Mom & Pop Culture: McGender: Unpacking the Happy Meal

Ronald McDonald

I’m not a fan of McDonald’s for a variety of reasons, but beyond their tasty unhealthy food they are a perfect example of how marketing has changed over the years to further push gender stereotypes upon consumers.

McDonald’s is known for their Happy Meals—those flimsy cardboard boxes that include not only a greasy, high in fat & sodium meal, but also a “toy.” I use the term “toy” lightly, because we all know it’s just code for a plastic piece of crap that will break within a day of bringing it home. However, even I will admit that as a kid I was totally stoked for that plastic piece of crap, and in our rare trips to the golden arches, I always found myself more excited to see what toy I got than to eat my chicken nuggets.

But here’s the thing. I can’t remember my mom or dad ever being asked “boy or girl?” when they ordered a Happy Meal back in the ’80s. Today, that’s the first question asked. Today the toys are so heavily gendered that McEmployees are probably instructed to ask this question every single time.

This wasn’t always the case. The Happy Meal was introduced in 1977, and the toys were completely gender neutral ones that anybody could enjoy. These included things like a “McDoodler” stencil or a plastic tumbler.

McDonald's tumbler glass
(They soon took these off the market apparently. Yikes.)

Then the ’80s hit and toys started getting a bit more “hi-tech,” although still not really gender focused. I can remember my brother and I arguing over who got the “McNugget Croc” versus the “Fry Bot.”

McDonald Happy Meal Toys circa mid-80s

McDonald’s got hip to the fact that they could make even more money by getting other corporations to sponsor their plastic crap and soon familiar faces from TV and movies started appearing in our Happy Meals. But still…they were pretty innocuous (and okay, pretty cool to my ten-year-old self).

Fraggle Rock Happy Meal Toys

Fraggles in vegetable cars! (pretty much the only veggies you’ll find at McD’s!)

Peanuts Happy Meal Toys

The Peanuts Gang!

Rescue Rangers Happy Meal Toys

Don’t tell me you don’t remember Rescue Rangers! Gadget was a smart, badass female character, even if she was a rodent.

But as time went on, the toys slowly started leaning towards one gender or the other. As the ’90s hit, instead of “Which Fraggle/Smurf/Animated TV character would you like?” it became…. “Boy or girl?”

Why? Was McDonald’s not selling enough fries or heart attacks? I’m sure profit provided a motive, but couldn’t they have just kept on with the gender neutral plastics?

Barbie vs Hot Wheels Happy Meal Toys


So now, my child can either get a Barbie (with hair you can style!) or a race car. Sure, nobody is saying that if your little boy wanted the Barbie Happy Meal he couldn’t get it (though you’d have to ask for the “girl” meal to give it to him), but why the push to even offer toys segregated by gender?

I’m not so sure what McDonald’s perceived as broken, since they obviously implemented a “fix.” If you drive up to a McDonald’s today and order a Happy Meal, these will be your toy choices—based on your child’s gender, of course:

Current Happy Meal Toy


Certainly, McDonald’s isn’t the only one playing into the whole gender stereotype problem, but it doesn’t hurt to take a look at their marketing over the years and question WHY they are doing it and why they’ve changed it up. A lot of the answers can be connected to profit, as well as the various companies to which McDonald’s has ties. Marketing already plays such a huge role in our daily lives (whether we’re aware of it or not) that it never hurts to tune in and question the motives behind why companies make the choices they do.

McDonald’s: Super Sizing gender since the mid ’90s.

Previously: Occupy Sesame Street! How Not To Lose Your Activist Spirit

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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24 Comments Have Been Posted

In the 80's, I had a birthday

In the 80's, I had a birthday party at McDonalds. I have a gender neutral name, so the staff was unaware that I would be a girl and had already set out my gift, a matchbox car. The girl working told me "if Ronald had known you were a girl, you would have gotten a different toy." It didn't matter to me, because I had always had matchbox cars growing up, but this gender trend has been happening for a while.

