By Hailley Smart
When I walk into nearly any store, I can’t help but gravitate towards the toy section. This may be because I am an aunt of two adorable kids whom I love to spoil, and it may also be because I am very in touch with my inner child. But when I step into that laughter filled area, I see a clear divide between what toys are deemed suitable for girls and which toys are considered appropriate for boys. Now, I want you to think of yourself in my position, imagine how I find myself standing between the two isles noting the clear difference between them. To the one side my eyes are assaulted with every shade of pink imaginable with spots of purple and soft greens. On the other side I find stark blacks and greys, bold blues and dark greens. On one side is soft fabrics, on the other hard metals. To my left I will find a wide array of kitchen sets and dolls, princess dresses and ponies. On the opposite side of the isle is cars and tool sets, Legos and plastic guns. On one side hangs a sign labeled ‘Girl Toys’ on the other a sign reading ‘Boy Toys’. And it’s not just in physical stores, even on major retailers’ websites there is a clean split between girl and boy toys with no option of toys for all. But why is this the case? Has it always been this way, or can we fix it? Is this the way it should be, or is the separation harmful for both girls and boys?
Contrary to many beliefs, the idea of splitting toys across gender lines is actually a fairly new concept. As recently as the 1970’s, a mere 50 years ago, the idea of having toys separated into boys’ and girls’ sections would have been ludicrous. According to Elizabeth Sweet, an assistant professor of psychology at SJSU, “In the Sears catalog ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls”. In recent history, most toys could be found in a wide variety of bright and bold colors such as red, blue, yellow, and green. They were also advertised for all kids, showing both boys and girls playing together on the box. Toys were marketed not based on the gender of the kids playing with it, but what the toy could teach all children. Toys were separated within a single aisle based on whether they helped children develop social skills, fine motor skills, spacial skills, or emotional skills, attributes that are necessary for all children. In fact, the sorting of toys into gendered aisles didn’t become a thing till the 80’s and wasn’t as clear and prevailing of a split until the 90’s. So, the divide between girls’ and boys’ toys hasn’t always existed, but is it really a bad thing?
Studies have shown that the divide between toys can actually be very detrimental to young children. One of the primary ways that this is the case is due to the effect that marketing can have on kid’s interests. What is being advertised for kids to play with teaches them what is acceptable for them to be interested in. In a study completed by NPR, it was discovered that when computers were first released they were highly marketed towards boys, which resulted in a great decrease of women in fields like coding. This is because it was promoted that liking computers was for boys, so young girls were pushed away from being interested in going into computer jobs. This can also be seen on the reverse, where boys are pushed away from more ‘feminine’ jobs, such as early childhood teaching and cooking, due to toys like kitchen sets and baby dolls being marketed to girls. But the way in which interests develop isn’t the only way that dividing up the sections is harmful to kids. Many toys are designed to specifically target a certain attribute or skill. Professor Judith Elaine Blakemore at Indiana University said in an interview with the NAEYC that “moderately masculine toys have many positive qualities (spatial skills, science, building things, etc.) […] it is the same for some moderately feminine toys (nurturance, care for infants, developing skills in cooking and housework).” For example, Legos help young children develop fine motor skills, and for quite a while there was no girl equivalent to Legos to help young ladies develop these skills.
But what can we do about it? Many organizations are pushing for toy companies and sellers to stop dividing and marketing toys based on gender; the Let Toys Be Toys movement is one of these groups. They are a British group pushing for “the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.” On their website they give updates on what companies are doing to fix this problem, as well as giving recommendations of toys for every age group regardless of marketed gender. And many retailers themselves are working towards having gender neutral, or at least gender equal, marketing. This can be seen in Hasbro’s most recent string of commercials for their Nerf line, where both girls and boys are shown using their toys with no clear color divide, and Kirkbi, the owners of Legos, who have started promoting a wider variation of Legos for girls and Legos for all kids. The final thing that can be done, as consumers, is to look past the gender labels when shopping for toys. Ask the kid what they are interested in and shop based on what the toy can teach them. Don’t be confined to the rigid pink and blue, play kitchen and toy tool set, girl and boy divide. My nephew loves the color purple and my niece wants to grow up to be just like Bob the builder. Why should they be limited to only blue toys and only dolls?