Parents struggle to find gender-neutral toys

A 13-year-old girl's campaign to get Hasbro to make an Easy-Bake Oven that isn't purple or pink so it would appeal to her little brother is a fresh sign of movement in an old debate.
Associated Press
Dec 25, 2012

Parents who hope to expose their children to different kinds of play — science sets for girls and dolls for boys, for example — can find themselves stymied by a toy industry that can seem stuck in the past when it comes to gender roles.

Hasbro wasn't the only target of criticism this year.

One of the year's hottest toys, the "LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop," specifically aimed Legos at girls, but turned to tired gender stereotypes with its focus on a beauty shop and inclusion of characters with curves and eyelashes. Barbie turned builder with a new construction set. But while some praised it, others criticized it for being too pink.

Toy experts say the industry reflects cultural norms, and toy companies are giving people what sells. Plenty of parents find nothing wrong with buying pink frou-frou toys for their girls and avoiding stereotypically "girl" toys for their boys in favor of guns and trucks. But other parents are sent into knots by an unapologetically gender-specific toy industry.

"There's a lot of pressure to conform to those gender stereotypes from the time you're pregnant," said Teresa Graham Brett, a higher-education consultant from Tucson, Ariz., and mother to two boys, ages 6 and 11.

Children naturally begin to identify themselves as boys and girls around the ages of 3 and 4, said Dr. Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, who cofounded the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

"When a child's environment is filled with rigid messages about, 'This is what boys do, this is what girls do,' it limits their ability to reach their full capacity," Linn said. "It's not like girls are born with the predilection to pink, but they're trained to it, so it becomes what they want and need. There are neurological differences between boys and girls at birth. But our goal should be to provide them with a range of experiences so they can develop all of their tendencies."

Large toy stores and most large online retailers often divide toys up by gender. On Amazon, or on the websites for toy makers Mattel or Hasbro, for example, toys are sorted by age, category and gender. A person who wants to buy a baby doll on the Toys R Us website will find hundreds of choices categorized for girls and five for boys. Three of those are dressed in pink.

In recent years, Toys R Us was criticized for an ad selling three microscopes, silver, red and pink. The pink one was the least powerful.

"Toy companies are businesses, so they are responding to and making their products based on consumer demands. They're meeting with moms, focus groups. They're doing what makes sense," said Adrienne Appell, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association.

Chris Byrne, content director for timetoplaymag.com, said the market ultimately decides what makes it onto store shelves and into people's homes.

"The toy industry is always going to reflect the culture at large, and it's going to reflect the market," he said.

That's even true for a soon-to-be-released toy that has gotten a lot of attention for seeking to subvert gender stereotypes. GoldieBlox, a construction toy, was invented by Debbie Sterling, who holds a degree from Stanford in product design engineering and who aimed to make a toy to spark an interest in girls in science and engineering. She was turned off by what she saw in a visit to a toy store.

"I felt like I was in the 1950s," she said. "The girls section was pink. It was teaching a girl how to be a housewife, and a princess and pop star."

Meanwhile, she described the boys section as dynamic, with kits to make interesting things like roller coasters and "smarter more complex, engineering math and science toys."

The toy's main character is Goldie, a female engineer, and it is scheduled to be on store shelves in April. In a concession to commercial realities, the toy's color scheme includes a liberal dose of pink.

"There's a lot of parents out there, they're conditioned by this. They won't even pick up something if it doesn't cue that it's a girl," she said. "I don't want girls to miss out on GoldieBlox because it wasn't overtly messaged for them, at least in the early stages."

Some things are changing in the industry. This year, the London department store Harrods redesigned its toy department to organize it by theme rather than by gender. Swedish toy firm Top-Toy published a gender-neutral catalog in which boys were shown playing with a kitchen set and hair dryer and a girl was shown shooting a toy gun.

Hasbro this week announced it has spent the past 18 months developing an Easy-Bake Oven in the gender-neutral colors of black and silver. It made the announcement after meeting with McKenna Pope, the Garfield, N.J., 13-year-old whose online petition asking the company to make one attractive to all kids gathered tens of thousands of signatures. Hasbro says it knows both boys and girls have fun playing with the Easy-Bake.

Even parents who are sensitive to gender issues say they sometimes have to challenge their own notions. Brett said her older son was interested in toys aimed at both genders as a little boy. But when son number two came along five years later, she was surprised to see he had a stronger preference to play with guns and Army men.

"I really needed to let go of controlling what I thought he should play with as an enlightened boy," she said. "They may choose to do what is stereotypical, and they should have the right to choose that as well."

 

Comments

KnuckleDragger

I'm glad toy companies are not buckling to pressure from a vocal minority of people. This vocal minority wants girls to be boys and boys to act more like girls. There is nothing wrong with the stereotypical norms. What is wrong is these idiots trying to shove the metrosexual thing down peoples throats. Whether you like it or not girls and boys are different and play different roles. All these people are doing is confusing children, it's no wonder that there are so many maladjusted, mentally ill kids in this country. Maybe we need to put a stop to all the liberal social engineering going on.

