Why gender-neutral holiday gifts matter

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“I really try to incorporate all the colors of the rainbow into my son’s toys and especially his wardrobe,” she said. “I want to raise my son to understand that clothes are only clothes, and toys are only toys and that these things have no sex.”

She hopes he will learn that nothing is off limits to him and that there is nothing wrong with liking a toy or item of clothing marketed as “for girls.”

Not so long ago, that might have seemed like a radical approach to raising children, let alone holiday shopping. But pushing back hyper-gender marketing from the material worlds of children is increasingly common, and not just from parents or advocacy groups. Some in the toy industry and the business world have joined us.

In 2015, Target stopped labeling certain toys and other products as items for girls and boys, moving away from gender signage. In 2017, the Toy Association replaced the “boy” and “girl” categories with new ones, such as action figure of the year or doll of the year (although the figures are generally dolls for boys).

The decision, said Kristin Morency Goldman, spokesperson for the Toy Association, “had to reflect the current market, the buying habits of parents and the reality of the world we live in.”

This year’s winning toys included the plush toy of the year and the STEAM toy of the year. Marketed this way, any child could be interested.

“Toy companies have ditched classifying their toys by gender, and even online retailers and mainstream retailers don’t organize their toys by gender as much,” Goldman said. “Fortunately, many of the gender-based limits that were placed on children of previous generations are no longer there. ”

Hasbro has changed some of its marketing to make them more gender specific.
Hasbro, for example, has changed the marketing of brands like Baby Alive, NERF and Easy-Bake to make them more gender specific. Disney, meanwhile, has found a way to accommodate parents who think toys should be marketed using gender and those who don’t. On the Disney website, buyers can still select a gender, but there is almost no difference in what shows up.

There are 304 toys marked as for boys and 307 for girls. The Minnie Mouse Garden playset, classic Aurora doll, and Disney Princess Enchanting Messages musical vanity can be found in the boys ‘section as well as the girls’ section. The same goes for the Mickey Mouse-Ka-Golf set.

The three girls only toys were the Elsa Frozen Plush Doll, Queen Anna Plush Doll, and the Classic Elsa Doll Accessory Pack, all from “Frozen II”.

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Small businesses start without a gendered message. BE-ME sells tutus, crowns, and nail polish for all children, and Ten Little doesn’t add gender to clothes or toys.

It may soon become the norm, if not the law. In October, California Governor Gavin Newsom enacted Assembly Bill 1084, which requires large retailers to have gender-neutral toy sections by 2024. (He doesn’t ban traditional toy sections for boys and girls.)
Meanwhile, after achieving high sales but also high review levels when it introduced heavily gendered LEGO Friends in 2012, this year LEGO has announced new research and a new campaign, “Ready for Girls,” in collaboration with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. . The campaign encourages girls to play with all LEGO products, to “challenge the ubiquitous stereotypes about girls that discourage them from playing with STEM-focused toys.”

Stereotypes remained in place

This is a massive change in a short period of time, but the genre of children’s toys is actually a recent phenomenon.

“At the turn of the 20th century, toys were not a major consumer good and many families were making their own toys,” said Elizabeth Sweet, assistant professor of sociology at San Jose State University. “Gender was not such a primary categorization factor.” The dolls, she said, were a popular baby gift for boys and girls.

The genre of children’s clothing and toys began in earnest just over 100 years ago, with the goal of teaching children how to fulfill their appropriate gender roles. Toys have moved from being marketed by age to an explicit attempt to shape children’s preferences and futures: mop and broom sets for girls and assembly sets for boys.

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This gendered message diminished to some extent during the American feminist movement of the 1970s, Sweet said. She found that less than 2% of the toys in the 1975 Sears catalog had explicit gender markers. But the 1980s saw the deregulation of children’s television, which allowed a new level of toy marketing, said Rebecca Hains, professor of media and communications at Salem State University in Massachusetts. This was followed by the rise of “girl power” in the 1990s, and traders once again forced the genre into toys.

Barbie has traditionally been marketed to girls.

“There’s a kind of sway that’s going on in our culture all the time,” Hains said.

By the end of the 20th century, toys had stopped preparing children for traditional gender roles and instead focused on fantastic roles: princesses for girls and superheroes for boys.

The toy makers “took the stereotypes and repackaged them in glitter paper, but it’s the same ideas about the genre,” Sweet said. “Women are passive, nurturing, and caring, and men are active, agent, and capable.”

The dolls and princess figures are very thin, Hains noted. “They don’t look like they’re physically strong because they’re so light.” Superhero toys, on the other hand, have fake muscles.

Sweet discovered that toys are often more gendered today than at almost any other time in history – but it’s clear that the pendulum has started to swing back.

The problem of sex toys

If you buy gifts that have gender markers, Hains said, it’s easy to get around them. If you bought a gift for a boy with only pictures of girls on the wrapper, “Just peel off that wrapper and put the item under the tree,” she said.

Hains said if you have a girl who loves princesses, buy her princess dolls and an action-oriented toy like a fire truck. “We can play princesses and ask the princess to put out a fire,” she said.

Why do that?

When toys are gendered by traders and parents, they not only reinforce stereotypes, but promote different skills. “All that was marketed to girls was to be pretty,” Hains said. Girls’ toys often promote communication skills and kindness, while for boys, the emphasis is on taking action and assertiveness.
Research into the genre of LEGO found that girls were six times more likely than boys to imagine scientists and athletes to be men than women. Parents of both sexes were four times more likely to encourage boys to play computer games or sports, and five times more likely to encourage girls to dance and dress up.

“Children experiment with ideas about their own interests and abilities and maybe even future roles,” Hains said. “It’s problematic when you narrow down the options and say that this whole range of things is for girls and this range of things is for boys.”

Correct the trajectory

Changes in the way toys are marketed can help change consumer behavior, but cultural norms are hard to overcome. “I think it’s tough for the boys,” said Lauren Apfel, mother of four and editor of Motherwell magazine. “It’s always more difficult for them to adopt the most feminine clothes, the most feminine toys, as opposed to the girl who plays with the blocks that no one really thinks twice about.”

Indeed, LEGO found that “71% of boys versus 42% of girls say they fear being laughed at if they play with a toy generally associated with the opposite sex.”

Apfel’s decision was to buy dolls from the boys – his own and others – for holiday gifts and birthday presents to encourage a kind of “gender openness” and to present the message that all toys are for everyone.


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