Gasp! Kids’ toys are… gendered?

We frequently take on cases of blatantly sexist advertising around here. This stuff tends to show up online from all over the world — well, from everywhere except perhaps Sweden, because in Sweden they have the Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising (ERK). The ERK recently accused Irish airline Ryanair of sexism after they rolled out an ad-campaign featuring a Britney-Spears-style schoolgirl. A campaign which didn’t cause anyone to bat an eyelash in Ireland or the UK because what, girl-flesh being used to sell something, whoa stop the presses yawn.

Of course, they’re right that relying on traditional “sex sells” tactics is sexist, since it almost always involves putting women who meet conventional beauty standards on display to attract the male gaze. It’s just that most of us are so thoroughly inured to this tactic that our mouths would seize up from saying “sexist” too much if we tried to point out problems in advertising. It’s refreshing, but kind of surprising as well.

The ERK’s latest target is Lego, the beloved Danish company that makes billions of little interlocking plastic bricks (and my former employers, I should mention). Lego has always liked to think of itself as a fairly enlightened and progressive company, but now the ERK has accused them of sexism as well — could this cause a flare-up in the age-old Svensk-Dansk rivalry? Riots on the Oresund Bridge? Probably not. I just find inter-Scandinavian enmity amusing.

Sweden’s Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising (ERK), has lambasted Lego for a recent catalogue that features the photos of the kids in their colour-coded rooms.

The girl’s picture is captioned “Everything a princess could wish for…” and features a pony, a princess and a castle. On another page, a boy is pictured playing with a fire station, fire trucks, a police station, and an airplane with the caption “Tons of blocks for slightly older boys.”

ERK has expressed concern that this type of portrayal promotes a stereotype that is degrading to boys and girls.

However, Lego has defended the catalogue, pointing out that other photos in the catalogue show boys and girls playing together.

I am shocked…. SHOCKED! — that any toy company in this day and age would depict a little girl as a princess playing with a pony in the midst of a whole lot of pink, and a boy playing with trucks and airplanes. It’s as if they think society has some kind of gender-stereotyped idea that boys and girls play with different toys! No, seriously: I’m fairly sure this comes as a surprise to nobody, not even ERK. The Swedes are correct that it’s a classic case of gender stereotyping in action, but the issue of how “boys’ play” is segregated from “girls’ play” runs a lot deeper than the thoroughly predictable mise-en-scène of this winter’s Lego catalog.

Let me tell you a little story about toy design. Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Denmark…

… in a long-ago age known as the 1970s, there was a toymaker named Christiansen who had some friends who were wizards, by which I mean developmental psychologists. The psychologists said “what wonderful toys you make — they are good for boys and girls alike! Our research shows that the most important cognitive development in children is not all that different, and every child should be exposed to many different kinds of play, including building things wtih bricks. You should sell your bricks to boys and girls alike.” And so the toymaker continued to sell lots of bricks — especially in Germany, for some reason, but also in the United States and many other places.

Many years later, when He-Man and She-Ra were each getting their own TV show, and the Transformers and My Little Ponies had their great war (or was it a tea party, or both) in the backyard, the little Danish gnomes who sold the bricks came to the toymaker and said, “Look! We have these new demographic reports that show that people are still buying our bricks by the caseload for little boys, but we’re still not doing so well for little girls! Jens here who’s been working on that gets mocked ruthlessly by the Barbie salesgnomes! He woke up last night with a decapitated Tawny head in his bed and the words ‘YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE PINK BRICKS’ written on his wall in lipstick!”

And so it was that pink Lego bricks were created, and little Lego minfig heads with lipstick and mascara. The variety was certainly a good thing, but all the new bricks were packed up in a special section called Paradisa as if they might infect the other bricks. As every hard-working marketingnome and salesgnome knows, little boys won’t be caught dead playing with any toy that has any pink in it.

The years went on and Lego kept trying to grow and compete with other toy companies, like the big hungry giants from America, Hasbro and Mattel. They made Lego Scala to try and compete with Barbie, Lego Racers to try and compete with Hot Wheels, and although they couldn’t really win those battles, it didn’t really matter because they still had millions of adoring fans who just wanted more bricks, and if you looked hard enough, they were still selling big buckets of those bricks, and some pretty decent castles, and occasionally a pirate ship. The marketing and packaging kept getting more and more aggressive and jagged for boys, and more and more pink for girls, and that’s how we ended up with Bionicle, where scary-looking technorganic robots surf on lava and shoot fire blasts, and Belville which is… you know. Princesses.

