instilled confidence in my abilities at a much younger age. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank YOU, young lady. It is indeed all about balance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with girls dressing in pink and pretending to be princesses – it’s just that there needs to be a viable alternative to that, one that isn’t scorned or excoriated for not being, well, ‘girly’. Tool kits are cool. For boys and girls. Let’s have an atmosphere in which everyone, regardless of gender, can develop whatever inclinations and abilities they posses. That’s all I’m saying.

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  8. Loved this article! Thank you for pointing out and highlighting something that has been, for most people I’m sure, sitting under our noses but yet not noticed nearly enough. I have, ashamedly, bought into this whole boys toys, girls toys thing far more than I would like to admit but this post has definitely made me sit up and I will be taking a lot more notice in the future!

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    • Thanks, Lily. It is indeed sitting right under our noses, and far too many of us (myself included – note how we didn’t even glance at the “girls’ section”) have come to think of this as normal and natural. I’m glad that this post made you think, and thanks for leaving your comments. I appreciate any and all input into the debates that I discuss. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This drives me CRAZY!! I also hate how to buy colouring stuff, paints etc you have to go into the girls’ section. Is it only girls who are allowed to be artistic and crafty? And OK, good on you Nerf for targeting some advertising and product towards girls, and yes, the bow does look very cool. But WTF? Why does it have to be pink and purple and why can’t boys use it as well???? And why can’t girls use the ordinary Nerf gun stuff? the girls in my house (including this grown up one) certainly use all the weapons available to us to fight off the boys (who outnumber us). I often like to talk about the train set we have at our house which all the kids play with. The girls love building track, the boys love racing the trains. Same toy, but the kids determined how they wanted to play with it. I have worked really hard to make sure we have a variety of toys for our kids, and that way they can choose whether it’s dolls or paints or trains or experiments, but it is very hard finding things sometimes.

    Don’t get me started on girls clothes, which are not only primarily pink and purple, but if you have a girl who is tall for her age, the clothes become increasingly inappropriate (if you have to put an 8 year old in a size 12 for instance, the style and type of clothes is very different).

    Great post, great points. And we wonder why there aren’t as many women in the sciences. It’s this not-so-subtle push towards being sweet and not smart or capable.

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    • Oh man, FMNZ, this shit is truly madness. I mean, in the grand scheme of things this rates maybe middling on the importance factor, but it does have an impact on our kids – see, among much else that I didn’t write about, this: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/genderneutral-toys-why-dressing-your-daughter-in-pink-damages-the-future-of-our-economy-9111397.html

      For someone (me) who thinks that we have to revamp our entire economic system (and you’ll probably see a rant on this subject soon), gender segregation of toys might seem somewhat peripheral, but it’s something that needs to be addressed, yet one more bit of bullshit that is in need of pushback.

      As a teacher one of the most annoying and troubling things with which I dealt was girls pretending to be ditsy, stupid, and helpless when in fact they frequently far exceeded the boys in abilities, simply because they seemed to think that they were expected to be so. I came down pretty hard on this behaviour, as you might think.

      So my Spanish teacher asked us to write what we wanted most in the coming year. I wrote, among other things, that I wanted to change the world. I can’t. But I can, in my own very small way, try.

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  11. Oh this makes me mad and unfortunately my cheeks go pink!
    I never imposed pink to my daughter. I wanted to see how far this would go. And even before she started daycare, she ‘adore pink’, A choice of hers because she likes the girlies stuff.
    I love seeing her in her cute dresses, playing with her cars and trucks with a superhero cape on, and she gets along with the boys, even makes them cry- oh dear! (not a bully) Thanks daddy for roughing her up, but she won’t be a damsel in distress not fitting into the ‘pink only’ box. We like all colours thanks.

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  12. All of your points are very valid which is why it always comes down to the parents. My little girl loves ninja turtles and transformers as much as she loves her american girls and barbies.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fantastic post! As a mother of a little girl this has been a bug bear of mine since before she was born! She has dolls and girly things, but has an equal amount of cars, trucks and LOTS of non-pink toys too! Its awful that kids are subjected to this gender stereotyping from such a young age!

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    • Thanks, Marns the Mama! Kudos for not buying into the BS. I think (in case you didn’t get this from the article) that the situation is absolutely ridiculous, but many of us have just come to think of it as ‘normal.’ It’s not. It’s a fairly new phenomenon, and one that’s detrimental to both boys and girls, but particularly girls. I don’t even HAVE girls and it pisses me off. Anyway, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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