If you’ve taken a sociology class recently, stumbled upon any number of documentaries, heard from a frustrated parent, or experienced today’s hyper-gendered toy marketing first-hand, you’ll be aware of the “pink” and “blue” aisles dividing our toy stores.
“Boy” toys in blues and greys are all about action and adventure with cars, trucks, science kits and construction toys. An aisle over, pink and pastel “girl” toys promote beauty and domesticity. This disparity of active vs. passive, dominance vs. domesticity introduces and reinforces the very same gender stereotypes that lead to gender discrimination in the workplace and society as a whole (Sweet, 2015). The gendering of toys seems so well-established that it feels like a deeply ingrained practice, which is why it’s so surprising to learn that toys are currently more gendered than they have ever been (Sweet, 2015).
LEGO ads through the 70s show boys and girls playing, exploring, and creating in equal capacity. In the 80s, LEGO refocused their brand strategy as a toy “for boys,” and the industry seemed to follow suit, transforming the toy market. This means that someone in their 20s today grew up with a completely different toy landscape compared to their parents. But why did the industry stop believing that all children have diverse interests?
For 2021 audiences, this is a particularly mind-bending conundrum. We are seeing greater diversity in gender-identity than ever before, and it’s largely coming from young people. We understand that gender is not binary, rendering the pink and blue divide even more ludicrous. What might happen for our future generations’ confidence, happiness, and acceptance-of-self and others if we designed play to reflect the diversity we see in our children?
Pediatrician Angela Kade Goepferd (she who specializes in the care of transgender and non-binary children) suggests children understand gender differences from age 2. And starting at age 3, they are readily able to place themselves within the gender spectrum, eagerly communicating this identity to those around them. By age 4-5, children are internalizing gender roles and modifying their behavior based on what they think is “allowed” (Goepferd, 2020). Going to the “boy” aisle for a bug-catching kit or lunchbox creates doubt in a child’s mind that, over time and coupled with fear of social ridicule – up to 80% of transgender and gender-diverse kids experience harassment in schools (Goepferd, 2020) – might lead to their not reaching for those things at all (Sweet, 2015). Goepferd suggests most of us go through this to some extent: figuring out what we like, then determining if we will be socially punished for that behavior or preference. Goepferd says that “we all know who we are from a very young age, including the truest expression of our gender identity, and we spend most of our lives searching for the words, tools, safety and agency to share ourselves.”
These words and tools come from the examples kids have around them – from their parents, teachers, peers, and media. We know that representation matters, particularly in our earliest years. A 2019 study found that girls aged 9-11 favored LEGO sets that reflected them – this meant showing girls playing with the set on the packaging, including girl minifigures, and creating sets that included their own interests, like a boating set or a science research lab (Hains & Shewmaker, 2019). One study participant chose to create her own minifigure from a combination of “boy” and “girl” LEGO pieces, saying that her minifigure “looked more like her”.
In 2021, we have more diverse representation in media than ever before (check out this article on Muppet Babies’ gender non-conforming Gonzo!) meaning that children are able, from an increasingly young age, to tell us who they are. It’s thanks to them that we now know that the gender binary, the “pink” and “blue” aisles, no longer – and never did – apply.
Organizations like Let Toys Be Toys, Pink Stinks, Let Books be Books, and Play Unlimited lobby for more inclusive toy marketing practices. We encourage you to check out these and other resources below, and feel free to join the conversation here.
- Nadine Lowden, July 2021
TED Talk: The Revolutionary Truth About Kids and Gender Identity | Angela Kade Goepferd
TED Talk: Beyond the Blue and Pink Toy Divide | Elizabeth Sweet
The Trevor Project
Rainbow Resource Centre (MB)
List of Children's Books with Transgender, Non-Binary and Gender Expansive Children
References & Sources
Fine, C., Rush, E. “Why Does all the Girls have to Buy Pink Stuff?” The Ethics and Science of the Gendered Toy Marketing Debate. J Bus Ethics 149, 769–784 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3080-3
Hains R.C., Shewmaker J.W. (2019) “I Just Don’t Really, Like, Connect to It”: How Girls Negotiate LEGO’s Gender-Marketed Toys. In: Hains R., Mazzarella S. (eds) Cultural Studies of LEGO. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-32664-7_11
Kasey Clawson Hudak (2017) Deceiving or disrupting the pink aisle? GoldieBlox, corporate narratives, and the gendered toy debate, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 14:2, 158-175, DOI: 10.1080/14791420.2016.1203966
TEDx Talks. (2015, November 16). Beyond the Blue and Pink Toy Divide | Elizabeth Sweet | TEDxUCDavisSalon [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdHJGH97vyo
TEDx Talks. (2020, October 26). The revolutionary truth about kids and gender identity | Angela Kade Goepferd | TEDxMinneapolis [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knNjvX6eoBI