Meanwhile, the developmental psychologists had kind of backed off their original “gender-neutral play” claims, and quite a few of them were riding the wave of new research pointing out all the cognitive differences between little boys and little girls, since that seemed to be a lot more interesting than pointing out the similarities for some reason.

I still love Lego, and there are plenty of movers and shakers there who understand that the real strength of their toy line is in how utterly flexible and non-representational it is, how Lego bricks let you make pretty much anything. They have whole lines that are just devoted to advancing that principle, and they get letters constantly from parents who want more girl-friendly construction kits. (Uh… Clikits? Hmmm….) At the same time they’re a big company that’s always struggling to grow and stay afloat, so it’s hardly surprising that they get sucked up, just like most large toy companies, into the gender-segregated target marketing that dominates childhood play.

One interesting thing I noticed during my tenure in the land of plastic bricks — when someone’s watching them, peers or adults, kids are much more likely to adhere to stereotypical divisions of play, and gravitate away from what’s clearly labeled as “for the other gender.” When we looked at statistics from the Lego website, however, where kids of a certain age range were often playing by themselves in front of a computer, we often found that the gender division of who was playing little online web games was much more gender-neutral. In other words, girls on the Lego website were playing the sports and (Lego-sanctioned, relatively non-violent) combat oriented games. This wasn’t a huge surprise, since the conventional wisdom was that of course there were some girls who liked “boy stuff,” and nobody bothered to market to them separately. More surprisingly, there were plenty of boys who also played the princess dress-up games. I always though that spoke volumes about the role of social observation in many kids’ adherence to gender rules.


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22 Responses to Gasp! Kids’ toys are… gendered?

  1. Lissette says:

    I just did some research on how toys gender kids for my sociology of gender class which included a trip to Toys R’ Us, and I have to say it’s all pretty disturbing. NOTHING and I mean NOTHING that is for girls is any other color than pink. It’s sad really. When it comes to “home” toys, there’s still a gender divide there: power tools for boys (Home Depot toys) and doll houses, vanities, and nurseries for girls. Where are the power tools for girls??? Even board games are in on it. Monopoly now has the “Boutique Edition” in bright pink with nail polish, hair brush, and blow dryer as game pieces, and life is bright pink “High School Edition” life. Don’t boys go to high school too??? Personally, I preferred the gender neutral versions of these games. They were loads more fun.

    If you look at Lego’s displays, they’re all highly masculinized displays featuring cars, dinosaurs, armies and things of the sort for consumers to build.

    There was nothing sports related on the girls side of the Toys R’ Us, as things are clearly divided by “boys”, “Girls” and “Infants”.

    Kids are the most sexist humans of all. They like to stick to their gender when people around, but when they think no one is looking, they’ll experiment with toys for the “other” gender. Girls are the most openly gender crossers when it comes to toys, but boys get a lot of crap from their dad for toy gender crossing, so that’s probably why they don’t cross as often or in public. And lets not talk about peer pressure!

  2. Ekkaia says:

    I wouldn’t say “kids are the most sexist humans”, but they are made to be, very agressively, as those girl/boy toys show.

  3. Gillian says:

    I was a Lego-obsessed kid and was excited whenever a new theme came out – I had pirates and castles and when Paradisa came out, I wanted that one too. And I will never forget standing in line at Toys ‘R’ Us with Poolside Paradise http://guide.lugnet.com/set/6416 (it has drinks and a car, you can play spies with it! And there’s an extra palm tree and parrot for my pirate castle!) and the woman in line behind us said “I’m so glad they’re finally making Lego for girls. Finally!” My mum and I were just sort of stunned. And I was so upset I almost put it back on the shelf. I didn’t want to buy something patronizingly labeled as “for girls.” I didn’t even realize that’s what it was supposed to be.

    I think a huge part of the problem is that cool, gender-neutral toys like Legos and board games get labeled by the public as “for boys.” It doesn’t count as something girls are allowed to enjoy unless it’s specifically dumbed-down (like how the Bellville series comes with a lot fewer pieces, it’s basically a doll house) and painted neon pink, so boys know not to play with it. Like “for boys” is the default toy and girls’ toys are in the special pink Barbie ghetto*. I hate that. And I’m sure there a lot of kids out there who are the way I was as a kid and they hate it too.

    *OK, there are also hypermasculinized toy sectoions for boys but things like building blocks and balls are obviously gender-neutral and they’re usually marketed to boys.

  4. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    @Lissette: Kids are the most sexist humans of all. They like to stick to their gender when people around, but when they think no one is looking, they’ll experiment with toys for the “other” gender.

