Mom & Pop Culture: Cataloged Stereotypes

It happens every year. Right around the start of November, my mailbox gets stuffed with catalogs. I have no clue where they come from or how these companies get my name. All I know is that during the winter holidays they infiltrate my house, bringing their crappy stereotypes with them.

A bunch of various toy catalogs that I've amassed over the last few weeks

Ads in these catalogs go beyond the usual gender stereotypes of girls playing with kitchens and dolls (or using only female pronouns in the write ups for the doll toys: “Her First Doll! She’ll Love it!”) and boys playing with trucks. When I sift through the catalogs that have accumulated over the last couple of weeks, I notice something else that makes my blood boil.

In almost all of the catalogs that use child models, the boys are actively playing while the girls passive. One catalog in particular stands out to me. “Young Explorers” presents itself as a company that sells “creative educational products.” Even the name suggests that the toys they sell are geared towards children who like to actively explore. However, one look at the cover and you can tell this isn’t quite the case. A boy is excitedly playing with a remote controlled toy as the girl contentedly looks on from behind her…sewing machine.

Cover of "Young Explorers" toy catalog, featuring a girl playing with a sewing machine and a boy playing with a hovercraft

Now, I have nothing against sewing machines. In fact, I have one! I even use it on occasion. But, that’s beside the point. The cover of the Young Explorers catalog not only pushes stereotypical gender roles (boys love loud things that move, and girls like toys that simulate domesticity) but also reinforces the notion that boys are active, while girls hang out quietly on the sidelines.

This presumption continues throughout the catalog. Boys are seen building towers, playing laser tag, skateboarding, and shooting arrows. Girls are pictured combing hair (as part of “Beauty School in a Box”, showing off bedazzled denim purses, and proudly holding up homemade quilts.

When viewed individually, none of these products/ads are all that offensive. Many of the toys featured actually look like fun. However, when you put them all together, the not-so-subtle message that girls don’t dig active toys is loud and clear.

This goes further than pushing “girl toys” and “boy toys,” and can be much more damaging than separating things along pink and blue color lines. Instead, it’s ignoring huge segments of girls who actually enjoy outdoor activities, sports, engineering, science, and more. While little girls may not be sitting down and flipping through these catalogs on a daily basis, they’re likely to take a look, especially around the holidays when they’re delivered in abundance.

What message will these girls see?

They”ll see other young girls engaged in primarily domestic activities. Parents or well-meaning family and friends who pick up these catalogs might bypass a pogo stick or science kit for a young girl because they’re coded as “boy toys.”

While I know that it’s unrealistic to have every toy advertised equally to boys and girls, is it too much to ask that companies spread it around a little? Toss a microscope the way of a little girl…Perhaps show a boy fabric looping a pot holder.

Thankfully there are a small handful of catalogs that do their best to show kids (regardless of gender) of all types playing with a range of toys, yet they’re certainly in the minority (toy catalogs/companies I’ve found that aren’t overtly gender stereotyped—please add your suggestions in the comments: Nova Natural, One Step Ahead). Perhaps more will catch on eventually, but I’m not holding my breath just yet. Until then, I should probably look into getting myself on the unsubscribe list to prevent this inevitable irritation next year.

Related: Toy Advertising & Gender Messages (Achilles Effect)

Previously: Muppet Mania, Beyond Pink & Blue Toys

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

i don't have an alternative,

i don't have an alternative, but when i looked at one step ahead the first thing i saw was blue=boy, pink=girl, followed by a girl playing with a doll house, a girl cooking, and a boy riding an exciting dragon...

Hmm. boy's toys + girl's

Hmm. boy's toys + girl's toys. Just for some background on me: I'm a guy over 30. I've worked for a few years, in the past, at a Toys R Us store. Also worked at some "Kay Bee Toys" stores.
I suppose that there will be, maybe, always will be some toys, that are marketed to be boy-like or girl-like toys.

Maybe, some year, 80% of toys in stores, will be kind of gender-neutral.

It does, however, kind if burn me, that in 2011, in the U.S.A., that there are the creepy labels of: "boys toys" and "girls toys".


It's hard for me to believe that there are still such things as "girls toys" and "boys toys" in this day and age. In fact, it seems like it's even worse than when I was a kid. This disgusts me to no end. I shop online quite a bit, and am livid over the fact that, while Xmas shopping for my 2 year old niece, I learned that the website has children's clothing and bedroom accessories, and also their holiday toy catalog, arranged into "boys" and "girls" sections. It's just horrifying that companies, the media, and many of us are still perpetuating this myth.

Color-Coded Machinery

My son wanted a sewing machine really bad for his birthday, so we got him one. He loves any kind of machinery and was thrilled when I helped him make a pillow. The bummer was that every sewing machine I found was pink or purple and flowery--"feminized" in appearance. I don't remember that being the case when I was little. My childhood toy sewing machine looked like a real one, shrunk down. We settled for purple. (Note: the machine pictured in the Young Explorers catalog costs almost as much as a real one--way out of our price range.)

He's also obsessed with RC cars, boats and airplanes and has a bunch of those as well--most of his toy choices are stereotypically "boyish"--science kits, playground equipment, racing cars, etc. He wanted a knitting machine too but they're kind of expensive and come with yards of pink and purple sparkly yarn--not his favorite colors. Why not orange? Or BLUE? I wish marketers would get more creative. Those big, pink Barbie aisles in toy stores make me nervous.

Mindware's catalog is, while

Mindware's catalog is, while not perfect, much less offensive than the others I've seen. They do not categorize their toys by boy/girl to begin with, and then many of their more gender-neutral toys (science activities, active games, games, etc) have girls in the pictures in active roles (rather than passively watching). Also, the ad text only refers to "kids" regardless of the product, and avoids gender terms (I only found one mention specifically of girls and that was for a kit to make your own ribbon barrettes).
On the negative side, most of the arts&crafts things seem to be oriented towards girls and have girls in the pictures, but then there is a picture of a young boy wearing an apron with a baking set.

Good for them! Thanks for the

Good for them! Thanks for the suggestion, I will look up Mindware. It's horrid that we still have to be on the lookout for this constantly. Sad that a catalog using "kids" instead of "boys" or "girls" is like, super awesome, but it's a step in the right direction, a big one I think. Maybe the editors read the Bitch blogs?

Just as a small glimmer of

Just as a small glimmer of hope; I was shopping online recently for a toy broom and vacuum for my son since these are his favorite "big people things" to try to use and I wanted to get him a little version so he can "help". First, I noticed while reading the reviews of toy brooms and "housekeeping sets" on Amazon, that more than half of them were from parents of little boys who love to help with sweeping/mopping/vacuuming etc. Obviously this is just as popular a pretend play activity for boys as for girls. Atleast while they are still toddlers. Good for these parents for encouraging it and getting their little boys toys to engage in play domestic tasks. Also, almost all of them were in primary colors- red, yellow, blue.

One of the main food

One of the main food distributer of my country did a nice job at not displaying guys toy with blue and girls with pink. Baby dolls are associated with cleaning and washing, but not on a pink cover AND with both male and female characters of the brand.

You still read that girls will love their new doll but, you know, in small. It's far better than last year =)


It's hard as a mum to determine whether or not you should buy your kids all these new gadgets that are available on the market today like iPads and Xbox's and the likes. Or to stick to the more educational kids toys. Very insightful post thanks for sharing

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