When my youngest cousin was born, I went to Wal-Mart to find some nice baby clothes for her. Assuming most of my relatives would buy her something pink and frilly, and being the sucker for superhero movies that I was, I strove to find something geeky for the little one. The minute I stepped into the clothes section, I was forced into two streams: clothes for girls and clothes for boys. I took a chance and explored the first section, hoping I would find what I sought. I didn’t. What I pulled off the racks was a purple tutu dress with a sparkly purple Batman logo and a similar Superman dress in pink. There isn’t enough space in this post to begin discussing the absence of female superheroes. As expected, the boys’ section was littered with Superman and Batman onesies in their original colours. (If you’re wondering what I ended up buying, it was the blue Superman onesie.)
What this experience revealed to me was that girls get the pink and purple versions of the same products that are marketed to boys in their original versions and colours. Just as it does in the clothing world, the same type of gendered marketing has held true for the toy world for years. I’ll admit, that clothing incident occurred more than three years ago now. However, while significant changes have occurred over the past few years in the way toys are being marketed to children – largely in response to public outrage and campaigns – products are still being segregated into “boy” and “girl” streams.
Take Toys ‘R’ Us online, for instance. I did a little digging into the Action Figures section of the website, since action figures or dolls are among most strictly divided for boys and girls. Way down below the Category, Age, Brand and Character/Theme filters was the option to filter by Gender. Just looking at the first few pages, there was already a distinct difference between the two filters. The “girl” filter left me with 245 items, which were mainly plush toys and collectible figures, like Big Hero 6, Minions, Finding Nemo and Sailor Moon. For a moment I was surprised to see a LEGO set that was not the controversial girl-targeting LEGO Friends. But a closer look revealed that it was a pet shop set.
Where was everything else? The “girl” filter eliminated all Star Wars toys and LEGO Star Wars building sets, including, oddly, a set for the female character Rey’s speeder. All I was left with was a Captain Phasma costume, a sticker collection and a handful of Star Wars-related books. Where were all the Star Wars sets for which LEGO is so well known? Once I flipped off the “girl” filter and turned on the “boy” one, they popped back up. Compared to the 245 items “for girls,” the “boy” filter gave me 1,257 items in this section. Without any filters the total number of items in the Action Figures section was 1,272, so there was some overlap – but not enough. According to the Gender filters, everything from an RC BB-8 toy to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dolls and a Batman figure were only for boys.
The problem is that there’s no real reason to separate toys this way. The toys themselves are perfect for all kids, but splitting them up leads to kids missing out on having a variety of entertaining and educational experiences through play.
This forcing of toys into assigned gender boxes has spurred the creation of many campaigns calling for the opportunity for children to choose their toys freely. One of these campaigns is UK-based Let Toys Be Toys, which began in 2012. Since then, it has gotten 14 major UK and Ireland retailers to get rid of gender-specific signs around toys. Among these retailers is the UK website for Toys ‘R’ Us, which, unlike the Canadian site and the U.S. site (which actually has sections called “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys” on the home page), removed its gender filters. Last summer, Target in the U.S. also decided to remove “boy toy” and “girl toy” signs from its stores.
When we think about “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” signs, we often worry about how they’ll exclude girls from various play experiences. What may get overlooked is the effect it can also have on boys. Boys who are presented with action figures, trucks and plastic weapons in a section cordoned off from kitchen sets, dolls and other toys people consider to be “too girly” will never try to explore that equally rewarding area of nurturing and compassion. They, too, will miss out purely out of their, or more likely their parents’ fear of liking something associated with femininity.
Where gender-stereotyped toy marketing also especially becomes problematic – and it’s an area that many wrongly ignore or believe doesn’t exist – is when kids don’t identify with a specific gender, or don’t fit into the gender binary. Trying to pigeonhole them into traditional genders with signs exclusively for boys or girls has the dangerous potential to make them feel like there is something wrong with them for not wanting either option, or wanting both.
A large part of marketing toys specifically to boys and girls is about making more money. If a parent has a girl and a boy, they may end up buying the “girl version” as well as the “boy version” of a toy. And as the Washington Post pointed out recently, retailers try to profit from gender-specific toys. A pink “girl version” of a toy can cost almost double that of the exact same toy in a colour targeting boys. The Post gave the example of Radio Flyer’s red scooter, which cost $24.99, while the exact same scooter in pink cost a whopping $49.99.
Creating a Cross-Category Juggernaut, a new study by the research and consulting firm Smarty Pants, suggests there are also benefits to marketing products as gender-neutral, however. According to the study, the most powerful and popular properties in 2015 were gender-neutral. These included Minions, LEGO, Mario and Minecraft. However, LEGO isn’t entirely gender-neutral in its marketing to children, as is evident by LEGO Friends. Not only does the girl-focused line feature characters and settings that exist in another imaginary world separate from most of LEGO’s other lines, but the pieces also literally don’t connect with regular LEGO pieces. This separation can give girls the unfortunate impression that they’re meant to play in a separate corner, away from the boys’ toys.
In a perfect world, instead of trying to market toys specifically to girls and boys, toymakers would focus on creating the best possible play experience for children. While there is much to criticize about toy retailers’ segregation of toys into genders, they are making small advances. Some of these include retailers removing signs. And while I pointed out Toys ‘R’ Us’s gender filters in the Action Figures category, its selection for boys in the Dolls & Playsets category includes Baby Amaze dolls, Monster High figures and a fashion puppy carrier, which is basically a purse. However, just as boys had more options in Action Figures, girls have many more options in the Dolls & Playsets category. Until the options for play available to all children are equal and varied, I will continue to scrutinize those gender filters.