    I learned very quickly which dolls I could take to school (the Star Wars guys with the animal faces), and which dolls I had to leave at home (the Raggedy Ann). I also remember very distinctly discovering that while my parents were liberal and permissive when it came to dress-up in the house, that doing so in church daycare was profoundly embarrassing for them.

    It’s a bit uncomfortable to hear this called “sexism.” Building a closet around our gender-variant lives is a coping mechanism.

  5. Kit Kendrick says:

    I was just in a Lego store this weekend and walked out with the impulse to send LEGO a complaint letter. I generally don’t like the ‘kit’ sets because I’d rather promote open-ended play than a kit to make the toy on the front of the box. They do have buckets of just blocks… one in blue and one in pink. (The pink bucket has mostly red and pink blocks, instead of the normal assortment). I wanted to know why I can’t buy a bucket of blocks that haven’t been labeled by gender. Duplo’s (the larger blocks for very young kids) comes in a green bucket, at least. I’d rather be able to buy the things in just a carboard box (and I kind of can, if I purchase the “vintage” set, which has the 1970’s artwork of a boy and a girl) than have to go with a gender-coded bucket.

  6. Felicity says:

    Am I completely offbase in my gut feeling that boy/girl segregation in toys has gotten worse? I grew up in the 80s, and my mom wouldn’t buy toys — or shop for toys — in stores with signs that said “Girls’ Toys” and “Boys’ Toys”. But we still got toys, and I don’t remember her having a hard time finding stores without. These days? Good luck.

    I also don’t remember there being quite so much pinkification — plenty of Barbie-pink and Barbie-knockoff pink in the doll aisle, but now it seems EVERYTHING IS PINK. So to me it’s seemed that there’s been a pendulum swing back after some progress in the 70s or so…is this just my personal perspective, or is there some basis in fact?

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  8. Lynn says:

    There’s always amazon. You can search via gender/age/activity, whatever you like.

    I am somewhat pleased the Fisher-Price Pirate Ship shows someone in a pink sweater playing with it:http://www.amazon.com/Fisher-Price-Imaginext-Adventures-Frustration-Free-Packaging/dp/B001B2MU3Q/

    Though I am disappointed the Melissa & Doug Block pics have only boys in them: http://www.amazon.com/Melissa-Doug-60-Piece-Standard-Blocks/dp/B00008W72D/

  9. Caravelle says:

    I tend to fall on the permissive side of the protecting children vs. letting them discover the world come what may scale, but one thing I’m starting to think I’ll never do if I have children, is let them inside a mainstream toy store. As an anti-“girliness” girl I was always crushed by the pinksplosion that was the girls’ aisle, vs the cool stuff the boys got.

    Totally kudos to the ERK. Gendered toy commercials are everywhere, sure, but that’s the very problem because it’s a vicious circle. An especially strong one in that it’s aimed at children, who have less experience dismissing commercials and outside influence on the one hand, and are exposed to brutal peer pressure on the playground on the other. The ERK seems determined to try and break that vicious circle. I’m not very confident they’ll succeed, but if they don’t try who will ?

  10. Lauren says:

    Holly, my son is a dedicated Lego lover who hasn’t been a day without his beloved for probably six years (we have two full-size Tupperware dressers full of them in his room). I love Legos because, as others have mentioned, they are an open-ended imagination kind of toy, one that isn’t necessarily bound to a particular frame or function. Ethan is nine now and his creations keep getting more and more complicated — fancy hovercrafts and cars and stuff, usually, except for one thing. He really likes to make houses.

    E isn’t an action figure kind of kid. He doesn’t care about them, doesn’t play with them, but he loves the little people figures that come with Lego sets and creates all kinds of elaborate lives for them. It’s not so different from what I used to do with Barbie — huge living spaces with futuristic emplements and fantasy elements, the way he sees the world being if he had his way as an adult. To me this isn’t gender play, it’s developmental. It’s what all kids do of a certain age. E really likes the unusually-shaped legos, the ones with hinges and joints and whatnot, and things that look like flames and rockets. The special pieces.

    Nevertheless, the thing about boy-play vs. girl-play is that it really isn’t all that different when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it. It’s adult-simulated or -imagined play that involves a lot of conflict and interpersonal drama. So what I find amazing is that Lego markets its wares one of two ways, 1) gendered packaging, presumably so the parents will buy them (we know the kids will play with them regardless, so why all the pink?), and 2) mega-trendy corporate movie/action packaging a la Star Wars and Indiana Jones (which annoy the piss out of me and I refuse to buy them).

