Decoupling Gender: Why You Should Care About Toys

On August 7th, Target announced that they were eliminating gender-based signage from their toy department. Proponents of the changes celebrated, and opponents released a flurry of negative media coverage. When I discovered the backlash exploding all over Facebook and Twitter I was pretty surprised, because this isn’t a very big change. The move to separate gender from toys has been rolling for a while; Harrods reorganized their stores three years ago, and Sweden has had been experimenting with various play-related gender neutral initiatives for the last four years or so. Furthermore, independent toy stores have been structuring their inventory by category for pretty much forever.

I work in one of those local toy stores. My store is especially small, so we play a lot of Tetris with the weird, mismatched shelf space, and tend to think more about the size of the box than its relationship to gender. However, regardless of this supposedly revolutionary method of organization, I witness upsetting reinforcements of gender stereotypes during every shift.

A Lego Ninjago kit.
A kit from LEGO’s Ninjago line. Image from the Lego online store.

What makes these experiences extra disappointing is that the neighborhood where I work is very queer, and considers itself to be progressive. I’ve had customers spend thirty minutes shopping for stereotypically boyish gifts and then recant and apologize because they have degrees in gender studies, or suddenly become sheepish because they are butch lesbians who don’t fit in a neatly gendered box. Sometimes young girls–or their parents–will take time to justify their love for Ninjago, a LEGO set that is coded “boy” (more on that later) before purchasing a kit. On many occasions, I’ve had customers demand “girl” or “boy” wrapping paper, and I once debated with a medium-sized family about whether or not it was OK to put a pink ribbon on a gift for a boy.

When discussing toys and gender, it’s easy to take a side and blame either the companies or the customers. While the companies hold a lot of responsibility–and we will get to that, don’t worry–it’s more difficult to talk about people. To really understand the role that consumers play, we need to step back and think about why children play, and what our responsibilities are as adults purchasing the toys.

While I’m sure you’re excited to listen to a knowledgeable toy store employee who also has an extensive background working with youth, I’ve enlisted help from a couple of experts. To properly explore this issue, I spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist whose research focuses on how the toy industry profits from gendering its products, and Nancy Stanek, the owner of the Toys et Cetera stores that employ me.

The Insidiousness of Gender Stereotyping

Opponents of de-gendering toys often return to the same argument: that the way boys and girls play is an expression of innate, biologically determined inclinations to certain activities and personality traits. However, studies that aim to discover whether or not a trait is innately linked to gender are severely limited. There are multiple ways to define sex: Are the subjects divided by their chromosomes? If so, does the study ignore the existence of chromosome pairings other than xx and xy? Are subjects self-identifying their sex/and or gender? If so, are the subjects in an environment that would make them feel safe coming out as trans, genderqueer or nonbinary? These studies are inconsistent and often limited by ingrained transphobia; researchers impose their ideas about gender as binary and trans identities as invalid on their research. Furthermore, the imposition of gender stereotypes on children begins at birth.

Baby Fella, one of a few boy baby dolls.
Baby Fella, one of a few boy baby dolls. Image from the Manhattan Toy Company online store.

Stanek has been observing trends in the toy industry from both the consumer and the producer’s perspective since her store opened its doors in 1976. She has seen a large increase in the demand for gendered toys, but noted that, “in a way, parents are setting the tone. If it’s a little girl, from the time they’re tiny babies… they’re wearing something that looks like a dress with a little bow in their hair before they even have any hair.” Soft books, blankets and rattles are gendered just as much as toys for eleven and twelve year-olds. Baby dolls are almost exclusively marketed toward girls and are nearly all female; every so often we get requests for boy dolls, and all we can offer is lonely Baby Fella. Gender is impressed upon children at birth and then repeatedly reaffirmed in every teether and stuffed toy they are given.

Toys, however, have not always been so heavily gendered. In her research, Dr. Sweet studies advertisements to track when gender becomes intertwined with toys:

“What I observe happening to toys as they become more gender defined in the last two decades of the century is that it’s a subtle change… it’s a shift of ten percent more gendered toys each decade. By the time [these changes] became blatant enough that people–which I would really say is just now, is in this decade–had become aware of it, it’s so entrenched that it’s going to be really hard to change.”

Trends in toys reflect perceptions of gender in society. Dr. Sweet also notes in her research that in the 70s, marketing was largely gender inclusive. Unisex styles of clothing and hair were popular, and children of multiple genders were featured on packaging. Today, however, even toys meant for preschool aged children are referred to as “for girls” and “for boys” in company annual reports. The more entrenched societal ideas about gender as binary and limited became, the more companies were releasing gendered toys.

While there is no obvious, individual culprit, a combination of biased science, cultural perceptions and gender-coded toys impose a binary concept of gender on children as soon as they are born. But is that really harmful?

Limits versus Freedom of Expression: How Toys Encourage Violence

Yes. It is very harmful, and on multiple levels. Here’s how this plays out in the toy store:

A child around age six walks into the store with his grandmother. He puts on a big show of saying “ewwww” and talking about how he would never look at the sparkly, pink and purple dress-up clothes. His grandmother responds, “Well, you might need to shop there! You can look for things for your sister or your cousins or your friends.”

In a flash, an adult authority figure has reinforced multiple ideas for this child. First, that because he has been raised to identify as male, certain things such as pink, sparkles, and dresses are not for him. Second, that if he expresses interest in such things his interest will be shot down for being out of the norm. Third, that interest in gendered things needs to be policed.

Policing behavior in this way is incredibly dangerous because it grows into gender-based violence. However, gender policing and gender violence are not just perpetrated by individuals; they are visible in the toys themselves.

