From McDonald's to the toy aisle: Can we move past toy gender?

Parents want to find toys that their kids like. But what happens when their kid chooses something in the wrong aisle? Can parents inspire retailers to move past labeling toys with a specific gender?

Foam building blocks in an assortment of shapes and colors.

High school junior Antonia Ayres-Brown wrote on this week about her challenge to McDonald’s to end its unofficial practice of asking children whether they want a boy or girl toy with their meal.

As Antonia points out, “The problem with Happy Meal toys may seem trivial to some, but consider this: McDonald’s is estimated to sell more than 1 billion Happy Meals each year. When it poses this question—’Do you want a boy’s toy or a girl’s toy?’ McDonald’s pressures innumerable children to conform to gender stereotypes.”

Beyond fast food, retailers continue to pressure millions of kids into conforming to gender stereotypes through their toy choices, and there is mounting consumer dissatisfaction spurring groups to stand up against the gender barriers of toys.

To some it may sound like shopping sacrilege, but the campaign to Let Toys Be Toys in the UK and several campaigns in the – all founded by concerned parents – want to eliminate the color-coded shopping aisles in favor of toy gender anarchy. 

Let Toys Be Toys is a UK-based group launched in 2012 "asking retailers to stop limiting children's imaginations and interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys," according to its website.

While a number of major UK and Ireland toy retailers have capitulated to the demands that they “market toys in an inclusive way” the organization’s website states, “We’re pleased that so many retailers have made changes, or committed to do so, but there’s still lots to do.”

Here in America, similar parent organizations have been less successful in convincing toy sellers to integrate the colors of toy aisles and take down the “boys” and “girls” signage over items.

Let Toys Be Toys is a campaign created by moms and dads that grew out of a thread on parenting website Mumsnet, “which brought together parents frustrated by the increase in gender-based marketing and promotion to children,” according to the Mumsnet website.

According to Let Toys Be Toys Spokesperson Megan Perryman. there's no direct US equivalent to this organization, however in America the Brave Girls Alliance, A Mighty Girl, Princess-Free Zone, and Pigtail Pals all aim to empower little girls and their toy buying choices.

The first thing I noticed about the America list of organizations is they are all gender-biased and feminine-focused.

Where are the groups started by parents of boys who want the bullying to stop over the toys they like that are “pink aisle” products, such as My Little Pony or books about the lives of girls?

My sons all read the “Junie B. Jones” book series because  they like her feisty nature and they also love “Amelia Bedelia" books for the humor. Those reading choices were the cause of teasing by other kids and even some adults who thought the choices were too “girly.”

It seems that here in America, even as we try and erase gender barriers, we can sometimes start to generate new ones.

My 10-year-old son, Quin, who likes My Little Pony toys and has been bullied for his pink aisle purchases in the past, alerted me to a Live Science story this morning that highlights the pink makeover of science toys.

The story Quin showed me this morning was written by Sai Pathmanathan, a science education consultant in the United Kingdom who contributed the article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Ms. Pathmanathan catalogues the "science toy" makeover trend that has colored STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) toys for girls (such as Nerf Rebelle, LEGO Friends, Roominate, and GoldieBlox), referring to them as “pinkified/girlified” toys.

I want more girls to love STEM toys, but for me making the toys pink is just another “separate but equal” situation that, as Quin pointed out, we would not accept in other social scenarios. While I like that Goldiblox may be helping more girls get into science and math, deep down I still resent the fact that they are “for girls” in girly themes and colors.

Quin often asks me, “Why do people make me feel bad if I like a color or pattern that’s got pink, purple, or something with a rainbow on it?”

Girls who like “boy colors” or toys are not considered feminine, while boys who like a pony with a rainbow tail are being “girly.”

I wonder if toy sellers and marketing teams consider that color/gender stereotypes may be contributing to bullying issues for their consumers.

Of the pink aisle in stores, Quin says, “It makes you feel like you’re not allowed there and if you like something from that aisle that’s pink and you’re a boy you’re doing something bad. Girls probably feel the same about going into the blue or car aisle too.”

“I think having pink and blue [shopping aisles] is just as wrong as having black and white sections for race,” Quin said heatedly after seeing the story.

That was a big catharsis from a kid over the prevailing color of a toy shopping aisle.

Then again, boys like Quin and bullied Brony (boy who likes My little Pony) Grayson Bruce have had their fill of retailers making their lives miserable under the auspices of making shopping choices easier for those seeking stereotypical toys for girls and boys.

While ending bullying is not the goal of Let Toys Be Toys, I believe it will be a bonus effect if a similar movement gains traction in the US.

Eight months ago, A Mighty Girl posted a petition asking Toys R Us stores to stop gender-biasing aisles.

The campaign called on American stores to follow the example of its European counterparts, “Now is the time for Toys "R" Us in the USA to join its counterparts in the UK and Sweden and end the rampant gender stereotyping in its marketing of toys to children,” reads the petition.

In an email on the subject of the petition Kathleen Waugh,vice president, Corporate Communications Toys“R”Us, Inc. writes, “There are no gender-specific toy sections in our US stores.  Toys are merchandised by product category, so customers can easily see the breadth of assortment.  All learning toys, for example, (from a variety of manufacturers) are merchandised together.  The same is true for all categories, including sports toys, pre-school toys, construction sets (ie: LEGO and MegaBrands), bikes, dolls, arts and crafts, action figures, musical instruments, and more. With regards to advertising, Toys“R”Us regularly features girls and boys playing with all different types of toys.”

However, the Toys“R”Us website is immediately broken down into “Toys for Girls” and “Toys for boys” options for shoppers to choose between.

Ms. Perryman of Let Toys Be Toys says the Toys“R”Us website in the UK is also segregated like tis American counterpart. “We met them last year and they agreed to some changes but it's slow-going,” referring to a 2013 agreement to stop gender-specific labeling.

“The reason for this is that in online shopping, “girls toys” and “boys toys” continue to be among the top Internet search terms used by parents, grandparents, and gift givers when looking for toys,” writes Ms. Waugh, addressing the website’s separate-but-equal division. “We understand that children have many diverse interests, and continually strive to portray that in our aisles and in our marketing materials.

The Let Toys be Toys site includes a section titled “Tips for Complaining,” which I highly recommend to parents here in America who want to effect change in their local stores and toy companies in general.

According to the tip page, Let Toys Be Toys writes, “Expect to receive a ‘fobbing off’ response.  Chances are they’ll send you a polite reply along the lines of ‘We value all customer feedback and will bear your comments in mind,’” The site tells parents. “Don’t accept it! Write back to demand specifics and make sure they know they’re not getting any custom from you until they change their policy.”

In social campaigns as in parenting it’s all about being consistent and persistent.

Also, I think this is about getting parents and kids like Quin and Grayson Bruce to start taking back the power by doing ‘Mommy/Daddy and Me” tandem letters to retailers and toy companies.

I don’t care what color or alleged gender-style toy a child owns, as long as they also own the feeling of empowerment to choose without fear of shunning or bullying from other consumers.

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