    Clearly I’m not a marketing guru or I’d have figured this out by now. Why take such an open-ended toy and close it off? So we buy more of it’s units?

  11. denelian says:

    i was very very non-girly in my playtoys as a child. i wanted TRANSFORMER not BARBIES!. my favorite toy, for years, was strange… it was a strawberry shortcake dollhouse – that was designed perfectly for me to use as a Time Machine.

    i have a niece and nephew who are ages 5 and 6 (and who are sibs and live together) and i buy them the same thing every year. something they can do together, but with a set for each of them – last year it was a set of “armor” and “swords”, this year it will probably be an easy bake oven and a set of “recipies” for each (K, the boy, is the one agitating for it. otherwise i probably wouldn’t). my mom has custody, and i’ve thrown a HUGE fit over the gendered toys the kids have received (oh did i ever! K plays with the dolls more than his sister does, but he never gets is own!) so my mom caved into my fits, and when K gets power tools, so does L.

    sadly, L LOVES pink and dresses and dolls, etc. not so much she won’t play with other things, but… she dances around in pink dress up clothes singing “i’m a princess, i’m a pretty princess” and tells me that i could be pretty enough to be a princess if i would wear a pink dress… it makes me want to weep.

  12. printmaker81 says:

    I think a huge part of the problem is that cool, gender-neutral toys like Legos and board games get labeled by the public as “for boys.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. This was first noticeable to me when I joined Girl Scouts. Having two older brothers who had been in boy scouts, I thought it would consist of hiking, camping, and learning to shoot a boy and arrow. I was devastated that it really just consisted of making lame “sit-upons” (covered little cushions to take with you outdoors so as not to get dirty). As I was around 8 or so at the time, it was the first time I really encountered full-frontal institutionalized sexism. All the badges were for sewing and such. My experience might not reflect the whole Girl Scout’s organization, but it’s a pretty good representation of how all the “cool” activities go to the guys.

  13. Holly says:

    Am I completely offbase in my gut feeling that boy/girl segregation in toys has gotten worse?

    Oh, it’s definitely gotten worse. I tried to illustrate some reasons why in the story, but maybe it wasn’t super-clear. It’s mostly the fault of targeted marketing, which tries to refine marketing messages and boost sales by slicing the population into segments and trying to talk to the specific desires and interests of one segment at a time. You can see gender-segregated target marketing everywhere, of course. In the case of kids toys it’s not just packaging and scents shapes of things, like it is with razors or deodorants — it influences the toy itself, the concept of play. It doesn’t help that developmental psychology really has moved more in the direction of emphasizing gender differences too.

    Nevertheless, the thing about boy-play vs. girl-play is that it really isn’t all that different when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it. It’s adult-simulated or -imagined play that involves a lot of conflict and interpersonal drama. So what I find amazing is that Lego markets its wares one of two ways, 1) gendered packaging, presumably so the parents will buy them (we know the kids will play with them regardless, so why all the pink?), and 2) mega-trendy corporate movie/action packaging a la Star Wars and Indiana Jones (which annoy the piss out of me and I refuse to buy them).

    Clearly I’m not a marketing guru or I’d have figured this out by now. Why take such an open-ended toy and close it off? So we buy more of it’s units?

    Pretty much, yes. The movie licenses always sell like hotcakes, and it would be like cutting off an arm for Lego to abandon that strategy entirely. It’s just like Halloween costumes — kids get caught up in whatever the cool thing of the moment is, and Lego benefits from that. It’s not all bad, since it lends itself to a sort of absurd, deconstructable, silly re-imagining of whatever franchise is being Lego-fied. This is clearest when you look at the accompanying video games, like the Lego Star Wars series, which is also insanely popular with adult Star Wars geeks who want to be able to realize that universe in tiny bricks, make their own modifications, etc.

    The gender stuff is less cut-and-dry, but basically it’s what people have been saying — construction toys are stereotyped as boy toys. And this is not all the fault of marketing. Back when gender-neutral packaging showing boys and girls playing together was much more prevalent, Lego was still failing to capture the “girl market” because of pressures in the rest of society for girls to move away, at a certain age, from building blocks to dolls. Boys, meanwhile, are “supposed” to be building models and the like. This is basically why Lego tried (and didn’t really do very well) to get into the doll business too. Now, it’s not like girls can’t enjoy all the stuff that they package for boys, and many girls do — it’s just that nobody bothers to market to those girls, since it’s assumed that they will buy what they want anyway and there aren’t as many of them as the more “ordinary” boys and girls that fall along predictable marketing lines. So if your kid doesn’t meet the profile, you can kind of be a little proud that they’re too uncommon and marketing-independent to be a target.