I don't get it either. Maybe

I don't get it either. Maybe because this way they get to earn more sponsor dollars because they can offer two promotions each month?

When my daughter was of an age to eat McD's, we often got the "boy" toys because they were often cooler and/or more in line with her interests. I got used to just saying, "what toys do you have this week?" when we were at the counter, which circumvented the whole gender thing. (I do think they are taught to ask "boy or girl" as part of staff training.)

OMG. Not to totally ignore

OMG. Not to totally ignore the point, but I remember so many of those toys from my childhood. MOM! How often did you take us to McDonald's!?!?!?

I KNOW. I'm pretty sure I

I KNOW. I'm pretty sure I still have a Fry Bot lying around somewhere in my house.

Wow, did we really go to

Wow, did we really go to McDonald's that often or did we just go when they had cool toys? Me & the sibs definitely had the McNugget Croc, Fry Bot, Purple Flying Guy, and at least two from each set of Fraggles, Peanuts, and Rescue Rangers.

Later on in childhood we would stop at McDonald's every Monday after religion class on the way to visit my grandpa in his nursing home. Hmm.. and now I have a strong distaste for McDonald's, nursing homes, and Catholicism. Coincidence? HAPPY MEAL TOYS COULDN'T SAVE ME.

The few times my parents took

The few times my parents took me to McDonalds, I always remember the person at the counter asking me (not my parents) which toy I wanted, which was nice because given the choice I'd always take a Hotwheels over Barbie. They were one of my favorite toys growing up. I was a "girly" child (always in skirts of skorts, with bows in my hair) but not once was I just given the girl toy without the employee asking "what toy do you want?" This experience might not be typical since we rarely went to McDonalds, but have they really switched the employee line to "girl toy or boy toy" now?


...From what I've heard, yes. We don't frequent McDonald's, and my son has actually yet to ever eat a Happy Meal, however there's no denying that they certainly market specific toys for "boy" and "girl." I've also been told numerous times by various people across the country that they're asked "Boy or Girl Happy Meal" when they've gone. I'm sure it's also dependent on the individual employee as well.


I was given to understand by the media that McDonalds no longer gave out "toys" in the Happy Meals? I don't have small children anymore, thus no reason for Mc'ds (thank God) but I saw on tv they are not putting toys in them anymore?

They Still Are!

Happy Meals still definitely include a toy. In fact, the last picture is what is currently being given out in Happy Meals at McDonald's today. At least here in the US...I'm not sure if it's different outside the States...

San Francisco

You might be thinking of the ban in San Francisco, which banned Happy Meal toys: "The measure will make San Francisco the first major city in the country to forbid restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat. The ordinance would also require restaurants to provide fruits and vegetables with all meals for children that come with toys."

So, I pretty much read this

So, I pretty much read this article, agreed with it wholeheartedly, and then went OMG HELLO KITTYYYYY!!

I am a bad feminist or something.

Totally not a bad feminist!

Totally not a bad feminist! HK is super awesome, that's not the issue. The issue is that they so clearly divide their toys amongst gender lines. I would bet that if I took my kid to McD's today he would want HK over the other toy (i have no idea what it actually is).

My main issue is why did they have to go and fix a good thing - they had so many fabulous gender neutral toys for so long and then, bam! Mid 90s hit and it's all "Boy or Girl." A sign of the times, marketing, or...?

Lol, whew! I realized much

OMG, my browser wouldn't

I work at McDonald's (I

I work at McDonald's
(I don't brag about it) and it is all but standard procedure to ask "For a boy or a girl?" I cannot say with confidence that this is written into any training manual, but asking "boy or girl" is something employees must do. I remember a couple of years ago, one manager instructed us that we were supposed to instead say "Would you like a Hotwheels or Barbie toy?" (for example) an just leave gender of of it. But that has never been truly implemented and that is the last I heard of the genderless toy questions.

