Holy smokes, have you visited a toy store recently? I have, and I’ll tell you, it made me wholly uncomfortable. The pink and blue divide is alive and well (in most toy stores—there are a few outliers who I must give credit to), and the toys are not just split along old-fashioned gender lines, they’re downright hyper-sexualized.
For heaven’s sake, the pink purple glitter bomb that is the “girls” section. Even if it’s not marked as a girls’ section, there’s nothing but pink and purple. Those are beautiful colors, but enough already with cramming them down our girls’ throats and placing an impermeable gender barrier around them for our boys. My son loves his pink boots, alright already?
And dolls. Let’s talk about the dolls. Dolls aren’t just for girls, and dolls shouldn’t be all girls. Dolls are toys, joining the ranks of the thousands of other toys that are designed for play. Pure and simple.
I’m tired of fighting off gendered stereotypes that my sons face every day. You want to play with a pink rocket ship covered in sparkles? Fantastic. You absolutely love dolls? More power to you. You think gardening is a delight? Please be my guest. I am exhausted. First because I have two young kids, and that’s exhausting. But second because I am bombarded with stereotypes in every aspect of parenting, especially toys.
The first time I entered a modern toy store (that I can recall), was a few months before I gave birth to my oldest son. I just wanted to check it out, to kind of imagine what sort of life I might be encountering with a new child. Maybe just take a stroll down memory lane and recall the fun toys of my childhood. The experience though turned out to be nauseating. I walked around for about five minutes then felt the panic rising inside of me. I had found myself up to my eyeballs in hyper-gendered objects. The blatant boy/girl divide was cringe-worthy in terms of the future of gender equality. I walked out with a foreboding sense of the gender battle I was about to enter.
This led me to start questioning the market. I was a lawyer, often facing real-life gender discrimination in a profession long dominated by men, and here I was about to bring a boy into a world where, at least according to the toy market, his play should be limited to his gender. How could this be? I wondered, naively I suppose. I thought we’d progressed. I thought things were more equal. I thought kids could just be kids.
But at least according to my toy store observations, there is a massive gender divide alive and well in modern-day toys. So I did a little research and found that the gender divide is driving a whole lot of sales. Let’s take dolls for example. The U.S. toy market is estimated to be $22 billion per year, and dolls consume more than 10% of that market share—a whopping $2.3 billion per year*. A survey of dolls on the market quickly shows this is almost entirely from sales to girls. Why? Because the market offers girl dolls to girls. Sure, a boy can buy one, but a same-age doll that is designed to look like a boy is rarely seen.
If you were to ask me today for my honest answer to the question of why the toy market has few (read: practically none) boy dolls, it would be this: The toy industry is dominated by a corporate center that has placed toys in gender buckets. Boy toys. Girl toys. After all, scarcity and division creates demand, which means more money in the big box companies’ pockets. According to Entrepreneur Magazine (Davis Kathleen, 2013), gender marketing in toys is so deeply engrained that Mattel divides its business segments by ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’.
Gender marketing remains strong even though this generation of parents seems to shout “What gives?” to hardcore gender labeling of toys. Whole movements of #letthemplay, #lettoysbetoys, and #playtochange have emerged from the millennials’ rejection of gender-labeling toys. STEM toys targeted at girls are now hugely popular (as they should be). One of the last untouched territories of hyper-genderization of toys that seems to be lingering longer than the rest is the notion that dolls are for girls.
It’s time to challenge the market and resolve to give our kids diversity and choice in their play. Let’s be more concerned with the play aspect rather than the gender aspect!
So what can we as parents do? I’m not asking you to ignore your kids’ play preferences or their genders for that matter. Embrace them, love them, and encourage them to feel comfortable with themselves and their choices in life. Offer your kids choice and opportunity in their play. Be aware of the selection of toys in your home, ensuring that your kids are exposed to a well-rounded and quality offering of toys. Remember that it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Choose something different. If you have sons, maybe buy a doll or two and don’t shy away from the full color palette. If you have girls, don’t force them to paint their room pink if they love green.
Break the gender barrier for our children through play. The breaking of this barrier is what speaks so loudly to our generation. Take the recent viral video, for example, the Share the Load laundry detergent video endorsed by Sheryl Sandberg. That video was hugely popular to my generation because it drove home the basic message that we pretty much all agree to: Everyone is equal. Everyone should share the load. Whether that load is laundry, changing diapers, paying bills, or working late—we are all in it together.
The one-sided toy market that fills the “pink aisles” with girl dolls makes my generation cringe. We are loving these Share the Load messages but then our kids are exposed both overtly and subliminally to the constant pink/blue divide. They see toy companies making only dolls in pink boxes and those are for girls. What does this tell our kids? Why aren’t dolls just representative of children? Dolls are great companions for our kids to take along on adventures. They are confidantes when a silent ear is needed. They are the Hobbes to our Calvins. Why on earth would these amazing toys be limited to one gender?
No, that’s just not right. If dolls are representative of all children, then dolls should be way more diverse. And that goes for all toys. They are play objects meant for learning and development. I’m not saying to sterilize everything and make all toys homogenous or even fully non-gendered, I’m advocating diversity and inclusion.
Yet, as a mom of two boys, I am flooded by gender messages. Almost on a daily basis, I hear things like, “When are you going to try for a girl?” or “That’s just how boys play,” or “Boys don’t really like coloring anyways,” or “I can’t believe he likes Frozen“. I can brush these comments off but when it comes to marketing and comments aimed at my boys, I cannot sit back. There is no excuse that in this day and age, boys are told they can’t play with dolls and aren’t even offered many by the toy makers. Come on! Let’s diversify a little.
Diversification of toys will have lasting benefits. For example, expanding doll play to boys encourages greater pretend play. Pretend play—and especially doll play—is vitally important to development of all children. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, children between the ages of four and five use dolls and action figures to imagine “major characters for enacting diverse, often extended, stories during pretend or role play”. And kids aged six to eight need dolls and human characters to enact complex dramas and storylines. The introduction of “multi-directional rotation of body parts” helps develop fine motor skills and learn cause-and-effect. Same-age dolls encourage kids to role play relationships and develop emotional intelligence, empathy, nurturing, and sharing skills.
Kids and parents alike are demanding equality in their toys. We are working to help meet this demand. I hope to be one agent of change that helps fix the major gap in the market.
* Figures estimated based upon reports of the Toy Industry Association (2014).
Photo: Tigra Lopez