    Unfortunately, as the marketing artwork and commercials and everything try to hit each target harder and harder — more and more pink for the girls!! more and more aggro nonsense for the boys!! it starts to really alienate the overlap audience on either side. This is why I always objected to “over-targeting” and feel like it has diminishing returns or even starts to hurt sales after a while, but I don’t know if any marketing experts would really agree with me. (Whatever.)

    It’s really not kids’ faults, though — children are naturally more “androgynous” than adults and adults have tons of insecurity and anxiety about making sure that kids get “gendered correctly,” even though I feel like half the time this borders on a sick form of culturally-condoned child abuse for the kids that don’t automatically gravitate towards the proper pole. A lot of parents really do want to buy toys that are “labeled correctly.” They rely on advertising for cues to help them do their child-gendering job the “right way,” as idiotic as that sounds. And then if you think about uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc…

  14. Emily says:

    @Cbrach – it can be coping mechanism AND, at the same time, be capitulating to and reinforcing sexism. That’s not to say that we blame/scold the kids and parents who do it as “bad feminists” but rather that we recognize the way that sexism in our society affects us, changes us, and pushes and pushes us to accomodate ourselves to its dictates. We all accomodate sexism to a certain extent. We make trade-offs because the negative reinforcement for non-conforming is not something we, personally, individually, in that particular instance, are willing to suffer. But we should know when we’re doing it. And when our children are doing it. And especially if we are asking/encouraging them to do it.

  15. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    @Emily: Perhaps I’m just a bit oversensitive on this issue, especially this year. But it bothers me when the focus of criticism is on kids who are pushed into those “accommodations” rather than on the very real harassment, violence, and abuse that queer, trans*, and gender non-conforming kids face.

  16. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    I might be overacting just a little bit. But it’s just that at least for me growing up queer and gender non-conforming, it was a significantly painful dilemma that continued well into my 20s. (Heck, it’s still a bit of a dilemma.)

  17. Caravelle says:

    sadly, L LOVES pink and dresses and dolls, etc. not so much she won’t play with other things, but… she dances around in pink dress up clothes singing “i’m a princess, i’m a pretty princess” and tells me that i could be pretty enough to be a princess if i would wear a pink dress… it makes me want to weep.

    I understand your point of view, but I don’t know if that’s a great reaction.
    Not all a child’s traits are socially conditioned, even when social conditioning is present; after all in a perfectly gender-neutral society there would still be girls who loved pink and wanted to be princesses and so on. And even if you consider her preferences are socially conditioned (which, given the level you’re talking about, we can assume they are), they’re still her preferences and they aren’t invalid. All you can do is expose her to less girly things and see if she likes them too.

    Hey, my favorite color was pink when I was a child. At least until I found out it was THE girly color, after which I decided my favorite color was blue… but it was never quite the same. It was only after I’d grown up I decided that hell, just because society ghettoized pink doesn’t mean I shouldn’t allow myself to like what I like.

    A lot of parents really do want to buy toys that are “labeled correctly.” They rely on advertising for cues to help them do their child-gendering job the “right way,” as idiotic as that sounds.

    That does sound idiotic. But mostly, it scares me to death. My children will have to grow up around those people.

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  19. aloofGrrl says:

    Caravelle:

    I’m totally with you on that thought. We’re just playing the same gender-based game inside-out if we refer to the love of pink as “sad”.

    As a child I played with wooden blocks, barbies and stuffed animals. In first grade I pretended my pen was a screwdriver and snuck under my desk to play “car-mechanic”. I was the only girl who knew how to fashion a paper gun.

    I still gravitate to male dominated fields: mathematics, computer science, billiards.

    I liked to dress up as a kid, too. But I always had trouble relating to other girls. Only as I got older (3rd, 4th, 5th grade) did I [increasingly] steer-away girl-marketed items.
    I really think I avoided girly things out of an elitist mentality akin to the “sadly pink” attitude. Who knows what I would have chosen in a non-gendered world?

    The problem is that my rejection of pink was [possibly] a rejection of the frailty of “being a girl” – an aim based on sexist principal.

    If the girl=weak=frivolous message weren’t subliminally residing behind pink – I might have liked the color more.

    If I’m on to something here then the answer is far more complicated than our feminist intuitions guide us.

    Do we teach our daughters not to like pink? Is it necessary for us to flip the sexist paradigm in order to compete with the prevalence of genderism in the rest of the world.

    What our your thoughts?

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