Will Toys Ever Go Beyond Blue and Pink?

Products marketed to children are more divided by gender stereotypes than ever, but the Internet is increasingly offering alternatives to Hot Wheels and Barbies.

A man pushes a child in shopping cart in the toy department at Target. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

Walking into a toy store, it doesn’t take long to see the differences between girls’ and boys’ toys. Pinks and purples and frills and bows dominate some aisles; others are filled with blues and grays and greens, or trucks and tiny soldiers. It’s a color-coded minefield that can affect children’s development in pernicious ways, suggesting what they should like to do and who they should aspire to be before they’ve had the opportunity to figure that out on their own.

Today, toys are more divided by gender stereotypes than they were 50 years ago, thanks to broader marketing shifts in the industry and worldwide. But over the last five years there’s been increasing interest in shifting the paradigm, sparking debate that both toy companies and the White House are paying attention to. Meanwhile, the Internet has given gender-neutral and non-stereotypical toys a chance to find buyers outside of big-box retailers, providing new options for parents who want their children to be able to play with toys based on their interests rather than their gender.

According to the sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, toy companies began intensifying their use of color-coded marketing and segregation of toys in the 1980s. “I think it happened really gradually,” Sweet said. “It wasn’t until the late 2000s, the 2010s, that people really started to notice. Now it’s undeniable.” This is concerning, she said, because “it encourages a culture where gender stereotypes define a way of life for children.”

Gender-based compartmentalization in stores and online is meant to help customers find what they’re looking for, but according to the campaigner and parent Jess Day of the nonprofit Let Toys Be Toys, “it’s driven by a massive assumption about what a child might want.” Rather than encouraging experimentation and urging children to play with whatever excites them, toy companies presume that girls are less interested in toys that build spatial-reasoning skills (like Legos) and boys don’t want to play with toys that encourage verbal skills and creativity (like Barbies). This can have a serious impact on kids’ future skill sets and career aspirations, ultimately affecting the makeup of the workforce. The negative aspects of stereotyping are well documented; one study of more than 100 toys showed that heavily gender-coded toys were less likely to promote cognitive development than gender-neutral toys.

Let Toys Be Toys’s biggest target is segregation by aisle, because it reflects the infrastructure of toy companies, where separate divisions develop products for gendered shelves. “The categories that you create dictate what goes into them,” Day said. The division ends up reinforcing gender stereotypes and making it more difficult for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive toys to find space in stores.

Still, the Internet has allowed independent toymakers with unorthodox ideas to reach consumers directly through personal websites and crowd-funding platforms. IAmElemental, a set of female action figures with names like Bravery, Energy, and Persistence, launched on Kickstarter in 2014. Now they’re stocked in dozens of independent toy stores across the country. Wonder Crew, which makes dolls for boys meant to encourage empathy and kindness, also started with a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign about a year ago. Today the company delivers to all 50 states and will begin shipping its dolls—neutrally called “Crewmates”overseas in the fall. Before crowdfunding was the norm, Ayah Bdeir, the founder of a company called littleBits that markets its science toys to all children, started with a prototype on her website before raising venture capital.

Still, problems can arise even when toy startups are successful enough to garner attention from large retailers like Target or Toys ‘R’ Us. Despite Wonder Crew’s independent success, the company’s founder Laurel Wider has faced some difficulties getting her product into big-box stores. One store, she said, expressed interest in Wonder Crew, but the dolls-for-boys didn’t have a natural place within the company’s rigid framework. “Do they send me to the doll buyer, who is in the pink section?” she said. “Or do they send me to the action figures? But that doesn’t really fit [either].”

The gendered classification of toys is reflected at the industry level as well. February’s Toy Industry Association awards still had prizes for “Boy Toy of the Year” and “Girl Toy of the Year,” and the nominees neatly conformed to the categories: “Boy Toy” finalists included a Hot Wheels garage and three Star Wars toys, while a Girl Scout cookie oven and a sing-a-long Elsa doll from the movie Frozen made the “Girl Toy” short list. Dan Nessel, who founded the toy and gadget site DadDoes, decided to push back this year, launching a Change.org petition to end the separate awards. “I am a dad to two wonderful children, and I see how their view of the world is shaped everyday, based on what they do and what they play with,” Nessel told The Washington Post. “I do believe these awards are harmful. Every stereotype does harm by definition. If we don’t have awards for Best Computer for Men and Best Computer for Women, why in the world do we have these awards for toys?”