I can hardly wait for the little mutt to now get on here and tell me I hate women. Sorry bucko, been married for 21 yrs and I can assure you she doesn't think I hate women, and her opinion is all that counts.

Bluto

Yeah !!! What's wrong with the toy Assault rifles and Rambo-like knives for boys anyway ? Those kind of stereotypical toys are the wholesome toys children need to nurture their minds . Not those violent video games . My favorite one is the board game where the goal is to get the dog to take a dump . PURE GOLD ; )))) Hell, most of the time the younger kids like playing with the boxes these toys come in . Let them play with what ever toys they want . I guess if you want a corporation , or special interest group to tell you how to think and what to believe then stereotypical is the thing for you .

The Big Dog's back

I don't have to say it. Proceed.

2cents

Great job. Now we can take women off the minority status on the books in this country. Equality, that is what it is all about!

Phil Packer

Who needs all of those toys when you can just plop them in front of the TV.

Dr. Information

What the heck is our country coming to. Now we want to push girls toys on boys and boys toys on girls. No wonder our kids are so screwed up. Whats next....Pink Superman and pink Spiderman.....how manly.

Bluto

How about the origianl G.I Joes , dolls for boys , hmmm.

2cents

Get me going this morning Ha!

How about Toft’s chocolate almond ice cream? It was great then they said make it better add more chocolate; dip the almonds in chocolate too, now its chocolate / chocolate, can’t taste the almonds anymore. But no, don’t stop there, coffee ice cream, hard to find as it is, so they take that and add yep, chocolate chunks. LMAO

Now I just buy Meijer’s 1 gallon chocolate for about $5 and add my own almonds. Just yesterday God was watching over me, I went into Friendly’s for lunch, it had been a few years and there it was “coffee ice cream”, unaltered coffee ice cream! 2 for $7, not bad.

Huron_1969

A well written full length article filled with gobildy-gook for the extremist. This is similar to the parents who believe all kids gets passing grades and they don't keep score when playing baseball so everyone feels like a winner. Result is watering down our society even more

Bluto

I don't know ,but conditioning boys to play with their guns and girls to love pink might be considered stirring them in a certain direction . Hee hee !!! COME ON , IT'S JUST TOYS we're talking about !!!

SamAdams

Oh, for pity's sake. Once again, a vocal minority takes things to the extreme. Yeah, I'm a girl. But do you REALLY think that stopped me from playing "army" with the neighbor boys? Do you SERIOUSLY think I cared whether or not my cap gun was pink or red? I built teepees in the woods out of branches and boughs, and I ALSO made mud pies in the driveway. I had baby dolls (which I hated) and Barbie dolls (which I loved). But I also had a rock tumbler, a hatchet (yes, it was real and sharp, and no, I never drew blood with it), and a couple of dogs that went everywhere with me.

Leave kids the heck alone and get them what they WANT to play with. We've been figuring it out for years, and gender stereotypes had nothing to do with anything except a shrill minority who apparently can't figure out their OWN "gender-based interests."

For the record, my favorite colors happen to be pink and black (along with red, white, and blue, obviously). I like pink because I like pink, NOT because somebody got my doll a pink blanket when I was little. And I like black for the same reason (along with the fact I pretend, just like everybody else, that it makes me look thinner).

Everything's a problem. Everything causes offense. What a nation of weenies we're making ourselves!

Bluto

In the sci-fi series FRINGE on Fox , Walter ( the mad scientist ) cultivates brain tissue in an easy bake oven , and also some tasty little cakes . A little imagination can go a long way if you give it a chance too . ; ))

G_Richardson

I bought my kid a cubicle. I didnt buy that exact thing for her but she seems to like the box that it came in better than the toy so now she can sit all day and pretend she is a Indian that works at a tech support company while the American cowboys call her up to complain that they have no idea how to turn on the Windows task manager since they got spagetti stuck in the Ctrl and Atl keys. Cowboys and Indians 2012 style. I hope its gender neutral enough that it will not lead her to the misconception that she is any better than the guy over in the next cubicle.

2cents

LMAO : )

deertracker

You all are taking this WAY too serious. This all started about an easy bake oven. Fact is, most jobs are gender neutral. We as parents have raised our kids to believe they have to be a certain way because of their gender. That is the real problem. BLUTO is right. "It's just toys".

2cents

http://www.ebay.com/itm/ELECTRIC...

How about we get them thinking again, inovative toys. The oven cooks, make them all stainless steel in color like a comercial kitchen LOL

Merry Christmas!

T-B

The schools and the mainstream media are doing everything they can to emasculate men. Look at the tv shows now, they paint men as neutered man-boy idiots who get drug on a leash by the women and kids. I wish we still had those WWII generation men around, who weren't afraid to belt their kids, or grab a secretary's rear end every once in awhile.

2cents

http://www.stockpodium.com/stock...

This is why men keep it to themselves now!

