Mom & Pop Culture: Beyond Pink & Blue Toys

You would be hard pressed to decipher the gender of my child based on his toy collection alone. At almost five years old, his toys range from a wooden play kitchen (complete with pots, pans & fake food), to a plethora of various toy animals, books galore (from princess ones to Curious George), building blocks, cars, dolls, Legos (oh, so many Legos), dress-up clothes, art supplies, and so on. You might think we had multiple kids—both boys and girls—based on the sheer number of toys, but that’s another post for another day. Sigh.

My son playing with his wood kitchen

The fact is, we’ve never really put much stock into “boy toys” and “girl toys.” Instead, we decided to (gasp!) let our son’s interests dictate our toy selection. Because of that decision, we have come home from our favorite local toy store with both Police Unit Legos and the Cottontail Rabbit Family from Calico Critters. While we’ve been fortunate that friends and family (for the most part) follow our lead and buy or hand down toys to our son based on his interests rather than his gender, I’m also clearly aware that the rest of the country doesn’t always play by similar rules.

Much of this, like most of my grumblings, is related to marketing. We’re a visual nation that has come to heavily rely on the images being sold to us, and in the last twenty years or so, toy companies have focused strongly on promoting gender stereotypes via their actual toys and the commercials selling them.

Images from 2010 Toys R Us Holiday circular showing girls with pink toys and boys with blue

(Images from 2010 Toys R Us holiday circular courtesy of Pigtail Pals)

According to these ads (which mimic what you can find in store aisles) from last year’s Toys R Us holiday circular, girls only like variegating shades of pink and play solely with dolls, clothes, make-up, and princesses. In contrast, boys, surrounded by blue, are future scientists, architects, and construction workers. (We’ll touch on holiday catalogs specifically in more detail in the next Mom & Pop Culture post!)

Much like my issue with princesses, a lot of this goes beyond the “simple” notion of pink vs. blue. Circulars like these (which run throughout the year), and the toy aisles that echo them, continue to reinforce tired stereotypes about boys and girls.

If you know even one kid, you already know they’re more than a stereotype of their gender with a myriad of interests—so why don’t toy manufacturers and ad executives acknowledge this?

Instead, they essentially take away the notion choice from our kids and foist upon them these prescribed ideals of who they are and what they should like/be doing. And sadly, this is starting at earlier and earlier ages. A few months ago I wrote about how toy manufacturers are even beginning their quest to divide toys amongst gender lines with newborns. Babies, who (let’s be honest) don’t even care about the color of the rattle in their hand, are the latest victims in the never ending push to separate toys—and kids—by gender. Many people wonder what the huge problem is when toy companies push pink on girls and blue on boys. After all, a lot of parents are quick to share that their kids just love [insert stereotypically acceptable toy here], so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that if kids are continuously exposed to these stereotypical gender ideals via toys (from birth!) then when/if they feel the urge to step outside these boxes, the reaction can be quite negative. Boys can be teased (by kids and adults alike!) for wanting to play with dolls, while girls’ desires to play with trucks can easily go ignored.

Gone are the Free To Be You & Me days of the ’70s where gender neutrality was promoted. Gone are the days of the ’80s even, when more neutral toys like My Buddy were marketed towards boys and Lego had awesome ads that didn’t fall prey to easy gender stereotypes.

Old Lego ad showing young girl in overalls proudly holding her Lego creation.

Instead we’re faced with toy departments that are heavily segregated by pink or blue. It’s no accident that we’ve moved away from toys that were once deemed okay for all kids to ones that are targeted specifically for a particular gender—marketers are extremely savvy in this regard. But while this might increase companies’ profits, it also increases the chance for negative reactions when a child chooses a something that doesn’t fit into these carefully crafted, color-coded toy aisles.

When people adhere too rigidly to stereotypical norms, especially surrounding gender, it can come as a shock when others choose to circumnavigate these lines—even children. So while toy stores might just say that they’re giving the public what they want, they’re also reinforcing strict gender roles that not everyone wants to play in—or with!

