What Happens When Dads Buy Sexist Toys?

Fathers are doing more of the family shopping, and more of the caregiving, too. So are these new Barbie construction sets for girls, or for their dads?

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In Stephanie Clifford's front-page New York Times article on the changing face of Barbie's many accessories, she points out that "fathers are doing more of the family shopping just as girls are being encouraged more than ever by hypervigilant parents to play with toys (as boys already do) that develop math and science skills early on." So, score one point for Barbie construction sets—the Mega Bloks Barbie Build 'n Style line, in this particular case, being produced for girls—except take that point away because it took us "Dads Who Shop" to get there. Are these new construction sets for girls, or for their fathers? They are still very, very pink, as you can see below (that's the mansion).

Clifford explains that more toys (for girls) are getting dad-friendly because, with more women working, kids are increasingly likely going to grow up with dads who do the parenting work traditionally designated as "mom duty." And, so the marketing reasoning goes, if the dads (or perhaps the "Brooklyn Mannies") are playing with the Barbie sets, those Barbie sets should be appealing to men, too. As Clifford writes,

“Once it’s in the home, dads would very much be able to join in this play that otherwise they might feel is not their territory,” said Dr. Maureen O’Brien, a psychologist who consulted on the new Barbie set.

My reaction to this is mixed. It's good that the "befuddled dad" concept is going by the by; it's good that dads are playing with their daughters; it's good if kids can play with toys good for their learning and spatial development that also happen to be not sexist—though railing on every toy that's not explicitly "gender neutral" makes me a little bummed, too. Girls and boys should both be able to enjoy pink things, or princesses, just as girls and boys should be able to play with trucks. The problem is not the toys per se, it's our assumptions about who should play with them, and why. And that's why I get a little stuck with the idea that dads need to be "comfortable" playing with toys their daughters enjoy. I fear this isn't progress so much as another kind of sexism, by way of marketing. As Alex Balk headlines his interpretation of the story today in The Awl, "Girls Now Almost As Valuable As Boys." 

But a further look reveals not terribly surprisingly that what this is really about is not gender equality or helping girls succeed in math and science but about making money. What's primarily shifted is the buyer, and therefore the marketing to the buyer. Consumer products have been traditionally purchased by women, so they were marketed as such. Now that men are buying more, the marketing has changed, and not just with toys, but throughout the realm of shopping. (Remember the "man aisle," and the rise of gender-based selling?) This isn't about equality, it's about business. And yet, if the push for profit helps us move beyond preconceived conceptions and stereotypes about what people should buy or kids should play with, perhaps it's more of a good thing than a bad one? It's unclear, however, whether that's the truly case. For one, the Mega Bloks line has been criticized for being sexist itself, with themes including "a beauty studio and a fashion studio." Here's the pet shop; like the other products in the line, it's pretty "girly." But the construction part is for dads! As Clifford writes, 

“Dad is a bigger influencer in terms of toy purchases over all, and this sets up well for that, because the construction category is something Dad grew up with and definitely has strong feelings and emotions about,” said Vic Bertrand, chief innovation officer of Mega Brands, Mega Bloks’ parent company.

On the plus side, "construction toys aimed at girls will represent about 20 percent of the toy construction category by the end of this year, while last year there were just a handful of products," and these kinds of toys—i.e., blocks, puzzles, and construction sets—have been shown to help kids develop spatial thinking skills. Better developed spatial thinking means kids more likely to ultimately end up in math, engineering, science, and tech jobs. It's adults, not kids, who have traditionally kept kids from playing with such toys. But those attitudes are shifting, so this is progress of a kind, even if it's pink, and of course a Barbie product—albeit one intended to appeal to some extent to dads, too. Doesn't this all seem awfully complicated and convoluted, though? As one New York Times commenter, Carol Goldstein, puts it, "Just get them real Legos, please. But glad to hear the Dads are shopping. As mine did 50 plus years ago."

The one group here who can't be accused of any latent stereotyping are the kids themselves. Clifford writes, "'Girls don’t necessarily care about, ‘That’s a boy toy; that’s not for me,’ ” said Ms. Cota of Mattel. 'Now, more so than ever, girls are looking at what’s fun, what they like.'” Who among us wanted to play with trucks and dolls, too, as kids? [Raises hand]. May the best toys win. Or, in times of uncertainty ... give the gift of stocks?

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