Toys, Gender and Equality

October 10, 2013

"Gender has always played a role in the world of toys. What’s surprising is that over the last generation, the gender segregation and stereotyping of toys have grown to unprecedented levels. We’ve made great strides toward gender equity over the past 50 years, but the world of toys looks a lot more like 1952 than 2013." This quotation by Elizabeth Sweet, written in the New York Times this year, disturbed me.

This is my era... these are my years... I was a young child in the early 50's... I raised children through the 80's and I am a grandmother to young children now. This topic of gender stereotype and children's toys has always been an important one to me... how did I miss this backslide?

It is well known that gender has always played a role in realm of toys, but it is unbelievable that the stereotyping of toys and the gender segregation that results is worse now than it has been for four decades.

During WW II and in the years after, gender played a large part in toy ads, but by the early 1970's this seemed to be lessening. Very few toys were being marketed by gender alone, but rather cross gender toys were being marketed and advertised. Real progress. Just great to see boys cooking in toy kitchens and girls building airplanes.

But by the mid 1990's, toymakers had taken advertising back a half century and were marketing strongly by gender. They know that girls like pink and that boys like monsters, so these stereotypes figure largely in their marketing strategies. Their aim is to sell as much of each product as possible, with no conscience of the social cost.

It works because unfortunately there are still deep beliefs in our culture about gender. Parents are only too aware of the homophobic nature of our society. They don't want their boys to pay this social cost or maybe, they personally believe in gender conformity.

Children are very influenced by the marketing of toys. As well they live in a society which is full of gender messages, some subtle and some obvious. They see toys, often on television and often gender related that they want, and parents' succumb to this pressure. Everyone has a Christmas list, and as parents we try to make the holiday special by purchasing the toy of their child's dreams.

So where does this leave us? Should we be happy that Lego now has girls' sets which are more about domesticity and beauty than creativity? I don't think so.

It is actually a discouraging example of how little society has changed in the area of gender stereotyping in the last 60 years. In the 21st century we see almost 3/4 of mothers working outside the home and very diverse family structures. These changes in the modern family are totally incongruent with what we are witnessing regarding the gender roles embedded in toys. Such ideas hold us back from a more equal future.