There’s plenty of research supporting the need for more gender neutral toys, but I think little Riley said it best in her now famous YouTube rant:
“Girls want superheroes, and boys want superheroes, and the girls want pink stuff, and the boys want pink stuff. The companies try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy. Why do girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes. Some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes. Some boys like princesses. Why does [sic] all the girls have to buy pink stuff, and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?”
The line dividing what’s considered “boy toys” versus “girl toys” has been drawn even deeper in the sand than ever before. Walk into any store that sells toys, and you’ll see that line drawn in bright pink, with the “girl aisle” filled with dolls, beauty kits and domestic toys, and the “boy aisle” filled with building sets, toy guns and action figures.
But it hasn’t always been this way. According to Elizabeth Sweet, postdoctoral scholar at the University of California at Davis, the 1970s saw a decline in overtly gendered toys due to more women joining the workforce, a decrease in marriage and childbirth rates, and the rise of the second-wave feminist movement (those feminist killjoys ruin everything, don’t they?) However, this was a pretty short-lived era for gender neutral toys, as the 80s saw the rise of a cultural backlash against feminism and the resurgence of the gender divide that continues to persist today.
Is there actually any harm to gendering toys?
“Boys Will Be Boys”
Boys will boys, and girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice, right? Well, that’s what proponents of gendered toys are saying when they assert there’s no need for gender neutral toys because there are distinct differences between the sexes. This is your nature versus nurture argument — gender edition. This school of thought is called “gender essentialism,” which is the belief that the differences between genders are natural, fixed and sharply defined (Fine and Rush, 2014). So statements like “boys will be boys” assume that there are characteristics seen only in boys that are observed in all males across cultures and history and vice versa for girls. When it comes to toys, gender essentialists see children’s toy preferences as innate, a natural male versus female divide.
Jonathan Farley, co-founder of Girls Equal and Peren Linn Fashion, doesn’t believe there are any studies on this issue that can make any conclusive claims that gender neutral toys are beneficial. “It’s not important to have gender-neutral toys,” says Farley, “The two sexes are different. Boys don’t like pink. There might be girls who want to play with Tonka trucks and blow stuff up, but the reverse is not true.”
There is some research that indicates there’s merit to gender essentialist thinking. According to Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne and Emma Rush of the Centre for Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics in Australia, it has been proposed that prenatal testosterone exposure produces permanent behavioral changes that make girls and boys predisposed to be interested in “girl toys” and “boy toys.” However, these predispositions have yet to be proven.
Others proponents of gendered toys believe they support traditional gender roles. “A conservative view might hold that there is social justification for maintaining [gendered toys],” Fine and Rush posit. “Regardless of boys’ and girls’ natural inclinations, [the defense for gendered toys is] it’s better for society if gender socialization practices reinforce traditional gender roles.”
So, regardless of what kids actually want — which, as Riley pointed out, might be to play with toys intended for a different gender than their own — proponents of the traditional family viewpoint believe that the pink line in the sand is right where it should be.
Whatever their views on gender roles, where gender essentialists can agree is that gendered toys — or gender neutral toys, for that matter — have little effect on kids’ toy preferences because they are born with gender specific preferences.
But Should We Accept “Boys Will Be Boys?”
So just because biology tells us what we’re supposed to be like, does that mean that’s how we should be? Do we really have no control over our own preferences? This is where the “nurture” side of the debate comes into play. According to Fine and Rush, “gender constructivists” (as opposed to the essentialists mentioned above) acknowledge that biology influences children’s toy preferences, but it’s only one factor out of many overlapping influences. Rather than seeing gender as fixed and unchanging, constructivists see gender as something that is determined by a multitude of external factors in addition to biology. In other words, biology alone is not enough to predict a person’s masculine or feminine traits, and decades of research supports this viewpoint (Fine and Rush, 2016).
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Toys are one of many external factors that contribute to children’s understanding of gender, gender roles, and where they fall on the gender spectrum. When toys are gendered, it sends children cues about who certain toys are meant for. Gendering toys is also a major contributing factor to the proliferation of gender stereotypes. According to Fine and Rush, the negative consequences of gender stereotyping have been well-documented, particularly in our educational system and in the workforce, such as the persisting gender wage gap and the lack of female representation in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). However, there are so many consequences of gender stereotyping that are difficult to measure, such as the impact of calling boys sissies when they cry. Do we honestly think it’s good for boys to teach them their emotions are meant to stay hidden like some ugly secret?