Whenever McDonald's has a gender neutral toy, it's such a relief. But recently, I gave a mother the toy (a cat) and she sneers at it and goes "This is the BOY toy?"
I said "Yes this is the toy for boys and girls" but I -wanted- to say "DOES IT MATTER?"

good teaching moments

This actually reminds me of

This actually reminds me of when, many many years ago in a strange time known as the '90s, I couldn't get the pink Power Ranger toy (which I totally wanted) that one time I was actually given the option. Oh mom...

Girls like puzzles too!

One thing that always really bothered me was that boys' toys were often a lot more complex than the girls' ones. I might not have particularly liked transformers, but I am a big puzzle fan, and you can bet that when the choice was a barbie or something I could put together and rearrange, the doll was second best.

I'm wondering if MacDonald's marketers have ever even really thought of that. Maybe the "boys make things, girls make things pretty" narrative is so engrained that they never question whether little girls would rather build something.

Pop Culture's Stereotypes

When I was younger, growing up with a twin brother, my mom always switched stereotypical toys: I received the "boy" toy and my brother received the "girl" toy. As opposite sex twins, we frequently received gifts that were gendered and my mom routinely switched them. In the end, we both liked the toys meant for the boys better; It turns out that hot wheels are much more entertaining than barbie dolls.
As I grew older I always wondered what my mom was trying to prove or whether she had an ulterior motive for her actions. In reality she was just frustrated with pop cultures consistant stereotyping and did not feel that children should be forced into stereotypes at such a young age. She wanted us to choose the things we liked more without the constant societal pressure to fall into line with our gender.
This seems to be very similar to racial stereotypes that are enforced by pop culture such as straight hair or slim figures. Are there examples of racial stereotypes being enforced on children, specifically, today?

Last I was at Mcdonalds was

Last I was at Mcdonalds was about two months ago, and I always get a kids' meal when I go there (smaller portion sizes, plus the option of getting apples instead of fries, just makes it seem a better idea), and I swear, the boys' toy was like Ben10 or something, and the girls' toy was little plastic models of those sparkly sneakers that little girls like to wear now. Seriously, fucking shoes. Because we need to make little girls become shoe addicts when they're young or something, because WOMEN LOVE SHOES.
I got the boys' toy, which is now my cat's toy, and haven't been back since because I think both the food and the need for such a strict division in gender (and telling children what they're supposed to like) is unhealthy.

Girl or boy?

I remember from when I was younger growing up in the 90s going to McDonald's and my mom being asked if the happy meal was for a boy or a girl. One day I do remember asking the cashier I wanted the "boy's toy" and the cashier would not give it to me because I was a girl. Being so young I do not remember what exactly happened next, but I do know I did leave with the "boy's toy". I look back at it now and just cannot believe she even said that to me.

Gendered toys are not a solution to a problem, just about profit

The first time I remember McDonald's having gendered toys was when they started what seems like their now annual Barbie/Hot Wheels promotion. Both toy franchises are owned by Mattel, who invests a great deal in gendering their toys. Obviously, being able to reach their target demographic via the medium of a Happy Meal is a marketing win or they wouldn't keep doing it. I think McDonald's realized that they could charge twice as much (or at least a premium) if they gave marketers access to the demographics they wanted. When a movie studio wants to target their movie at both genders, kids get the ungendered toys. When a toy company or television channel wants to target boys for their new line of "boy" toys, Mcdonald's is willing to gender the toys. I think what this unpacks is simply the pervasiveness of gendering in all product marketing and the profit it generates for different markets.

If there was a "problem" that needed to be solved, I think it is actually boys that are the issue here: they are more gendered when it comes to toys than girls. A boy playing with a Barbie is much less socially accepted than a girl playing with a Hot Wheels. They also won't go see "girl movies."

Shallow article

Look at the toy section of any store that sells toys. It's always heavily divided by gender. To blame McDonald's is a bit short-sighted, when this is emblematic of the toy industry at large. Children's media is heavily gender-fied, and the media brands translate directly into the toys.

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