Problematic Stereotypes: Sexism, Now Available in the Toy Aisle
by Isabel Oberlender
When I consider the myriad of stereotypes that propel society backward, the last place I would think to look is the toy aisle. In the vast majority of toy stores around the U.S. and the western world, rigid barriers divide hulky, blue action figures from sparkling, pink princesses. To many, this omnipresent theme reflects innate gender differences and natural interests, but in actuality it is a mirage hiding sexism and unnecessary gender stereotypes.
Ever since Target’s decision to remove gendered labels in children’s bedding and toy aisles, gender-specific toys have become a popular discussion topic among the public sphere. According to an article by Alice Robb posted on the New York Times: “... [Target will] phase out explicit references to gender as well as the use of pink and blue colored paper on the shelves.” In the blog post that announced the decision, Target said: “As guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary. We heard you, and we agree.”
In a seemingly more progressive world than ever before, one would think that toys that perpetuate gender stereotypes are a thing (or evil) of the past. Shockingly, the marketing of toys is more gendered now than it was 50 years ago. Although toys from the 1920s to the 1960s were strongly infused with gender stereotypes, such as a focus on domesticity for girls, roughly half of toys were still being advertised as gender-neutral.
By the early 1970s, gendered toys and sexist advertising dropped markedly in response to a growth of women in the labor force, dropping marriage and fertility rates, and strength building in feminism’s second wave. In stark contrast to the trends of today, growth in support of ending gender inequality allowed for gendered toys and gender-specific advertising for toys to slowly diminish. Most toy marketing in the ‘70s actually went so far as to challenge gender stereotypes -- boys were depicted with domestic toys such as kitchen sets and girls were shown building and portraying stereotypically male occupations such as doctor, carpenter and scientist. Although feminism continued to gain popularity from the 1970s to the 1990s, the victory of a lack of gendered toys was short-lived.
When the deregulation of children’s television programming began in 1984, toy companies were allowed to create program-length advertisements for their products. According to an article written by The Atlantic: “...gender became an increasingly important differentiator of these shows and the toys advertised alongside them. During the 1980s, gender-neutral advertising receded, and by 1995, gendered toys made up roughly half of the Sears catalogs offerings—the same proportion as during the interwar years.” Although sexist advertising of toys and gendered toys returned, late 20th century marketing relied less on explicit gender roles, such as the connection with men to the labor force and the professional world, and more on seemingly harmless gender cues such as color.
Two years ago, a paper authored by Lisa Dinella, Erica Weisgram and Megan Fulcher, a group of psychologists, suggested that color can be used to alter and manipulate children’s perceptions of what toys they should play with. The study showed that girls were more likely to play with traditionally male toys if they were colored pink. This finding may seem to prove a biological link to color preference between genders, but girls’ inclination towards pink is learned, not intrinsic. Cognitive research actually suggests that all babies prefer the color blue. In a 2011 study conducted by Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache, data indicated that girls begin to develop a liking of pink at age two and boys begin to develop an aversion to pink along the same timeline.
Learned gender cues may seem harmless to some, but the significance of sex-specific toys have implications for children’s learning and attitudes as they grow into adulthood. “Play with masculine toys is associated with large motor development and spatial skills and play with feminine toys is associated with fine motor development, language development and social skills,” says Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University. Fulcher is also noted that: “Children may then extend this perspective from toys and clothes into future roles, occupations, and characteristics.”
In the midst of a time where actual gains are being made for gender equality, the last thing that children need is the presence of sexism and gender stereotypes during one of the most important times in cognitive and physical development. Eliminating or boycotting gendered toys would allow for the haze of sexism to be lifted from society at one of its most early stages. Once gender stereotypes are eradicated from the lives of children, perhaps greater steps could be made to erase them from our country and eventually (hopefully) our world as a whole.