Further Reading: Rules of Play, Toy Ads and Learning About Gender, The Pink & Blue Project

Previously: An Interview With Peggy Orenstein, Muppet Mania

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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13 Comments Have Been Posted

two steps forward, one step back

As I read this article I am struck by the understandable frustration that parents must feel when faced with gender specific toys but I think of the successes that have happened, and the progress that has been made. It is fine for little girls to wear pants, than it ever was in much of our history. It is the job of the parents to make it clear to their children that they are individuals who can decide what they prefer, in regard to color and toys.

God, what i loved Lego ! I

God, what i loved Lego !
I had the bad luck to see the first "girly" version : pastels blocks with horses and drink in the sun. Hated them.
Now they come in a greater variety, and they dedicate aliens and castels and robots to guys... I think it's just sad.

I work in a toy store,

I work in a toy store, thankfully not a big-corporation one, and I always try to recommend 'gender-neutral' toys, like books and puzzles (but even those are divided in pink and blue). While more and more people think that's a good idea, most people still ask for dolls or cars. That's the norm. And there are so many parents that are embarrassed to pay for girl-toys when their son is with them, not so much the other way around. I so wish those LEGO ads would come back, maybe I'll print some off and put them up instead of the ones that are sent to us unwillingly.

I think it's also important

I think it's also important to acknowledge the fact that shopping at local toy stores tends to be much more expensive. I live in a city with so many small, local "mom and pop" toy stores that I love to shop in. However, when the holidays roll around, I usually can't afford to do much of my shopping there. This leaves me stuck wandering the aisles of Walmart and Target desperately trying to find toys that will 1. fit my daughter's interests and 2. not play into overwhelming stereotypes about women and girls. For her birthday this year, I was able to find an easel and paints, but I feel the strain every time I have to buy a gift. I'm a broke grad student who can't afford to shop as responsibly as I'd like to. If anyone has suggestions or online stores they like, I'd love to check them out!


Definitely can use some online suggestions as alternatives to the "box" stores. It's just as bad in my community where the ONLY toy shops are the "box" ones. Walmart is horrid. Over 80 percent of the toys they carry are not at all American-made. They really are very "cheap" and some are even very dangerous.

Shopping local may be expensive, but I know someone of limited means who consciously does that and saves money in the long run because he completely avoids the "box" stores and never buys what he deems "frivolous." ("Extreme Couponing" is NOT an advantage. Having a clean living space is an advantage) It is a valued investment in the long run, because paying some more to shop local helps keep communities thriving. Less taxes passed on to the property owners (for example) so that the sales taxes spent at the local shops focus on supporting the necessities of emergency services, public schools, and libraries.

Online resources

My next post (should be up later today) will review holiday toy catalogs, then give some suggestions for ones that treat kids like actual kids, rather than strictly a gender. Hopefully others will chime in with suggestions as well.

I will say that my go to gifts, regardless of whether the child is a boy or girl, are art supplies. Markers, crayons, paper, play dough (usually home made - so easy!), paint, glitter, glue, etc... i have yet to meet a kid who doesn't like to do art in some form, and art supplies can usually be found on the cheap or made yourself.

Great piece. I was just

Great piece. I was just attempting to buy my little nephew a toy shopping cart for Christmas and discovered how many carts are pink and purple. While I don't really care if I buy him an item that is a so-called girly color, I hesitate to do so because of some of my relatives. I find it ridiculous that toy manufacturers push stereotypes like this. After all, if they marketed their toys to both boys and girls their potential earnings would double! For no other reason, one would think the monetary incentive would drive them!

I never been too fond of pink

I never been too fond of pink so even my few black barbies don't have them. I got sciences kits and bashed around my brothers wrestlers with my dolls. I love game cube even thou I usually always pick a girl character. It's a a shame that girls aren't shown playing with legos or boys in the kitchen. It's similar to the "girls can't play sports and if they do, they aren't girls and cheerleading is a sport!!!!!" movement. For whatever reason, guys seem to think that playing with dolls will make them weak.

What's a good color of a mix of pink and blue?

