It Is Not All Child’s Play

Aliceana Belling, 3, perusing the local departmental store for a Halloween costume, walks right past the rows of pink princess dresses straight to the superhero outfits. She asks, “Why can’t girls save the world?”

Commercialization and marketing are inextricably linked in today’s trade-driven societies. It is of no surprise that, in the pursuit of alluring consumers to their products, marketing agents turn an oblivious eye to the eventual yet irrevocable impact of their policies on the populace. The indelible impact of toy branding, reeking of gender stereotypes, is particularly disconcerting because the population in question is young children.
Recently, a resurgent furor on social media condemning gender stereotyping by toy companies and retailers has occupied center stage in the public domain. The effervescent protests have translated into tangible outcomes. Target, this August, announced it would discontinue signs to label toys for girls and boys in their stores. Amazon no longer uses gender-based categories for children’s toys. Mattel, a multinational toy manufacturing company, is introducing a series of action figures for girls. The debate and its subsequent consequences have both psychosocial and entrepreneurial overtones.

Throughout their modern history, toy companies have rigidly compartmentalized their products under the labels of “for girls” and “for boys”. Products in the “pink aisles” focus heavily on domesticity, beauty, and nurturing while those in the “blue aisles” are meant to promote stereotypically masculine roles such as builders, carpenters, and scientists. Science kits and construction toys are missing from the “girls” section and similarly craft materials and kitchen toys are absent from the “boys” section. Dr. David Whitebread, professor at the University of Cambridge, argues that play is a fundamental contributor to skill learning in children. Thus, rigid segregation of toys confines the development of children’s skills and interests in these immutable gender defined categories. By distinctly packaging toys for boys and girls, toy companies are inadvertently giving children clear messages about the pre-envisaged societal roles they are expected to fulfill—girls have to be pretty and nurturing while boys have to be rough and industrious. In their crucial formative years, children going through identity formation conform to what is expected and accepted, drawing on the gender stereotypes laden in toys. The gender disparities learned early can be linked to the gaps evident in boys’ and girls’ self confidence levels, remunerations, and career choices seen later on in life, say experts.

A well-defined target market is the first element of a marketing strategy. And, by following the “tried and tested” formula of gendered branding, toy companies have succeeded in capitalizing on this segmented market. Officials of retail giants, against doing away with gendered branding have claimed: “One of the top ways people shopped online is by searching by gender. We wanted to make sure our sites and our stores are easy to shop, and follow a logical path for people.” However, sweeping away gender specific labels does not imply a change in what toy companies are manufacturing, argues Let Toys be Toys, a British non-profit that promotes gender neutral toys. Rather, the organization seeks to promote a nuanced marketing strategy: one focused on the utilitarian and functional themes of its products. Just as every new policy takes its course of time to come to fruition, this new policy increasingly adopted by toy retailers will warm up to the consumer market. Its prosperity will be supplemented by the benefits of providing the consumer base with a wider choice in products.

In a rapidly evolving society in which over seventy percent mothers are in the labor force and and in most families domestic responsibilities are shared more equitably than ever before, why should children be shown the regressive portrayal of a society tainted by gender biases? The temporary adverse effects of an entrepreneurial policy change will be eclipsed by the long-term benefits of a more egalitarian society. Let us accord children the freedom to determine their preferences. Let toys be toys.