Moreover, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, strongly gendered toys aren’t actually that supportive of child development. Research shows that gendered toys support different areas of development; girls’ toys are associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, domesticity, and verbal skills, while boys’ toys are associated with violence, competition, excitement, danger, and spatial and math skills. This difference in toy design teaches children separate and different physical and cognitive skills. The result? Kids miss out on crucial opportunities to learn through play.
It’s important to note that proponents of gender neutral toys aren’t trying to force counter-stereotypic toys on kids. Their goal is to relax these rigid gender categories so that kids can be kids by playing with whatever toys strike their interests. If we continue to force them into predetermined boxes, kids will never realize they had any other options.
Combating Gender Stereotypes Through Play
Not all toy manufacturers believe toys need to be divided by pink and blue. In fact, some have actually taken the extra steps to combat gender stereotyping through creating gender neutral play experiences.
Wonder Crew Helps Boys Make Emotional Connections
Psychotherapist Laurel Wider, LICSW, founded the Wonder Crew toy line after becoming frustrated with the messages boys were receiving from the “blue” toy aisle, including a particularly jarring incident when her preschool-aged son told her that boys aren’t supposed to cry. Her experiences with her son inspired her to craft a play experience that makes empathy, kindness, nurturing and human connection accessible to boys.
“Crying is a human thing,” says Wider. “Kindess, empathy, they’re all human characteristics. These characteristics and play patterns need to be accessible to both boys and girls. Right now we’re sending the message to our kids that it’s not for them. It’s not a boy thing.”
Through her research into how to develop this play experience, Wider found that there really aren’t any boys’ toys on the market with a human face that encourage connection and friendship. In fact, Wider found quite the opposite. Most boys’ toys on the market today encourage boys to aspire to unattainable levels of strength and aggression.
After interviewing more than 150 kids, educators, psychologists, and toy industry experts, Wider found that not only does doll play teach social and emotional skills necessary to healthy child development, but that boys are definitely interested in playing with dolls. The problem? Dolls are so heavily associated with girls’ toys that parents typically won’t buy them for their boys. Wider’s solution was to remove the word “doll” from the equation, and the “crew mates” of Wonder Crew were born.
Although Wonder Crew is currently marketed to little boys, Wider says, “Wonder Crew’s ultimate goal is to become an interest-based brand, not a gender-based brand. We absolutely intend on having female crew mates and not have separate girls and boys adventures.”
Mattel Helps Bridge the Gender Gap in STEM
Mattel’s Speedometry program started with two moms chatting at a school event. One happened to be a professor and researcher, and the other happened to be a Mattel employee. They both agreed there had to be a more fun and engaging way to teach kids about STEM subjects. What came of that conversation was a partnership between Mattel Children’s Foundation and the University of Southern California (USC) to create a curriculum for STEM education using Mattel’s Hot Wheels toys.
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According to Gale Sinatra, one of the leads of research on the curriculum, there were initial concerns that the curriculum wouldn’t resonate with girls because Hot Wheels toys are marketed to boys. Researchers were also concerned that boys would monopolize the toys because they would be more familiar with how to play with them. However, through play-testing and piloting of the curriculum, they found that not only were girls equally as interested as boys in playing with Hot Wheels toys, but boys shared play-time equally with girls. The result is a fourth grade STEM curriculum that dispels the gender stereotype that girls aren’t interested in cars, science or math — all while engaging and teaching kids equally across the gender spectrum.
Qubits Refuses the Pink and Blue Divide
When Walmart told the the creators of Qubits, a modular building toy, that they needed to change the color of their toy’s boxes to certain colors for girls and certain colors for boys, they refused.
“We’re not like that,” said Lisa Burginger, co-owner of Qubits. “We don’t feel [Qubits] should be gendered…we wanted to create a toy boys and girls alike can play and create [with]. We have 10 different colors, and the colors are for both genders.”
Unlike Wonder Crew and Speedometry, Burginger, along with her husband and co-owner Mark, didn’t do any research about gender when developing Qubits. For them, gender simply wasn’t a consideration. Toys are for children, not genders. The couple’s goal was to create a toy that teaches kids about architecture, engineering and science. The toy integrates with Hot Wheels and Legos, and the pieces are flexible, providing endless options for what kids can create.
“We’ll see boys and girls in equal numbers playing and building,” says Lisa. “No one is saying it’s a boy toy or girl toy.”
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Where do you fall in the gender neutral toy debate? Tell us in the comments.
Fine, C., & Rush, E. (2016, February 24). “Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff?” The ethics and science of the gendered toy marketing debate. Journal of Business Ethics. 1-16. DOI 10.1007/s10551-016-3080-3.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.) What the research says: Gender-typed toys. Retrieved from: http://www.naeyc.org/content/what-research-says-gender-typed-toys.