Ads showing girls with dolls and boys driving toy trucks were common in the 1980s and 1990s.
Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist, says that the idea of boy vs. girls toys has fluctuated throughout history.
Sweet said that toys often seem to have been this way for a long time. “Toys have always been pink and blue and they’ve always had hyper-generic gendering… but that’s not true.”
Sweet used catalogs to discover that early 20th-century toys advertisements only used the word “child.”
Gender-targeted ads for toys accelerated in the 1920s, but then started to fade in the 1970s.
Sweet noted that toys were displayed in ways that defied gender stereotypes. Sweet said that the ads showed boys with kitchen sets while girls were shown building, and both genders playing together.
Targeted ads were back in the 1990s.
Sweet explained that “Gender toys tend to embody more fantasy role in the 20th century so the princesses and superheroes that we see today, those really did come on the scene in 20th century.”
Megan Perryman, U.K.-based Let Toys Be Toys, says that she saw the power of targeted ads with her own child.
Perryman stated that she can clearly recall her saying “I don’t want the toy for this boy” in a shop my daughter had learned to read.
She is now working to eradicate gender stereotyping in toy shops. Her group has so far convinced all U.K. retailers not to use the boy-girl label in their stores or websites.
Perryman stated, “To say that ‘construction toys’ is different from ‘boys toys is not harm.” The retailers are not hurt. It’s allowed parents and children to find the toys they want, and it’s been very successful.”
It took a while to bring this idea fully to the USA. Target, a retail giant, eliminated the traditional pink, blue, boy and girl toy aisles in its stores in 2015. It didn’t happen without considerable resistance, as Fox News stated, “God made men and women… To think that we are all gender-neutral would be foolishness.”
Fast forward to the present-day — a 2021 California law requires major retailers to offer a gender-neutral toy section.
But the pushback remains— with some saying it may have to do with the idea that promoting equality in toys is also a way to push for a more non-binary and gender non-conforming society.
Mattel’s first ever gender-free doll line was introduced in 2019. They say it isn’t about gender politics but inclusion.
Sweet suggests that some of the pushback might be cultural and may be related to Americans’ desire for freedom.
Sweet stated that people have difficulty accepting the idea that corporations must be regulated and that they cannot be left to their own will to do the right thing for children.
Despite all the objections and despite the fact that the toymakers are the ones making the changes, they are still moving forward.
LEGO recently made it clear that they will make their toys more inclusive. After research revealed that 76% of parents would encourage LEGO play for a son, compared to 24% for a girl.
Sweet stated, “This call to eliminate gender stereotypes doesn’t seem like a new thing.” “This is more about returning to the way we used to do things.”