In 1975, only 2% of the toys in the Sears catalog were specifically intended for boys or girls. But these days when we go shopping for children’s gifts, almost everything is color-coded: the princesses are ringed in pink and the muscular action figures are ringed in shades of blue. Therefore, it is not surprising that one in three adults give away toys based on gender stereotypes.
However, even Barbie-style princesses, which are now ubiquitous in the girls’ toy section and which, by the way, generated some discontent among parents due to their appearance and was one of the first toys to deploy a market strategy based on television advertising, they were extremely rare before the 1970s.
As a result, toy marketing is much more gender-focused today than it was half a century ago, when gender discrimination and sexism were the norm in society, according to sociologist Elizabeth Sweet. Curious, isn’t it?
Why should we care that toys are marketed by gender?
Many people think that if it has always been done like this, if pink is for girls and blue for boys, why do we need to change?
However, this has not always been like that. And even assuming that these marked gender differences have always existed, it is not a compelling reason to maintain them. Studies tell us that when we give our children toys that conform to gender stereotypes, we are limiting the skills they can learn in the future and, above all, their interests.
Research conducted at Rhodes College revealed that children are more likely to play with toys that develop spatial intelligence. So it should come as no surprise that girls then score lower on tests of spatial intelligence. On the other hand, toys marketed for girls, such as stuffed animals, dolls or little kitchens, encourage communication and empathy, so it is not surprising that they end up developing these skills more than most boys.
Another study conducted at Oregon State University even found that toys that replicate gender stereotypes influence the professional cognitions of children as young as 4 to 7 years old. These researchers found that the girls who played with Barbies indicated fewer future career options for themselves, compared to the boys and girls who played with Ms. Potato Head.
Therefore, the toys that children prefer to play with are important for their overall development. Not only are they shaping their conception of society, but they can limit its potential or, on the contrary, expand it. Letting children choose the toys that interest them most, without restricting their options by gender, allows them to explore a broader universe and find themselves, beyond the rigid roles that the adult world tries to impose.
Dolls weren’t always for girls and trucks for boys
Toys for girls from the 1920s to the 1960s were largely focused on the domestic and nurturing sphere. These toys were clearly designed to prepare girls for a life as a housewife and to take care of household chores. Instead, the toys for little boys of that time focused on preparing them to enter the world of work that the industrial economy presented to them.
In fact, we cannot forget that games and toys are a vehicle for preparing children for their adult life, so that they can gradually acquire the skills that allow them to respond to the specific demands of society.
However, toy ads by gender declined markedly in the early 1970s, as more women entered the workforce, also coinciding with the push of the feminist movement. As a result, in Sears’ 1975 catalog ads, less than 2% of toys were explicitly marketed for boys or girls. In fact, it was around this time that gender stereotypes in toy advertising began to be actively challenged.
Then came a contradictory phenomenon: Although gender inequality in the adult world continued to decline, the deregulation of children’s television programming in 1984 in the United States caused toymakers to increasingly differentiate between advertisements and toys that they advertised. During the 1980s, neutral advertising of gender equality toys receded and by 1995, gender-split toys made up about half of Sears’ catalog offerings.
A sociological study conducted just a decade ago, in 2012, revealed that all toys sold on the Disney Store website were explicitly listed as “for boys” or “for girls.” There was no option that escaped this stark differentiation, although it was obvious that there were neutral toys on both lists. Currently, Disney has corrected its catalog and no longer classifies its toys by gender.
This week, the new self-regulation code for toy advertising in Spain has set out to put an end to the idea that toys have a gender. A sector of society raises a cry in the sky when trying to change the status quo in toys by stating that gender neutrality would turn children into androgynous automata who can only play with boring tan objects.
However, as the bright color palette and diversity of toys that existed in the 1970s demonstrate, separating them from gender actually expands the options available to children. It opens the possibility for them to explore and develop their interests and abilities, without the strict restrictions imposed by gender stereotypes. And ultimately, isn’t that what we want for our children? That they be freer to choose their path.
Spinner, L. et. Al. (2018) Peer Toy Play as a Gateway to Children’s Gender Flexibility: The Effect of (Counter)Stereotypic Portrayals of Peers in Children’s Magazines. Sex Roles; 79(5): 314–328.
Jirout, J. J. & Newcombe: N. S. (2015) Building blocks for developing spatial skills: evidence from a large, representative U.S. sample. Psychol Sci; 26(3): 302-310.
Sherman, A. M. & Zubriggen, E. L. (2014) “Boys Can Be Anything”: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions. Sex Roles; 70: 195–208.
Sweet, E. (2014) Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago. En: The Atlantic.
Auster, C. J. & Mansbach, C. S. (2012) The Gender Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website. Sex Roles; 67: 375–388.
Wagner, A. (2002) Analysis of Gender Identity Through Doll and Action Figure Politics in Art Education. Studies in Art Education; 43(3): 246-263.