When I was a little girl my favorite toy was an action figure

When I was a little girl my favorite toy was an action figure, he was from one of my Favorite cartoons and one of my favorite comic books. Yes I was a little girl who played with male action figures and comic books, so of course that puts me in the role of tomboy. No it doesn't. Because I also played with She-Ra and Barbie, alongside my comic book based shows I also watched My Little Pony and Strawberry shortcake. Alongside reading my action adventure and science fiction novels I also read Sweet Valley High and The Baby Sitters club. My brother was raised the same way he played with action figures in my doll house and with my Polly pockets alongside his pocket sized Star Wars toys (which I always tried to steal) we watched the same TV. shows X-Men the cartoon, Pound Puppies, it didn't matter because my mother never told us it was wrong, that girls were supposed to play house, while boys played at war. Although when we got new action figures (which are really just dolls whose hair you can't brush) she always took away any guns that might have come with them, to her there were certain lines not to cross and making murderous weapons into a toy was that line. As I grew older I became more grateful to my mother for not imposing these gender constraints on me or my brother. She wouldn't have minded if either of us preferred the same sex or the opposite sex as long as we weren't hurting anyone. As we grew both of us developed an interest in the opposite sex despite what others might have considered a strange upbringing.
I never realized until I grew why my girl friends played with Barbie and my boy friends played with G.I.Joe while my brother and I played with both, it wasn't until I realized that it was because their parent were afraid, afraid the would catch that "dreaded" affliction known as homosexuality, as if it were a illness that could be cured by Sudafed and a dose of "gender appropriate" entertainment. I have come to realize that if I ever have a son or daughter (which I am not entirely sure I want children or marriage despite what society says as a woman I should want) but if I were to have children, instead of automatically buying a princess for her or a toy gun for him for a holiday or birthday: I will kneel down to their child like height and ask as my mother asked, "What do you want?"

Spatial Divide

A few years ago I read a book on connection games (Cameron Browne), and to my surprise the last few section were about the large gender gap present in the player group of this particular type of games. It was very well written (and if I recall correctly Mr. Browne seemed firmly convinced that this was NOT some "women just aren't as naturally good at math" effect), and he made the point that the majority of "spatial" toys - toys that are believed to increase one's spatial ability such as lego or erector sets, or even chess - are marketed primarily for boys.

I can't say that this is accurate, or how big of an impact it may have on one's spatial ability, but I find even the possibility of a connection there utterly fascinating: that these toys, which are often perceived to help kids in thinking mathematically and scientifically, are marketed away from girls and towards boys.

A funny thought...

I was just musing..... It seems (to me, at least) that even though things like kitchen play sets, art kits, and make your own fashion type sets are massively marketed to girls it is the boys that grow up and take over those pursuits. They are the ones that are mostly the artists, the celebrity chefs, and fashion designers that get the most public recognition.

So a boy can grow up to have a 4 star restaurant but God forbid he play with a pink play kitchen. And girls can revel in the cult of domesticity, but don't expect any career to come of it.

Just my inarticulate 2 cents.

It starts early

We have tried all along with my 5 year old boy to give him what he wants and promote gender flexibility. He has stuffed animals and a baby doll as well as astronauts, lots and lots of lego, and pirates galore. But already before he turned five he would look at toy catalogs (from toy stores/companies selling lots of wooden and gender-neutral learning toys to bougie parents like me) and ask first whether a toy was for boys before he would say whether he liked it. It's not just adults policing these gender lines; kids police themselves all too young.

Policing Gender

It certainly starts young, and it's because that's what kids are seeing all around us. We can promote gender fluidity as much as we want in our own homes, but unless we're hermits, our kids are going to be exposed to the marketing that pushes traditional gender stereotypes everywhere. In TV shows/commercials, magazines, grocery stores, shopping centers, billboards, school, overhearing adult conversations, etc... Kids are total little sponges and absorb all of this in and sooner or later are able to make the connections themselves, you know?

So, we do our best - we keep offering alternatives, keep modeling gender fluidity in the home, and keep correcting wrong assumptions about one gender or the other as they come up.

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