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.


  1. Another brilliant piece on this topic, & the importance of parents’ & caregivers’ roles in monitoring the gender coding our kids’ encounter, is this:

  2. I mean seriously, haven’t you seen the huge male fanbase of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which is primarily a girls brand? Toy companies should really take into account the success Hasbro has made with My Little Pony and the unexpected college aged male audience and follow up on that. Why do we have to be separated. It’s like back in the old days down here in the Deep South, blacks and whites were segregated, and they got rid of it in the 1960s. Can’t we do the same with toys?

  3. Peter Guerin says:

    Methinks toy makers need to see that segment “William Wants a Doll” from Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be You and Me” special and get their act together. 🙁

  4. Interesting how this website is called Ms. Blog and everything is highlighted in pink with white background…

  5. RaeJean Myers says:

    The same thing happened to the parents of the baby boomers. I believe they were preparing the boys for war (Viet Nam) and the girls to be mommies and domestics to raise the children that would be born once the men returned. I wonder if anyone has done a study on the sexes of children born prior to wartime events.

  6. “You see us as you want to see us… in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.”
    -The Breakfast Club.

    Boy/Girl… simplest and most convenient way to “organize” but a better way might be by category such as “vehicles” “action figures/superheroes” “sports” “art” “playing house” etc…

  7. MomtoLegoFriendLover says:

    Just to be clear, the Lego Friends line, while all pink and purple, does also have a number of non-beautifying components — my daughter has the horse stable and the veterinarian set up (and horse camp and all of the other animal items) and has no interest in the beauty salon – she does like the rock stage though. And the girl with a science lab. And the soccer player. While it’s definitely girl-focused and has a large component of “beauty” items, that’s not all there is. Just throwing that out there – my daughter had no interest in legos before these sets, and now she likes rebuilding them and taking them apart and she chooses her sets in part by how many pieces there are! Why no complaints about the skylanders or ninjago lines?

  8. McAuley says:

    I think the reason that toys are so much more gender prescriptive now is that since 9/11 US culture has become so much more militaristic. Even at the height of the Vietnam War there was a strong movement against the war and against militarism. Now enough people have been intimidated by war against terrorism propaganda that they don’t speak up. Also the anti-feminist backlash is about to be overtaken by the anti-marriage equality backlash. Pressure for gender conformity will probably stiffen. Unless we want to tell our kids that boys grow up to be soldiers and girls grow up to be frigid suburban housewives or whores, we must resist.

  9. Mary Adler says:

    I hate pink unless it is a rose, raw meat, a pink slip (meaning someone’s been fired, or a sunburn, or some body part that is supposed to be pink. Pink toys? Yuk!

    • what’s wrong with pink? you may not like it, which is your opinion of course, but there are plenty of girls and women who do like pink and they would not like to be told they shouldn’t.
      i will never understand women who fight against the gendering of pink and blue and then proceed to hate on women who like pink, and other stereotypically ‘girly’ things. picking on girls/women for liking pink is as bad as picking on girls/women for liking blue in my opinion. i for one love both.

  10. As a mom of a 7yo girl and 5yo boy, this post really resonates with me. In our home, all of the toys are for all of the kids. My children have been taught to think critically about gendered marketing, and they become very frustrated with the gendered packaging and separation in toy aisles. LEGO is a perfect example of this, the “boy” sets are in an aisle together, backed by blue pegboard, while the “girl” sets (read: Friends) are a completely different color scheme and four aisles over and backed by pink pegboard. Because my children view this through a cultural lens, they receive the message one is for boys and one is meant for girls, but they aren’t buying it.
    My upcoming book addresses this topic (“Redefining Girly” and in 2010 I wrote a blog post that has some quantitative data to go along with the excellent information here from Let Toys Be Toys and Elizabeth Sweet.

    Thanks for the great post and addressing this issue! I will be sharing this article with the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies community.

    Melissa Wardy

  11. Separating toys by gender teaches kids one thing only: boys and girls should not play together. And that’s messed up.

  12. I run a small home daycare and it’s difficult finding brand new toys that are gender neutral, have nothing to do with Pixar or Disney, and don’t require batteries. I buy almost everything second hand and some of my items date back to the ’70’s like my sewing cards. On the box there is a boy and a girl threading yarn through the cards. That product doesn’t exist in any form today and if it did it would probably be a hot pink mess marketed toward girls. My 4 year old boy loves to sew and he’s getting pretty good at it. I wish more things like that existed.

    • K.Russell says:

      Ribbon: There are gender neutral lacing cards made by Melissa&Doug that are fantastic (my 2yo daughter loves them!): Melissa&Doug is a great compnay and you will find, if you check out their website, that they are not organized by gender but by age or type of play, which is how it should be.

