Toys: Do They Really Have To Be Gender Neutral?

It's 2015. We have an Ava DuVernay Barbie, which is pretty sweet. The Moschino Barbie campaign showed girls and boys digging her totally awesome wardrobe. And then there's Woozy Moo, an online toy purveyor that employs gender-neutral marketing. So, have we made it? Probably not. According to researcher and sociologist Elizabeth Sweet's recent Ted Talk, modern-day toys are even more gendered — and increasingly marketed toward only boys or only girls — than 50 years ago. "That's not to say that gender played no role in the toys of the past," Sweet says, "but even in the periods over the 20th century when toys were the most gendered, there were still far more toys that weren't defined by gender — roughly half."
Today's toys, it seems, are mostly all targeted only to boys, or only to girls. Take, for example, Disney. "A recent study by sociologists Carol Auster and Claire Mansbach found that all toys sold on the Disney Store’s website were explicitly categorized as being 'for boys' or 'for girls' — there was no 'for boys and girls' option," Sweet wrote in The Atlantic last year. Most of the toys in that study, however, could have been gender neutral if you ignored the marketing.
It turns out that the golden age of non-gendered toys was the early '70s, thanks to second-wave feminism and the rising number of women in the workplace. "In the Sears catalog ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls," Sweet notes. Plus, after looking at many ads from that decade, Sweet found that most advertisements would break down gender stereotypes, showing girls playing doctors, carpenters, and scientists. But somehow, that all fell away: 1984 saw an increase in the use of gender in marketing, and by 1995, some 50% of the toys in the Sears' catalog were separated out by gender, according to Sweet.
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/ Getty Images.
This might not seem like a big deal, but it is. Not only does this type of marketing reinforce the limiting gender binary, but which toys are deemed "acceptable" for girls and boys do actually wind up influencing subconscious cues of what careers, activities, and interests are "acceptable" for women and men. Last year, NPR asked a poignant question: When did women stop coding? Prior to 1984, plenty of women were pioneers in the industry — until computers became available for use in U.S. homes, when they were marketed as "toys" to men and boys. In the '90s, a Carnegie Mellon study found that "families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers," NPR reported. The result? A flatlining of women in computer science — and then a steep plunge. Computers are, at face value, gender neutral, all marketing aside. And research has shown that toys that serve an educational purpose (i.e. that help to develop physical, cognitive, artistic skills) are typically categorized as "neutral" or "moderately masculine," according to Professor Judith Elaine Blakemore at Indiana University. According to an interview with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Blakemore's research has found that toys that are marketed as female tend to "focus on attractiveness and appearance," whereas toys marketed as male may emphasize violence or aggression
But "moderately masculine toys have many positive qualities (spatial skills, science, building things, etc.) that parents might want to encourage in both boys and girls," Blakemore says. "Perhaps, to some extent, it is the same for some moderately feminine toys (nurturance, care for infants, developing skills in cooking and housework)."

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