While the Toy Industry Association didn’t directly address Nessel’s concerns, his message gained traction online, and in general social media and grassroots campaigning on the Internet has proven effective. Some companies are beginning to see the benefits of reorganization. In the U.K., 14 toy stores have dropped gender labels, and 2014 research showed that only half of British toy websites were using gender as a category online, a drop of 46 percent in two years. In October 2015, Toys ‘R’ Us’s global chief merchandising officer, Richard Barry, told The New York Times, “What we’re seeing is that there are different play patterns that appeal to different kids, and gender lines are not necessarily what drives that.”

The U.S. (left) vs. U.K. (right) navigation on the Toys ‘R’ Us sites

However, while Toys ‘R’ Us’s U.K. website dropped gender labels in late 2015, the company’s U.S. website still presents gender as the most important category for their toys even though their physical outlets are no longer organized by gender. According to a spokeswoman for the company, this approach simply offers search criteria that some customers might want. But the problem is of the chicken-and-egg variety—do customers search by gender because that’s how toys have been traditionally organized, or are the search options there because customers only want gendered toys?

The issue of gender-segregated toys has become a hot-button topic in the culture wars. In August of 2015, Target eliminated its pink and blue aisles, following the precedent that is quickly becoming an international norm, and faced a huge backlash. The anger against companies who are removing gendered signage in stores comes from a belief that stereotypes simply reflect “natural” differences between the sexes. “The idea of gender difference, just that men and women, boys and girls, are categorically different, holds a very deep place in our culture,” Sweet said. “People really want to believe that the differences we see are biologically based even if it doesn’t hold up scientifically.”

While the debate continues in the U.S., Toca Boca, a company in Sweden that makes apps for children, has found that a gender-neutral philosophy can be profitable as well as well-intentioned. “What we try to do with our digital toys is really inspire kids to be creative, be exploratory, to widen their imagination,” said Mathilda Engman, Toca Boca’s head of consumer products. “I don’t see that being linked to gender in any way.”

For Björn Jeffery, Toca Boca’s co-founder and CEO, the company’s emphasis on gender neutrality means that they can sell their products to more people. But Toca Boca has also been financially successful because its business is entirely online. The app store—a large marketplace that doesn’t insist on gender categories and has unlimited shelf space—was exactly the ecosystem Toca Boca needed to launch in 2011. Five years later, the company’s 31 apps have been downloaded more than 100 million times.

According to Jeffery, the awareness surrounding toys and stereotypes has exploded over the last five years. “When we launched, it was an unusual thing. I don’t think that it’s very unusual now.”

Toca Boca’s designers pay close attention to body language, poses, and colors in order to avoid more subtle stereotypes. “It’s all those small nuances that really [make a difference],” Engman said. “It’s so easy to end up [creating] a shy girl and a cool boy.” She and her team use a checklist of questions to create characters and situations that are fun and inclusive for all children; they often include animals so that children who don’t want to pick one gender have a character to identify with.

A still from Toca Hair Salon (Toca Boca)

In the company’s most recent app, Toca Dance, all the characters have the same moves and clothing options, regardless of gender. Its bestselling app, Toca Hair Salon, is another example of how thoughtful consideration of gender stereotypes can lead to a more successful game. Hair-styling apps are traditional marketed to girls, but Toca Hair Salon has male, female, and animal characters who can wear their hair however the child desires—long, short, or otherwise—and has proven to be equally popular with both sexes.

What’s more, the apps themselves come in a gender-neutral package. “The tablet itself looks the same whatever the child is doing, which is actually incredibly liberating,” Day said. “No one can point and laugh at you when they can’t see what you’re doing.”

Still, many consumers seem happy to shop along gender lines, and gender-inclusive toys tend to be on the higher end of the market and target progressive parents with time and money to spend. But with the Internet encouraging greater awareness and enabling the production of countless new toys, a revolution within the industry could be on the horizon. As Day said: “Parents and educators and people in the toy industry are realizing that we need to do better by our kids.”