Bluto

T-B Dude , you watch way too much tv , besides I see those tough guys you're talking about all the time , in the police blotter . Although some of them might be in there for grabbing kids rear ends , or belting the secretary . ; ))))

The Big Dog's back

So, you don't mind if someone grabs your wife's or daughter's rear end once in awhile?

wiredmama222

make the darn ovens gray and then who cares who gets them? Why make a big deal out of this. Many a great chef in this world are men and no one snears at them for there gender.

Many little girls play with GI Joe and plan strategies with their little brothers in the backyard on how to "get" the enemy neighbor kids so lighten up. They are kids and this is no different than playing monopoly or any of the other games that teach taking turns, planning ahead or teaching thinking.

Why do we make a big deal out of such things. It doesn't hurt them to let them do something they enjoy when they are little. Let them learn. How many of you men can cook? Does it make you "girly". I doubt it. Any more than changing a tire makes your wives "manly". So don't sweat the small stuff so much.

KURTje

Un-oh, maybe another removal by weak people...here goes. Visit any Marine Corps Base. You'll find men who hurt bad people, sometimes drink a bit, & yes they like ******* too. Some things will never be debased.

concernedtruth

A bunch of Bologni, Gender neutral toys, give me a break. The manufacturers should not be made to adjust to this small group of individuals. I am sorry this just is bogus.

totallyamazed

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Wow, too complicated for me. For the boys give 'em a kickball (solid red - NO RAINBOWS ..lol), a stick to play army, a fat bat & ball. For the girls a Barbie, a pink Easy Bake Oven, & a Suzy Feed Me/Burp Me/Change Me Doll and everything will be just OK.

{{popping corn and waiting for rebuttals)
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luvblues2

How about some wood scraps or planks, some rope left over in the garage and a hammer and nails and build a tree house? I did that with my brothers and neighborhood kids. Boys and girls both. Cheap easy and didn't destroy anything. Of course that was back in the '60s. Can't have that goin' on now. The girl's parents would probably claim molestation charges. Innocence has been lost.

May as well accept the "new" age lifestyle and trust NO-ONE.

Warhol_89

Toys never really interested me as a kid unless Nintendo games are what you'd want to call toys. Other than that, all I needed was a coloring book or a sketch pad and I was happy. Being a guy, people i'm around still think it's feminine for guys to be interested in art as i'm still sketching away and doodling in my iPad from time to time. I really don't see anything feminine or even remotely wrong about it, it doesn't harm anyone and it's what I enjoy doing during my leisure time and in the same way I don't see why people make such a big deal out of gender differences in toys. Some boys will take interest in less-manly things and some girls will take interest in less-girly things. No matter what though, there will still be men and women that play their roles as guys men and women, and those people are in the majority so there's no harm done. I feel the same way regarding the controversy surrounding the new My Little Pony show on the Hub channel being made to appeal to both genders. I won't be the one to judge, I say to each his own.

Bluto

Art was always a favorite thing for me as a kid , and even though it was not the field that I ended up in , I still love drawing to this day . No toy could ever take me to those places in my imagination that a simple piece of paper and a pen or pencil could .

Warhol_89

Agreed. I'm still pursuing in the field, it's hard and it comes with a lot of discouragement from peers, but it's a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. In the same sense though, look at where the imagination of toy designers brought them. Many consider toys (as well as new things in today's technology) a way of taking away traditional activities. But if you look at it in a different light, those traditional activities are still there to spark imagination, and sometimes to the extent of new ideas.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

With our circle of products bordering on the toy front, I suppose I can throw my two cents in and say that any toy can be anything to anyone. It depends on the involvement of the one playing with it, that person's peers, parents, or other playgroup. If a parent is buying a toy to give to a child without also expecting to play with the child, then the child will come to his/her own conclusions given the information (stereotypes or not) present. A father using a pink Easy Bake with his son to teach him about cooking (or chemistry) doesn't emasculate him. If an adult male is embarassed to play with a toy with his child in his own home, well, I suppose that is an issue that I am not educationally qualified to address. But the act overall sets an example and the time spent playing - the ACTION - not the focus on the details of the material object, is what is significant. Toys and games only act as a fall back of basic stereotypes and impulses if no other context is given. Especially when it comes to the fears that violent games breed violent kids. If those kids were given no other context for what was presented (let alone it being allowed to be presented at all, but that is a separate responsibility issue) then they only know and can only process life as was set in front of them.

This insight isn't meant to scold parents nor indicate that none of them are doing their jobs, but as we see every day at our store the cards, comics, and games are worthless tangibly and meaningless intangibly unless you have a venue and/or social group that encourages play and communication. If nothing else it also helps keep the toys fresher for longer because they serve a constant purpose instead of just being new and the child gets bored because nobody will play with him/her repeating the cycle. There is a bonus of building bonds between friends and family and facilitates communication so that things can be resolved without a schism possibly leading to extreme measures.

Hmm a penny a paragraph on that one, I hope this wasn't too long-winded nor soap-boxy.

starryeyes83

There used to be a concept called "sharing toys".... does any body practice it anymore? I had a blue Suzy bake oven and I still played w/ my brothers' hot wheels back then , none of us gave a flying fig what color it was...we were just happy to have some toys.