What’s in a Toy?

By Melissa Stefanec

Recently, I came across an interesting toy advertisement. It showed a little girl happily tinkering with a 14-piece carpenter’s set.

The set contained everything she would need to build herself something — a small saw, a level, a vice, a hammer and some nails. If it weren’t for some out-of-date typeface and an unfashionable bowl-cut on the little lady, the advertisement might have given me hope. You see, this ad wasn’t in an online banner or a digital flyer. It was actually from a 1970 Sears’ catalogue. If I tried to find a similar advertisement in mainstream media, I would be sorely disappointed. Today’s toys are ridiculously gendered.

Believe it or not, there was a time when toys were less gendered.

A look back at the 1970s reveals toy makers rarely marketed toys based on gender. Elizabeth Sweet, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California at Davis, recently studied and reported on this phenomenon (check out her findings; they are enlightening).

If you flipped through the pages of toy catalogue from the 1970s or 1980s, you weren’t smacked in the face with hot pink and dark blue. It wasn’t all princesses and ultra-jacked robot superheroes. You saw little boys playing with toy groceries and refrigerators and girls playing with toy hammers and nails (just like us grownups do). Women are closing gender-related societal gaps, but a look at toys would never indicate that.

Despite the contrary credos I recite to my children, we are living in an age of boy’s and girl’s toys.

Ask any child, and they can regale you with this plight. Walk down the aisle of any store, or scroll through any online listing, and it becomes very apparent what toys are intended for which gender. It’s not just the color coding. Boy’s toys are typically geared toward activities, confrontations, grossness and domination. Girl’s toys are geared toward gentility, helping, caregiving and mild ambitions.

It’s 2019 — haven’t we all decided people are complex and that our complexities and associated preferences extend past our genders? Our everyday lives say “yes”, while the toys our kids plead for say “no”.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Public outcry has changed a great many things. If you are one of those people who think this isn’t a big deal or can’t see a better way to do it, consider these things:

There are other demographics

If toys aren’t broken down by gender, what can they possibly be broken down by? Here are some ideas: age and interest. Imagine browsing online, searching for the word ‘dinosaur’ and being met with a page full of dinosaur toys. Not just gnashing T-rexes with razor-sharp claws, but also parent T-rexes with baby dinosaurs. Imagine searching for the word ‘doll’ and being met with a picture of a boy playing with a boy doll, and a host of polo shirts and baseball caps to accessorize his doll. Imagine both things being OK, because some girls like dinosaurs and some boys like little people.

There will still be plenty of choice

There are people out there who worry that taking gender bias out of the toy market will mean everyone will have to play with the same thing. That is a fallacy. I know plenty of little girls who love to level block buildings with toy robots. I know plenty of little boys who love pushing around a stuffed cat in a baby carriage. The hang-up isn’t with our children. They are pushed by society to think these inclinations are wrong. We are simply stifling their natural urges. We just need to reach a point where a boy feels equally empowered to play with a toy kitchen as he does a foam dart gun. Everything won’t be beige and androgonous.

These new norms hold our kids back

When I wonder what is holding our society back from categorizing its toy offerings by something other than gender, I come back to the same idea. It’s fear. Fear that boys who play with dolls will grow up to be lesser men and turn into sissies. Fear that girls who play doctor will learn to call the shots and somehow be less desirable than their more demure counterparts. Fear that things are working well enough, and shaking them up will result in some sort of societal net loss.

The thing is, that doesn’t pass the sniff test. The age-old gender roles don’t do most of us any good. They certainly don’t give kids much of a choice. At their best, these unrealistic expectations instill guilt and insecurity in anyone brave enough to buck the norm. At their worst, they hold kids back from becoming their best selves. Don’t we want a world where our kids thrive because of their passions, not despite them?

We won’t change the system overnight, but we can start with leading our sons and daughters down the “wrong” toy aisle and encouraging them to dream of a world where unicorns and robots are for whomever wants to have fun with them.