On Toys and Gender

Barbies - Amy Dempsey, Torstar.jpg

No North American under the age of 60 can remember a time when the issue of gender bias in children's toys was not a matter of the utmost cultural and political urgency. Indeed, there have been times—including the present, apparently—when it has erupted into a full-blown moral panic.

Take four-year-old "Ada," for example, one of the kids profiled in the Toronto Star's recent feature on gender and toys. Ada's parents are über-progressive Gen-Xers who raised her on "toys carefully selected to develop problem-solving skills and foster curiosity about the way the world works." And what do you know? Starting just after her third birthday, Ada has been in a "princess phase," where she remains. “I’ve got to say, it breaks my heart a little bit,” says her mom. The same remorse is expressed by "Guinevere," another parent profiled in the Star article. As a kid she loved her Tonka toy, but what do you know? Her own daughter "prefers stuffed animals and dinosaurs." 

Tonka - Hasbro.jpg

The Star piece rolls out the usual theories from the usual suspects to explain this perennial paradox—the ebbs and flows of feminist theory, schoolyard peer pressure and, of course, the pernicious influence of indifferent toy-makers and retailers. But where stands the actual research after all these decades? This is where things get interesting. Even among academic researchers—most of whom appear to be fully committed to the cause of gender-neutralizing toys—the consensus is that "both biological and social factors influence kids’ choices about what toys to play with and how to play with them. Nature and nurture. Not one or the other." As for the secretive toy manufacturers and retailers (Walmart, Amazon, and Toys R Us refused to talk to the Star), those willing to speak on the record cite "focus group research" like Lego Corp's four-year study showing that—wait for it—"boys and girls gravitate toward different toys."

Progressive parents will not be shocked at these findings, nor should they be the least demoralized when their sons and daughters fall into "stereotypical" patterns of gendered play. The point of the Barbie store display in the Star piece (shown above) is not that the dominant colour is fuchsia and aimed at girls. It's the tag line. You can be anything.