Magazine

Families

The problem with separate toys for girls and boys

What started our obsession with assigning gender to playthings, and how can parents combat it?

Traditionally gender-neutral toys like building blocks now come in “boy” and “girl” versions. 

LEGO’s Friends line has been criticized for featuring hair salons and shopping malls.


illustrations by Greg Mably
Greg Mably
“Boys and girls stop playing together at a much younger age than was developmentally typical until this recent gender segmentation,” says psychologist Lori Day.

Girls’ toys. Boys’ toys. To many parents, the ubiquity of separate color-coded shopping aisles feels natural, reflecting a belief in innate gender differences and discrete interests. Recently, however, campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys and No Gender December have made international headlines for championing desegregated toy aisles, recommending reorganization by theme or interest instead. Rather than believing dolls and crafts are for girls while trucks and science kits are for boys, “we think all toys are for all children,” explains Let Toys Be Toys campaigner Jo Jowers, who lives in England.

President Obama waded into the matter in December, when at a Toys for Tots event he suggested a T-ball set was an ideal gift for girls. “I’m just trying to break down these gender stereotypes,” he said at the time.

“Children use toys to try on new roles, experiment, and explore interests,” explains Susan Linn, executive director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “Rigidly gendered toy marketing tells kids who they should be, how they should behave, and what they should be interested in” — an unhealthily prescriptive situation.

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Recent research demonstrates today’s toys are divided by gender at historically unprecedented levels. “There are now far fewer non-gendered items available for children than in any prior era,” says Elizabeth Sweet, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California at Davis — even fewer than 50 years ago, when gender discrimination was socially acceptable.

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How can this be? The answer lies in significant media industry changes during the 1980s, when the Federal Communications Commission’s television deregulation removed longstanding limitations on children’s advertising and widespread consumer adoption of cable allowed media owners to target more narrowly segmented audiences than ever before. As a result, marketers suddenly viewed children as a segmentable, highly lucrative demographic after largely ignoring them for 50 years.

Traditionally gender-neutral toys like building blocks now come in “boy” and “girl” versions.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that two of today’s most successful companies — Disney, whose Princess brand is the No. 2 licensed property in the United States and Canada, and LEGO, which recently surpassed Mattel as the world’s largest toy maker — were early adopters of the trend to meticulously segment the child market by gender in the late 1980s. The licensing success of Disney’s The Little Mermaid in 1989 prompted several additional princess film releases in quick succession, positioning Disney as a formidable power in the girl market. Likewise, in 1988, LEGO debuted its “Zack the LEGO Maniac” campaign, squarely positioning itself as a boy brand. A year later, LEGO began tailoring its minifigs’ historically gender-neutral faces to include lipstick and facial hair — clear gender markers.

The ripple effects of these monumental 1980s-era marketing changes are evident today. Now, once classically gender-neutral toys are produced in “boy” and “girl” versions: Radio Flyer wagons, Tinkertoys, Mega Bloks, Fisher-Price stacking rings, and everything in between come in “pinkwashed’’ varieties, in hopes that families with children of each sex will buy twice the toys. Meanwhile, Disney Princess’s record-breaking profits prompted a proliferation of princess items from competitors, and Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm, the Star Wars creator, to compete for the boy market. Similarly, LEGO competes for girls’ purchasing power not through inclusivity but by offering separate, stereotypically girlish themes, like Disney Princess and LEGO Friends.

What does this mean for today’s families? Lori Day, an educational consultant and psychologist in Newburyport and author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, argues that children’s play has been altered, with long-term consequences. “Boys and girls stop playing together at a much younger age than was developmentally typical until this recent gender segmentation,” she says. “The resulting rigidly stereotyped gender roles are unhealthy for both males and females, who are actually more alike than different.” Sweet concurs: “This kind of marketing has normalized the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally and markedly different from one another, and this very idea lies at the core of many of our social processes of inequality.” 

LEGO’s Friends line has been criticized for featuring hair salons and shopping malls.

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Parents can push back against these problems, however, by raising critically aware children. Jennifer Shewmaker, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and author of Sexualized Media Messages and Our Children: Teaching Kids to Be Smart Critics and Consumers, suggests: “When you see stereotyped advertisements, ask the child, ‘What do you think about the way that depicts girls and boys? Is that how the boys and girls in your life act?’ ” Carolyn Danckaert, cofounder of Washington, D.C.-based empowerment resource site A Mighty Girl, adds, “When parents explain that some people think only girls or only boys are good at something but their family disagrees, children can recognize stereotypes for what they are.”

Not all parents share such concerns, of course. Jo Paoletti, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America, attributes differing opinions to ongoing culture wars. “Adults who subscribe to more traditional, conservative gender roles see children’s preferences for stereotypical clothing and toys as natural expressions of innate differences,” Paoletti says. As such, Erin McNeill, founder and president of Watertown-based Media Literacy Now, advocates for integrating media literacy into the K-12 curriculum. “Some parents won’t notice or be concerned about the gendering of products. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to gain the critical thinking skills to understand how and why gendered ads target them,” she says.

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Rebecca Hains is an associate professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University, where she serves as assistant director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies. She’s the author of “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com.