Kids’ Toys: More Gendered Than Ever

Megan Perryman’s 5-year-old daughter was browsing toys in a store. She picked up a toy recorder and her expression quickly changed as if she had done something wrong. “Oh no,” she said. “I’ve got the boys’ one!”

In her own childhood, Perryman didn’t feel limited to only playing with “girls'” toys. She says boys and girls in the UK in the 1980s played with Transformers, princesses, knights—it wasn’t a big deal if the toy was pink or blue. Back then, she says, there weren’t signs up in toy stores telling her which toys were made for “girls” and which were made for “boys.” Perryman is now one of the leading voices in Let Toys Be Toys, a UK-based campaign that pushes retail stores to stop marketing their toys toward only girls or only boys.

In 1960, only 11 percent of households in the U.S. with children under 18 had the mother as the primary or sole breadwinner. Today, a recent study reports, a record-breaking 40 percent of them do. With traditional gender roles in the labor force slowly fading away, it would make sense to see more gender-neutral advertising today: boys playing with toy oven sets, girls playing with toy trucks, etc.

But children’s toys are arguably more gendered now than ever before.

If you’ve been to a store that sells toys in the last decade, you’ve already seen it:Toys today are often separated into blue and pink sections for “boys'” toys and “girls'” toys. “Boys'” toys tend to involve aggression, such as toys that make punching or crashing sounds, while “girls'” toys often revolve around beauty and domesticity.

Lego, which for years marketed mainly to boys, recently launched a line of pastel-colored toys called “Lego Friends” in an attempt to appeal to girls. Unfortunately, Lego ended up making toys that suggested girls are only interested in baking, decorating houses and getting their hair done at a salon while boys like working construction and saving damsels in distress.

The gendering of toys has carried on into the age of the Internet. The Disney and Toys “R” Us online stores, for example, have a separate sections for boys and for girls.

Elizabeth Sweet, who researches gender and children’s toys at UC Davis, says toy advertisements actually appeared to be the least gendered around 1975. She says,

At the height of the women’s movement, these ideas about gender division were being challenged in ways that are no longer as successfully challenged today.

Let Toys Be Toys also pointed out how toys have become more gendered (i.e., more pink-ified) since the ’70s. They recently tweeted an image they created (below) that compares a 1976 Argos catalog with the company’s more recent products.

In Sweet’s studies, 1995’s toy catalogs and ads were almost equally as gendered as they had been in 1945. In 1945, however, only 30 percent of toys were explicitly labeled for girls or boys, while Sweet believes that toys today are much more often explicitly labeled. She says today’s gendering of toys isn’t reflective of how far we’ve come in social gender equity since the 1970s: “What we see today is just way beyond anything that happened over the 20th century.”

So what does gendering toys mean for the way kids are growing up today?

Let Toys Be Toys says toys are crucial to the way kids learn about the world:

Toys focused on action, construction and technology hone spatial skills, foster problem solving and encourage children to be active. Toys focused on role play and small-scale theater allow them to practice social skills. Arts and crafts are good for fine motor skills and perseverance.

Boys and girls need the chance to develop in all these areas, but many stores divide toys into separate boys’ and girls’ sections. … Both boys and girls miss out this way.

Perryman says she has already seen campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys make a difference. For example, Boots, one of the UK’s leading retailers, recently agreed to take down signs that labeled toys by gender. Perryman says it’s great that stores such as Boots have agreed, but points out that there’s still much to be done. She says gendered toys have become so common that most people don’t think twice about it.

“We seem to have lost that ability to see how unacceptable this is,” she said. “It has become normal.” This phenomenon became an unavoidable reality to Perryman when she had children herself. She says no matter how hard she tries to let her children choose their own toys, outside influences on her one-year-old son and her five-year-old daughter have become inescapable.

Elizabeth Sweet believes the marketing of toys to specific genders is caused, in a way, by a catch-22 situation: Companies feel they will sell more toys if they advertise to a narrower demographic, but that creates greater social consequences for kids who want to play with a toy marketed to the opposite gender.

Toy companies say they are basing these decisions on research that has found differences between what boys and girls want—even though, Sweet points out, it’s impossible to know whether the differences researchers find are biological or societal. If you’re a little boy born into a society that tells you playing with pink toys is wrong, don’t you think you would prefer the blue toy?

Riley, a 5-year-old girl whose YouTube video went viral in 2011 with more than 4 million views, said it best:

Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheros, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheros, some boys like princesses!

Click here to sign the petition to get U.S. toy stores to stop separating their toys into “girls” and “boys” sections, and click here to sign the petition to get toy retailers in the UK and Ireland to do the same.

Photo of shelves labeled “boys” and “girls” by Flickr user Janet McKnight under Creative Commons 2.0.

Screenshots taken from Disney Store’s online pages used under Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.

Argos catalog comparison by Let Toys Be Toys, and used with permission.


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.