Taking Gender Out of Toys

Fahema Rahman, a Quincy, MA resident has a rule when it comes to buying clothes and toys for her two-year-old son Franklin: nothing that’s obnoxiously gender stereotyped. No shirts that say, “look out ladies” or “handsome like my daddy. Instead, she and her husband encourage Franklin to play with dolls and wear anything from a pink hat to leggings.

Rahman isn’t the only one looking to remove gender from the equation when it comes to labeling children’s toys and accessories. Ohio mother Abi Bechtel, tweeted at Target this past June after seeing an aisle marker labeled “girls’ building sets” as separate from “building sets.” Her tweet quickly went viral.

Paul Henson, a 28-year-old dad from Virginia, posted a photo on Facebook of him and his son Caiden Halloween costume shopping this October. Twenty-eight thousand shares later the post was popping up on news feeds everywhere. All because his son’s top costume choice was Disney’s ice-Queen Elsa. And of course Caiden wanted his dad to accompany him as Princess Anna.

With the topic of taking gender labels out of children’s toys and accessories taking over social and mainstream media companies have started to take notice, and respond. Target and Disney have been the first big brands to alter their gender labeling in regards to children’s items.

Target has decided to remove gender labels in its toys, home and entertainment sections.

Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender,” says Target in a statement released this past August. “In some cases, like apparel, where there are fit and sizing differences, it makes sense. In others, it may not.”

Paul Mihailidis, marketing communications professor at Emerson College in Boston and director of Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change in Austria, sees Target’s decision as a reaction to the buzz Bechtel’s tweet garnered.

“Target can’t avoid this now,” says Mihailidis. “Maybe they could before if people complained to the store or wrote them letters. They might’ve shifted the policy here or there. Now that this part of the public and this dialogue happens, they’re just forced to be more active in responding to and participating with their clientele.”

Disney took a similar approach in the release of its new Halloween costume line. Instead of labeling the outfits in terms of gender, with girl costumes consisting of Cinderella and Tinkerbell and boy ensembles being characters such as Thor and Peter Pan, Disney simply labeled the costumes “for kids” or “for baby.”

While Disney and Target are the only big retailers so far who have adopted this practice in the United States, Mihailidis can see it being picked up by other brands. He says, “brands have power in setting these agendas in really unique ways. When brands as large as Target and Disney do it, it’s certainly going to cause more of a stir than smaller brands.”

Stellabella Toys, a local chain of toy stores with four locations around Massachusetts, has resisted gender labeling in its stores and on its website. Instead Stellabella is delineated by categories: puzzles, dolls and dollhouses, science and nature, puppets and soft toys, and active/outdoor play among others.

Stellabella not only eliminates gender labels, but also tries its best to offer products in gender neutral colors. Stellabella owner Rick Henry says, “we try hard when something is offered in multitudes of colors not to do pink and blue. If we can we’ll do yellow, green, red, or orange.” This being said, he notes that for certain toys, such as dolls, it is apparent due to the packaging that the toy is geared to a certain gender.

But toy manufacturers and packagers aren’t the only ones pushing girls toward pretty pink princess dolls and boys toward army-green Nerf guns and toy trucks. Henry says that a lot of the time he notices it’s the adult buying the toys. “The kids don’t really care that much,” he says. “They just want what they want and we try to put it out that way. But, believe it or not it’s the parents who will say ‘my girl wants a pink scooter.’”

Farah Joan, a 28 year-old Boston resident, had the opposite experience growing up, as she was  lucky enough to have parents who didn’t push her or her sister one way or another. “They didn’t insist on having pink or us playing with dolls.” she says. “We really wanted to play with dinosaurs, stuffed dogs, Lion King toys and cars even. And as I reflected on it growing up, I think that both my mom and dad did a really good job at not caring about gender lines with that stuff.”

This doesn’t mean that Joan wasn’t exposed to the gender connotation certain toys evoke. She recalls attending a birthday party at McDonald’s when growing up. When asked who wanted a Barbie in their Happy Meal and who wanted a toy car, both Joan and her sister asked for cars: they got Barbies. “I was like why do I have the stupid Barbie,” she says.

Deborah Belle, a professor of Psychology at Boston University  interested in gender differences in social behavior, says that forcing gender stereotypes on children, as Joan experienced in the Barbie incident, can potentially be distressing to children.

“In extreme cases it can be painful to know your society believes that some deep interest you have or potential sense of yourself is inappropriate,” says Belle. “These messages have been very harmful to girls and to boys.”

In relation to the trend of removing gender labels, Joan thinks it’s a step in the right direction. She says, “I think taking away that label makes it a little more easier for a child. It will help with a child who is afraid to say I want to get toys in the girls’ or boys’ section.” She’s seen friends who are having children making similar efforts in their homes “are trying really hard to have a neutral nursery and things like that because they don’t want to instill the idea in their child that this is what you should play with or what you’re going to be,” says Joan.

Belle suggests parents remove gendered media from the house, as well as avoid stores that are highly-sectioned based on sex as additional ways to enforce gender neutrality within their family. This is something Fahema Rahmen, mother of two-year old boy Franklin, practices by sticking to local toy stores, such as Stellabella, that aren’t usually gendered.

This parental support is critical to allowing children to be comfortable and confident in their choices. Belle says, “parents can say ‘this is foolishness. A lot of girls like to play with toy guns, cars and trucks.’ Or telling boys they can play with dolls too. By the values they show to their children, parents can affect how their children confront the whole thing.”

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