It’s Christmas, the time of year when everyone who celebrates and everyone who doesn’t are all whacked over the head with advertising for toys, and we once again realize how deeply dug into gender roles we still are in this category. But this year has brought a little bit of relief, and not that surprisingly, it’s mostly due to children themselves kicking ass.
If you’ve been following Ali Davis’s always-remarkably-wonderful Feminist Friday columns, you’ve seen her mention McKenna Pope, the 13-year-old from Jersey who created an online petition with Change.org for a gender neutral Easy Bake Oven. You see, her younger brother really wanted one, but she felt a little weird that 1) you could only buy it in pink and purple, and 2) there were exactly zilch boys ever presented in the ads. After getting over 45,000 signatures on her petition, including from celebri-chefs such as Bobby Flay, Hasbro revealed that they would be creating Easy Bake Ovens in black, silver, and blue. To make the move extra classy, they invited Pope for a personal visit to Hasbro headquarters for the reveal. As she says in this video, the way her brother’s eyes lit up made it all worth it.
Sadly, Hasbro didn’t make a similar move for a 6-year-old girl who complained to them about their Guess Who game earlier this fall. I have to copy part of her original letter verbatim because it is so awesome:
As Jezebel reported, Hasbro wrote back essentially saying that the game was meant to concentrate on “things we have in common, rather than focus on our differences,” in a typical “we don’t see color and/or apparently gender” move. The 6-year-old’s mom wrote back saying, “Thanks but no thanks for that total non-answer, Hasbro,” and they eventually responded with a link to print out more girl characters for the game, which was better than nothing. Clearly the 6-year-old wasn’t old enough to understand the power of online petitions and Bobby Flay, but I have a feeling she’ll get there someday.
And in other good-but-for-sort-of-weird-reasons toy news, Barbie now has a construction set, adding to her resume since becoming a computer engineer two years ago, and Lego’s new Friends line, featuring pastel colored building blocks, is already a big seller. Although before you get to thinking that these are “gender neutral” per se, keep in mind that some of the Friends sets including building a fashion studio or a beauty salon. I do, however, think that all of these things are generally a good idea, although the reasoning in the business section of the New York Times for them made me feel strange. Marketers aren’t necessarily thinking that boys might want to play with pink Legos or that girls might be interested in construction, but dads are apparently doing more of the shopping these days, and with these selections, they’ll feel more comfortable. This seems particularly offensive to dads, who apparently are so fueled with testosterone and so out of touch with their children that they aren’t competent to just, you know, buy their kids what they want. The article also notes that it’s important for girls to engage with toys that encourage math and science skills (hence the construction sets), which apparently they have never done before but boys do all the time.
This obviously got me sort of riled up about marketing and toy companies in general. While the McKenna Pope story is great, it’s clear that most of their motivations still have hardly anything to do with what children really want or with treating gender sensitively. An article published in Advertising Age yesterday made the case, however, that perhaps marketing isn’t completely to blame, as after all, marketing is merely meant to be a reflection of what society wants. While I tried to keep in mind that the article was written for an organization called Advertising Age and hence might be skewed towards business, this quote from a gender and history professor did give me pause:
This hard, cold reality reminded me of the first day of a book publishing class I took in college. The professor, who was in fact a great professor and not necessarily a cold-hearted person, said right off: “You have to know this. Book publishing is not about publishing great books. It is not about preserving the legacy of literature. It is about making money. If you have a problem with that, you should leave.” And some people did. Because I have a complex about quitting anything, I stayed and told myself it would be fine, even though I realized at my first interview for a publishing job that it really wasn’t.
Accordingly, I still don’t think it’s fine to say that no fault belongs to marketing or toy execs for gender stereotyping, even if they’re just “doing their job.” They seem to be saying, “It’s not our role to change the world,” but you know what, maybe it is. They pin the blame on parents, who they listen to for their marketing data, and apparently parents aren’t doing a good enough job of standing up for gender neutrality. You know, with all the extra time parents have on their hands. Yet this made me think about where and exactly how toy execs get their data. Do most parents still want their daughters to be princesses? And what about the kids themselves? As the evidence above proves, some of them seem to have some pretty good ideas. But do toy companies ever read hard research about what kids want?
I ask because I also found a fascinating study published in Educational Psychology in 2003 called “The Effects of Stereotyped Toys and Gender on Play Assessment in Children Aged 18-47 Months.” The study first notes that how children play and what they play with is in fact rather important, not just for using as assessment of their cognitive learning, but because they have “long term consequences for later social and cognitive development,” and that “gender stereotyped toys contribute to the formation of gender schemata which have been shown to contribute to stereotyped activities, roles, and to influence recall.” (This probably seems obvious, but it’s always nice to have research on your side.)
The experiment then set up a group of children with an equal number of girls and boys with a number of obviously girly and obviously boyish toys along with gender neutral ones, all of different types. They predicted that the girls would gravitate towards the girly ones and boys to the boy ones. Yet their results were thus: “Contrary to our predictions, girls did not play predominantly with female stereotyped toys. Rather, half of the top ten toys for girls were those classified as neutral. In other words, the toys that kept the girls’ attention the longest were neutral stereotyped toys, followed by the male stereotyped toys, and the female stereotyped toys.” Did you hear that, toy makers? Female stereotyped toys came in last. Boys also only spent half of their time with the male stereotyped toys, being occupied by gender neutral or female stereotyped toys the rest of the time.
50/50. Five out of 10. This seems like a pretty normal ratio. Yet then why does Disney’s website attribute 85% of its darker-colored items as “boys only” and 86% of its pink items as “girls only”? The study also notes that one of the girls’ favorite activities were puzzles, a finding they said was “congruent with previous research showing that girls have a preference for certain toys such as puzzles.” Which is weird, because that New York Times article just told me that such activities, which are proven to help math development, along with a host of other beneficial skills, have mainly been reserved for boys.
On top of all this, while the Hasbro move for McKenna Pope and her brother did seem cool, an easy Google image search for the Easy Bake Oven proves that back in the day, it was produced primarily in colors such as yellow, turquoise, or every child-of-the-70’s favorite, pea soup green. In other words, Easy Bake Ovens already WERE gender neutral. It was only in the last few decades that they started pushing them out in pink and purple only. A wonderful slideshow at the bottom of the Huffington Post’s article about the story also shows the super-girly evolution that many of the most popular toys have gone through over the years, the first of which shows an absolutely excellent ad from 1981 featuring a red-haired, pig-tailed girl in overalls proudly holding up a Lego creation made from the “Universal Building Sets.” You already had it right in 1981, Lego. Change up some of the children you chose for your ads, Hasbro, and you were fine. What changed?
If marketers and execs really do listen to parents and to research, have children actually become more girly, or more boyish, over the decades? If, taking that study’s findings into mind, more gender neutral toys would be profitable, why aren’t we seeing even more of them? Who is really at fault? If we keep writing petitions, will things change? Or the bigger question–should we even have to?