Why does gender-stereotyped toy marketing matter?
- Kids should decide for themselves what they think is fun. Why put these limits on play?
- Play matters. Children need a wide range of play to develop different skills.
- Marketing matters. Directing consumers in this way is restricting children’s play.
- The real world has moved on. These gender stereotypes are tired and out of date.
Play is crucial to how children develop and learn about the world. In education it’s recognised that children need access to a range of toys and play experiences. Toys focused on action, construction and technology hone spatial skills, foster problem solving and encourage children to be active. Toys focused on role play and small-scale theatre allow them to practise social skills. Arts & crafts are good for fine motor skills and perseverance. Read more about toys and learning.
Boys and girls need the chance to develop in all these areas, but many stores divide toys into separate boys’ and girls’ sections. Action construction and technology toys are predominantly marketed to boys while social role play and arts and crafts toys are predominantly marketed to girls. Both boys and girls miss out this way.
How toys are labelled and displayed affects consumers’ buying habits. Many people feel uncomfortable buying a boy a pink toy or a girl a toy labelled as ‘for boys’.
Other buyers may simply be unaware of the restricted choices they are offered. They may not notice that science kits and construction toys are missing from the “girls” section, or art & crafts and kitchen toys from the “boys”. If they’re never offered the chance, a child may never find out if they enjoy a certain toy or style of play.
And children are taking in these messages about what girls and boys are ‘supposed to like’ They are looking for patterns and social rules – they understand the gender rule ‘This is for boys and that is for girls,’ in the same way as other sorts of social rules, like ‘Don’t hit”. These rigid boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.
Children don’t pop out of the womb with expectations about their future careers, or beliefs about what their work is worth, but the stereotypes we see in toy marketing connect with the inequalities we see in adult life. By late primary age, research by Welsh organisation Chwarae Teg shows that children already have very clear ideas about the jobs that are suitable for boys and girls; ideas that are very hard to shake later on.
Themes of glamour and beauty in toys and playthings directed at even the youngest girls tips over into a worrying emphasis on outward appearance. Stereotyped attitudes about boys are equally harmful. The constant assumption reinforced in toy advertising and packaging that boys are inevitably rough, dirty, rowdy, interested only in action and violence tells calmer, more sensitive or more creative boys that they’re getting this whole ‘boy’ thing a bit wrong, and feeds low expectations of boys that undermine their performance at school.
It’s easy for retailers to make a positive difference, and they should benefit too
We are not asking retailers to change the toys they sell, but to organise toys by theme and function rather than gender. There’s no need for ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ aisles: take down the pink and blue signs in stores and on packaging, and instead let toys be toys. Is a doll really harder to find marked ‘dolls’?
It’s a win-win: we’re talking about retailers offering consumers more, not less.
Find out more about why gender marketing of toys matters from our recommended reading list.