You would be hard pressed to decipher the gender of my child based on his toy collection alone. At almost five years old, his toys range from a wooden play kitchen (complete with pots, pans & fake food), to a plethora of various toy animals, books galore (from princess ones to Curious George), building blocks, cars, dolls, Legos (oh, so many Legos), dress-up clothes, art supplies, and so on. You might think we had multiple kids—both boys and girls—based on the sheer number of toys, but that's another post for another day. Sigh.
The fact is, we've never really put much stock into "boy toys" and "girl toys." Instead, we decided to (gasp!) let our son's interests dictate our toy selection. Because of that decision, we have come home from our favorite local toy store with both Police Unit Legos and the Cottontail Rabbit Family from Calico Critters. While we've been fortunate that friends and family (for the most part) follow our lead and buy or hand down toys to our son based on his interests rather than his gender, I'm also clearly aware that the rest of the country doesn't always play by similar rules.
Much of this, like most of my grumblings, is related to marketing. We're a visual nation that has come to heavily rely on the images being sold to us, and in the last twenty years or so, toy companies have focused strongly on promoting gender stereotypes via their actual toys and the commercials selling them.
(Images from 2010 Toys R Us holiday circular courtesy of Pigtail Pals)
According to these ads (which mimic what you can find in store aisles) from last year's Toys R Us holiday circular, girls only like variegating shades of pink and play solely with dolls, clothes, make-up, and princesses. In contrast, boys, surrounded by blue, are future scientists, architects, and construction workers. (We'll touch on holiday catalogs specifically in more detail in the next Mom & Pop Culture post!)
Much like my issue with princesses, a lot of this goes beyond the "simple" notion of pink vs. blue. Circulars like these (which run throughout the year), and the toy aisles that echo them, continue to reinforce tired stereotypes about boys and girls.
If you know even one kid, you already know they're more than a stereotype of their gender with a myriad of interests—so why don't toy manufacturers and ad executives acknowledge this?
Instead, they essentially take away the notion choice from our kids and foist upon them these prescribed ideals of who they are and what they should like/be doing. And sadly, this is starting at earlier and earlier ages. A few months ago I wrote about how toy manufacturers are even beginning their quest to divide toys amongst gender lines with newborns. Babies, who (let's be honest) don't even care about the color of the rattle in their hand, are the latest victims in the never ending push to separate toys—and kids—by gender. Many people wonder what the huge problem is when toy companies push pink on girls and blue on boys. After all, a lot of parents are quick to share that their kids just love [insert stereotypically acceptable toy here], so what's the big deal?
The big deal is that if kids are continuously exposed to these stereotypical gender ideals via toys (from birth!) then when/if they feel the urge to step outside these boxes, the reaction can be quite negative. Boys can be teased (by kids and adults alike!) for wanting to play with dolls, while girls' desires to play with trucks can easily go ignored.
Gone are the Free To Be You & Me days of the '70s where gender neutrality was promoted. Gone are the days of the '80s even, when more neutral toys like My Buddy were marketed towards boys and Lego had awesome ads that didn't fall prey to easy gender stereotypes.
Instead we're faced with toy departments that are heavily segregated by pink or blue. It's no accident that we've moved away from toys that were once deemed okay for all kids to ones that are targeted specifically for a particular gender—marketers are extremely savvy in this regard. But while this might increase companies' profits, it also increases the chance for negative reactions when a child chooses a something that doesn't fit into these carefully crafted, color-coded toy aisles.
When people adhere too rigidly to stereotypical norms, especially surrounding gender, it can come as a shock when others choose to circumnavigate these lines—even children. So while toy stores might just say that they're giving the public what they want, they're also reinforcing strict gender roles that not everyone wants to play in—or with!