Finding Better Ways to Play

As a parent, it’s hard not to worry about the psychology of toys and what message we’re sending to our children. Walk into any toy store and you’ll find two departments; one for girls, the other for boys. The aisles couldn’t be more different. As a society, we’ve become obsessed with creating distinct toys for each gender. But are these toys instinctively preferred by our children? Or are we creating a feedback loop by providing toys that we think they should prefer?

Stereotypes are extremely difficult to change after they’ve been put in place. And once we start providing culturally different toys for children based on their gender, they begin to associate those toys with themselves and what they should prefer. While many may not see the harm in providing different toys for boys and girls, the practice often leads to much larger consequences later in life.

Skul in school

Take the Lego company. For years, the company manufactured and produced toys exclusively for boys. The scenes are built around adventure, fighting, and action heroes. The Lego people are primarily men.

When Lego realized the untapped market for young female builders, they shifted their strategy, and their product, to better market to the demographic. Within a few years, the company pumped out pink and purple blocks featuring Disney Princesses, riding horses, going to school. While there is nothing innately wrong with this design, it’s become a fundamentally different product than the traditional sets.

In essence, Lego created a larger environment for girls (think doll-house or PollyPocket) while decreasing the building potential and perhaps even the complexity of the sets.

While the release received a lot of praise, it stands to question whether toys need to be coded in a way to appeal to each gender. More specifically, why can’t we find a common ground?

Studies show time and time again that we bring these cultural ideologies to our children. We place the blue toys in front of our boys; the purple in front of our girls. While this may seem like a harmless tactic, the practice has embedded itself in our society in harmful ways. We believe that boys prefer the aggressive and adventurous models while girls will be content with anything that has sparkles.

Like most parents, I want my children to be happy and healthy. I want them to respect others and work hard to find their passions as they grow. This goal would not change based on the gender of my children, so why should the toys on the market separate the two into very distinct and disparate categories?

Child with Chalk

In 2014, Lands End came up fire after providing science-themed t-shirts for boys while providing more feminine designs for their line of girls’ clothing. This might not seem alarming, but for one mother with a child with dreams of being an astronaut, the differences were problematic.

In fact, at the time, Land’s End’s marketing reflected this difference. One could buy “Mighty” Tees for Boys; “Adorable” Tees for girls. In a letter addressed to the company, the mother presented her reasons why she finds it uncomfortable that her female child does not have the same STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) themed shirts as the boys.

The company was quick to remedy the situation by producing STEM themed shirts for girls. And they continue to do so today. In fact, the company has changed their labeling entirely. They’ve removed the gender-based descriptions involving clothing categories. Gone are ‘Mighty’ and ‘Adorable’. Today, they stick with “Graphic Tees”. Plain, simple, neutral.

In twenty years, I imagine that we’ll see fewer toys marketed in pink and blue and more toys manufactured in a gender-neutral design, aesthetic, and marketing. We’re already moving in that direction. Disney’s recent release of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is a beautiful illustration of our society’s progressive shift. Rey, the franchise’s first female heroine, dominated screen time and offers a new model for young girls to emulate. She’s tough, gritty, and loves working with her hands.

She’s no Disney Princess yet she’s likable, kind, and seriously smart. In short, she doesn’t fall into a specific gendered category. She’s an individual.

If we’re serious about changing the cultural ideologies of gender, Rey is exactly the type of adventurous hero that our girls, and our boys, need to see.

Rey from Star Wars