Is gender neutrality the hot new thing when it comes to toys?
Inasmuch as a term as abstract as "gender neutrality" can sweep to popular acclaim, the answer may be "yes."
Starting with a Swedish holiday campaign for Toys R Us last year that showed girls shooting a toy gun and boys and girls playing together in a kitchen, pressure has started to mount on the industry-leading toy store to abandon decades-old marketing conventions that segregate most toys into one gender or the other.
A British parents' group called Let Toys Be Toys has succeeded in persuading British Toys R Us stores to "draw up plans for how to make its marketing more inclusive, and remove explicit references to gender in store," as well as tailor advertisements to break free of traditional gender constraints.
The changes have begun to be felt on this side of the Atlantic as well, with local journalists picking up the story and a Change.org petition pushing for an end to gender-based toy marketing picking up steam (it's up to 2,912 supporters as of the morning of Sep. 25 – not much in absolute terms, but a concrete sign that the topic is sparking passionate discussion and even advocacy.)
The idea of completely removing gender when it comes to marketing (or enjoying) toys seems quixotic – anyone who has witnessed the spark of magic that occurs when a little boy gets his mitts on his first toy gun will likely suspect that there's something hardwired in there. (When I was a kid, my parents forbade me from playing with toy guns, which meant that I spent as much time as possible hanging out at my friend Tim's house. There we had access to an arsenal of Italian-made heavy plastic weapons that were darn near photo-realistic and perfect for us-versus-them role play: cops and gangsters, Brits and Germans, humans and zombies, you name it.)
But the idea that toys must be gender segregated without any thought or discussion seems to be going by the wayside, as are strictly policed gender roles. The recent fast-moving and powerful media discussion of Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) shows that questions of gender identity are increasingly up for public discussion and debate.
Perhaps the key incident over the past few years in this regard is Lego's increasingly aggressive marketing of Legos for girls called Lego Friends. The toys put less emphasis on construction and modeling, and more on doll-like social play, leading to criticism by some parents as reinforcing gender stereotypes: boys build and fight, girls talk and nurture. That criticism does not reflect a consumer backlash – the girl-tailored Legos have been incredibly popular.
In short, gender will likely always have an influence over what toys are enjoyed by girls and boys. But the way that society in general (and parents, in particular) discuss it will keep expanding and evolving.