A couple of months ago a piece of news hidden in one corner of the newspaper titled, ‘Game’s up for toys that reinforce gender roles’ got us looking back, thinking about the toys we played with. The article talked about the pact signed by the French government, the French Federation of Toy and Childcare Industries (FJP) and the association of toy manufacturers to rid games and toys of gender stereotypes . The argument behind the decision is that such stereotyping is a scourge that starts in early life and could deter women from taking up careers in maths and science.
It immediately sparked an old and recurring debate about toys, cultural differences, gender and responsibility of choice. In our conversations, we discovered stories of older siblings sneakily adding their preferred toys to our lists and parents persuading us to ask Santa for whatever toy they felt was more convenient for them, their wallets, the space at home and their own childhood frustrated desires. With more or less influence from our relatives, we used to write our Christmas lists unaware of gender bias, only fearing the consequences of our recent past naughtiness and with a future vision tarnished by tonnes of bows and colourful wrapping paper. What did we know about gender gap, roles and conditioning? The coolest toys were those that appeared on TV and allowed us to play adults – as we knew them back then.
Now that we hold responsibility of toys shopping, we have just started to consider the influence that others had in our own toys preferences and the criteria that dictates what are the toys that make it under the tree. Children may be the consumers, but it is us, adults, who ultimately make the choices for them. Elizabeth Lloyd-Parkes, senior lecturer in marketing at South Wales University, who specialises in child consumer told the BBC that adults purchase within their own comfort zones. For her, toys are supposed to fulfil what the consumer wants, and respond to what the parent wants to buy for their child.
For millennial parents is clear and more than two-thirds would be more likely to buy from a brand that offers inclusive product ranges according to a recent Accenture survey. However, a Pew Research study showed that 76% of Americans believe parents should steer their daughters towards toys and activities that are traditionally associated with boys, while only 64% think boys should be encouraged to play with ‘girl’ toys.
Are we, adults, toy and ad makers, parents and toy buyers making choices for our kids driven by our own cultural and generational stereotypes? Are we the ones responsible for unconsciously creating bias and limiting their potential?
We can’t deny that girls & boys are different. They behave differently, react differently and tend to like different things. It took years of research and several failed attempts for Lego to discover that while girls enjoy building just as much as boys, differed in what they wanted to build, and in their preferred colours for the sets.
It is still unclear if the reason behind toys preference is biological and consequently innate, or it’s a product of socialisation. However, we do know that toys can have lasting developmental implications influencing their perceptions of gender and conditioning their interest, abilities and scope of their futures. While traditional boy toys, like blocks and puzzles encourage visual and spatial skills, toys traditionally targeted at girls encourage communication and social skills. Lauren Spinner, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kent spoke to the New York Times about how research has shown that when the lines are drawn too strictly, a children’s world becomes more limited, missing opportunities to learn a different set of skills.
In 2014, Charlotte Benjamin, a 7 year old wrote a letter to Lego noticing a lack of ‘girl Lego’ characters and complaining about these characters being stereotypical and one dimensional which in the language of a 7 year old means that girls only ‘sat at home or went shopping’, while the “boys went on adventures, saved people, had jobs...and even swam with sharks”. A few months later, Lego answered Charlotte’s plea launching their first-ever set to feature female scientist figurines. The miniature astronomer, chemist and palaeontologist were the result of a successful pitch by a female geophysicist. Charlotte wasn’t asking for “boy toys”, she was asking for the “girl toys” to be different.
And they are not the only ones, Mattel, as part of their efforts to break stereotypes has launched a range of Ken and Barbie dolls with different races and body types as well as a range of dolls with customizable gender identities. Most recently, BMC Toys has announced plans to create toy soldiers depicting women in combat roles. The decision took place after receiving a personal letter from a six-year-old girl, pledging for female fighters. In words of Jeff Imel, owner of BMC Toys. “It shouldn't be up to us to decide who the hero is.”
The underlying shift is the one witnessed at home. Children are growing in a world where women represent 46.8 % of the UK workforce and are more and more present in professions from which they were previously banned . The changes adults have started to see are slowly becoming the norm for younger generations; a normal where their fathers take months of paternity leave to stay at home and take care of their new born siblings, where mums are pilots, women are astronauts and men flight attendants.
The rules in society are changing slowly – too slowly – but quicker than the unwritten laws of the toy world. The UK ban on advertisements containing “harmful” gender stereotypes approved this year and the first step taken in France to let toys be toys reflect the need for regulation, a push to pull the laggards out of their inertia and encourage the front-runners to challenge individual convictions and biases to improve as society.
There may be a need for toys for girls and boys, that’s up to them to decide. However, the responsibility of creating and marketing toys that represent the world as they know it, without limiting the scope of their choices, is on us. A war unicorn or a Tyrannosaurus Doll may not make sense for us, but, it’s Christmas; presents are delivered in just one night, by a single man, on a sleigh powered by flying reindeers. Who are we to set up the boundaries? Let’s empower kids to make free choices, they seem to be getting into the habit of responding to that with lessons for all of us