  13. Thats one smart girl!

  14. What’s amazing is the fact that pink actually was MEN’s color in the past. It’s been badly associated to them since WW2 and gays being branded with this color in camps. Blue was women’s color. And, eh, ain’t Mary in BLUE?

    • it’s difficult to tell when this blue/pink association began. i don’t think originally either have ever been exactly limited to a gender – as seen in victorian era and older paintings men would wear blue, ladies wear pink and vice versa.

      of course, i noticed pink was still rarer seen on men than women, though that may have something to do with the era. the victorians tended to prefer soft, pale pastel colours like light purple, white and, pale pinks, blues and greens. pink , though seen as a soft colour now, was originally viewed as a harsh colour since it’s a paler form of red (which was one of the reasons why pink was associated with masculinity, since red was considered a masculine shade).

      still, in elizabethan and sometimes victorian times red was popular among wealthy women, though that may come from them wanting to display their wealth/class – in almost all cultures and eras only the very wealthy and royalty would wear red and purple, because the dye for red was so expensive and purple has almost always been viewed as the official colour of royalty, right back to ancient rome. wearing red and purple was a way to express how wealthy and regal one was.

      i suspect blue was associated with femininity because it’s such a soft, and instinctually calming colour (it’s been proven that we humans naturally associate blue with a sense of safety and calm, which apparently comes from way back to the dawn of humanity when we would associate water with safety and refreshment. and of course, water in large quantities appears blue). this colour in such an era would thus be seen as appealing on a woman, since she was seen as being supposed to represent safety, motherliness and generally be pleasing to the eyes/brain.

      the influence of blue as a feminine colour was obviously still hanging around in later years after the ‘blue for boys’ association had begun, though. the 1950s classic disney princesses, snow white, cinderella, and aurora (sleeping beauty) all wore blue. cinderella’s dress is only blue in marketing though – it is actually a silver/white shade in the movie. though aurora’s dress is always marketed as pink, it was blue for most of the movie. snow white wears primary colours blue, red and yellow. even now, i’m pretty sure more of the princesses wear blue, green or some other colour more than pink, showing that this subconscious association of blue with femininity still props up.

      the gendering and classism of colours through the ages always reminds me of short hair being seen as masculine and long hair as feminine. though long hair would instinctually be seen as attractive because it comes off as a sign of health, it was also never seen as a feminine thing like it is now. ex. in viking times and culture, men always had long hair. back then hair was considered a person’s ‘glory’ regardless of their gender, and thus would want to be grown long.

  15. Mad Men’s Peggy Olson may have scored a corner office in a big Madison Avenue Agency but the options presented to a real girl in the 1960s were less than thrilling. As a baby boomer girl we were told we were told that on one hand we were a special generation with wide open options. On the other the choices were predictably limited. To assist in our journey was a board game called What Shall I Be? The Exciting Game of Career Girls which debuted in 1966 offering career guidance in becoming a stewardess, a model, a nurse or a teacher. For a peek at the retro career options

  16. I hate the idea of seperating toys by gender. It just doesn’t make sense, if a boy wants a barbie who cares? If a girl wants an action figure who cares? There is no need to separate them by gender.

    • same here. everyone should be allowed and celebrated to love the things and colours they love, without social programming telling them they must not like it, that they should like something else.

  17. Hi! Great observations! But i personally feel that this idea of seperating toys by gender doesn’t make any sense. if a boy wants a girl toy to play with and if a girl wants a boy toy to play with then there’s no harm in it.

  18. Toys should be toys for everyone who wants to play with them and the toy co.s should NOT intimidate children with blue or pink colors. Can’t they use realistic colors occasionally?

  19. And there are so many more girls toys! Just not fair anymore 🙂

  20. By my own experience (I’m a toy collector) the more you combine “girly” and “boyish” toys, the funnier. Breaking pre-made mental bounaries is a huge source for creativity, and kids need to be encouraged this way.

  21. Toys separating by gender good for nothing. Immediately from early childhood children are imposed on certain roles and it’s horrible. However, it is better not to focus on gender-specific toys. Toys have to develop children. So is not it better to start with puzzles that are suitable for everybody? A good place where everyone child could find something developmental is

  22. I’d rather give my child something like an economical laptop or tablet; already looking at some options listed here @ – Fairly economical & good for their grooming, considering the fact that this is an era focused towards the IT.

  23. I agree there are too many toys that are gender-specific. back in the 70’s when I grew up I could play with the truck and trailer sets and the horses that went in the trailers without having to wonder if it was for boys or girls. The pressure to be either for boys or girls was not there. It is so sad what society has done to our children’s perception of what or who they are supposed to be by the color or lable on their toys.

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