By Madison Teuscher
Take a walk through any department store toy aisle, and you will see labels that ensure we know which toys are meant for girls and which toys are meant for boys. Pink and purple pastels surround “girl” aisles filled with dresses, dolls, and kitchen sets. Red, blue and orange dominate the “boy” aisles—these sections have trucks, guns, and tool sets. The divides between these toy aisles go much deeper than just playthings for children—they set the patterns for socialization and behavior for a lifetime.
Admist this sea of pink and blue, there are parents (and their kids!) who appreciate gender-neutral marketing. This February, Target decided to ditch its gendered children’s home décor lines with their new collection, “Pillowfort”. The line focuses on prints and colors that can appeal to any child, with themes like “Tropical Treehouse”, “Ocean Oasis”, and “Stellar Station”. The collection’s February debut was met with positive appreciation—the line is meant for all children; “cute enough for a three-year-old, cool enough for a ten-year-old”. This is one positive step in a growing movement towards gender-neutral décor and toys for kids.
A British group, “Let Toys Be Toys”, is seeking to label toys based on purpose, rather than gender. Their website provides valuable information about the negative effects of gendered toys, and the positive repercussions of organizing a toy store based on theme and function. Continuing to push themes of glamour and beauty in “girls” toys surrounds these girls with a worrying emphasis on outward appearance. To assume that boys are naturally rough, rowdy, dirty, and focused on action and violence tells more sensitive, calmer, or more creative boys that their approach to the whole “boy” thing is wrong. This feeds low expectations of boys which undermines their performance at school.
Some toy companies have been responding to the “Let Toys Be Toys” campaign with gender-neutral advertisements and promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) toys for all children, not just boys. We need to continue to allow opportunities for children to discover, build, and create, regardless of gender. Global studies have shown that companies that hire more women outperform their competitors, and that there is no learning gap in STEM fields. The only reason girls don’t pursue STEM fields is because we don’t encourage them to. Science gives kids problem-solving skills, creativity, and a natural skepticism—not to mention it is the fastest growing field in the world.
When building and construction toys are labeled for “boys”, and dolls and home toys are labeled for “girls”, children are sent clear messages about what the grown up world thinks is suitable for them. “Girls” toys tell girls that their focus should be passively being pretty, rather than “doing” anything. “Boy” Legos are about building and creating, and have themes about superheroes, firefighters, and underwater missions. The branding on “girl” Legos is all about shopping, going to the beach, and doing hair and makeup. It is these messages that lead to troubling self-image in teen years. A report from the Telegraph notes that “the number of episodes in which pre-teen children have been treated by hospitals for eating disorders triples in four years”. Rising levels of eating disorders is just one factor in the story of body image anxiety distracting girls from focusing on learning and achieving.
Even toddlers know that the marketing for gendered toys is very heavy handed. In the 2011 viral video “Riley on Marketing” a toddler rants about the market’s insistence that girls must play with pink toys and princesses. She says, “Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses.” She is visually frustrated in the toy store, and says that toy companies are “trying to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff.”
Système U, a French company, promoted their toys as part of a “Gender Free Christmas” last holiday season. Part of the movement’s promotion included a clip of boys and girls talking about which toys are for boys and girls—“Stuff for girls is more for pink, more bright… the daddy goes to work and makes money”. However, as soon as these children are in a large playroom decked out with a wide variety of toys, we see boys tenderly caring for dolls and making dinner, and girls playing with racecars and cranes.
The bigger picture is that children should not be limited by the colors and labels in a toy aisle. When we allow for children to play with what interests them, their own curiosities and ideas are unobstructed by arbitrary guidelines telling them what they can and cannot be. When we take away gendered toys, children are allowed to be unashamedly themselves.