A Lego City Firefighter-themed kit. All the boxes in the line are blue.
A LEGO City Firefighter-themed kit. All the boxes in the line are blue. Image from the LEGO online store.

As a company, Lego emblematizes the negative aspects of the connection between gender and toys. I’ll discuss their marketing strategy more in depth later, but their products are also a perfect example of how toy companies use gender stereotypes to perpetuate gender-based violence.

Lego’s modern day packaging skews in one of two directions: blue and cool-color themed boxes and advertisements featuring male models, and the pink-and-purple, hyper-feminine but story-focused LEGO Friends and Elves lines. The LEGO Friends girl minifigures all have names and unique personalities, whereas the mostly-male minifigures in non-licensed kits are just generic little dudes. LEGOs for boys are also very aggressive. The LEGO City line features police officers and firefighters: traditionally male-dominated careers that also enable authority figures to use violence.

Supposedly, boys are naturally inclined to engage in this kind of violent play, while girls are naturally inclined to engage in the kind of play that involves storytelling and the creation of fantasy worlds. However, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of a doll or a figurine to act out a story sounds suspiciously familiar to another ability:

EMPATHY, defined by

1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also:  the capacity for this

The same toys that encourage boys to be violent lack elements that help teach children empathy. This type of gendered marketing is an obvious recipe for gender-based violence, and toy companies are profiting from it.

Lego, Money and Market Research: How to Profit off Gender(ed) Oppression

Speaking of profit, lets take a more detailed look at Lego.

The story of Lego’s rise to power has been told several times, and from multiple perspectives. Anita Sarkeesian has a two-part video about how Lego’s advertising campaigns have played off of gender stereotypes for decades, and she explores how the company has created a gender gap that is earning them millions. I highly recommend you watch her videos, however we will cover some similar ground.

Lego, during its humble beginnings in the 1930s, was a small, Danish company that produced toys mostly made of wood. In the 1940s and 50s they engaged in the laborious process of perfecting a plastic brick that would revolutionize the toy industry. LEGO blocks were brilliant not only because they interlocked, but also because all LEGOs were compatible with each other. The more LEGOs a child had, the more possibilities.

In the early 2000s, Lego had become a behemoth whose product was known to children all over the world–and they were in serious financial trouble. A combination of an increase in cheaper competing products and a series of investments in new toy lines that didn’t appeal to Lego’s customer base seems to have left them in bad shape, so in 2004 Lego hired Jorgen Vig Knudstorp as their new CEO. Knudstorp conducted lengthy market research on just what about Legos and building toys made children ask for more.

This initial research, however, was focused on boys, what they play with, and why they play with it. At no point did the company look into gender stereotypes or the sexism that pervades science and engineering; instead they talked to a bunch of boys and then rolled out lines such as LEGO City that utilized gendered tactics characteristic of the late 20th century.

Dr. Sweet explains the implicit nature of these tactics: “In the late 20th century toy companies aren’t saying, ‘This doll is for girls and this doll is for boys,’ or advertisements aren’t saying that. [Companies] were using all kinds of more implicit cues, like the use of color. So, pink becomes this way of marking toys for girls, and [they] use gendered models.”

The Lego Friends Heartlake City Shopping Mall.
The LEGO Friends Heartlake City Shopping Mall. Image from the Lego online store.

For three years, girls endured this fresh slew of gender stereotyped LEGOs. Then, in 2007, Lego finally talked to some girls, and still managed to screw up. In Brad Wieners’ article, “Lego is For Girls,” Mads Nipper, Lego’s Executive Vice President for Products and Markets, admits that girls hate the traditional minifigure. While it seems ludicrous that no one on Lego’s team pointed out that girls likely hated the minifigure because it’s coded as male, dominates the world of Lego, and contributes to the multitude of cues telling girls that these toys were not made for them, somehow the company instead concluded that Legos needed to be focused on beauty in order to attract girls.

Lego’s flawed market research has earned them millions in profits because it enabled them to widen an existing gender gap and then fill the demand for girl-focused sets. Their success story is dependent on the assumption that boys have always been Lego’s primary audience, and that girls require encouragement and trickery to become actively interested in building toys.

This story is just one example of how toy companies profit off of gender-based discrimination. When I spoke with Stanek about toys, we discussed how almost all play is a form of education. Imaginative play especially–the kind of play that involves dress-up clothes, dolls, action figures, storytelling and fantasy–is how we, as humans, begin exploring who we are. We try things on, try things out, and explore what “who I am” means when interacting with other human beings. Gendering toys places limits on children who are just beginning to gain a sense of their own identities, and teaches them to respond with cruelty and violence when those limits are not obeyed.

When I initially set out to write this article, I had planned to write it as an open letter to Lego, Hasbro, Mattel, and other large toy companies who are often perpetrators of gender essentialism. At this point, I have lost faith in their ability to change. To decouple gender from toys, however, there is another option: regulation.

I’m not telling anyone to stop tweeting, writing, and speaking out. In fact, I find the prospect of calling on legislators to change the toy industry equally as ominous as petitioning corporations. However, as we speak up about the damaging effects of gendered toys, we should begin to call members of congress as frequently as we write letters to companies. Whether it’s CEOs or politicians at the helm, we need change that goes beyond three aisles in your local Target store.

If we can push the industry to decouple gender from toys, we’ll be creating a future for children who feel unlimited in their creativity and capacity for empathy.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, who coined the term “decoupling gender,” and to Nancy Stanek. My conversations with both of these women heavily influenced this article. You can read more of Dr. Sweet’s research on her website.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.