Battling Gender Stereotypes in the Toy Store (and Other Subliminal Places)

I took a trip today to the toy store to buy a birthday gift for my nephew.  My boys are older and I tend to order online so it has been a while since I ventured into a store dedicated only to toys.  As an early childhood professional, I found the entire event disturbing.

I walked into the store and found the pink things on the left.  The pink things included dolls, kitchens, princess outfits and house cleaning items.  The blue things were on the right.  The cars, tools, military and action figures were entrenched in the blue section.   We wanted pirate dress up items which I thought would be in a dress up section for both sexes.   I couldn’t be more wrong.  I wandered for a while before I found what I needed.   Imagine my surprise when I found that pirates cannot be included in a section with princess gowns.  The princess gowns spanned aisles on the pink side while the pirates and knights got one small rack in the blue section.    I suppose that the theory is that this gender separation makes it easy for parents to find just the right items for their boys and girls. I fear that the subliminal messages are more damaging than helpful.

It is the year 2013 – the year that the Supreme Court found DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was unconstitutional. It is the year that LGBT rights have taken a front seat and those of us with teens can clearly see how insane they think it is that the battle for the civil rights of this community is even an issue.  Facebook is full of profile photos with the Human Rights Campaign’s symbol for equality in support of gay marriage.  And yet – our toy stores and commercials are full of subliminal (and not so subliminal) messages about what roles are for boys and what roles are for girls.

As an early childhood educator for many years, I know that gender stereotypes don’t exist until we impose them.  In our classrooms, boys like to vacuum and play with the dollhouse.  Girls like to build with blocks, fix things and play with cars.  They go back and forth at will and well they should.  There should be no restriction on which toys they select.  Pretending to do something stereotypical of the opposite sex is not an indicator of sexuality. It is an indicator that children need to pretend what they see in order to try to understand it.  Boys see women in different clothes than they wear.  It should be safe for them to see what it is like to wear those items.  Likewise, girls see men acting in roles that are stereotypically male.  They should be able to try those roles in a safe environment.  When we say, this is for boys and this is for girls, we send the message that their need to understand everyone in the world through pretend play is inappropriate.  We ignore the fact that their egocentric view of the world is innocent.  They can only understand through their own experience and we need to stop feeling threatened by their quest to make sense of the world.  When we say “this is for boys” or “this is for girls”, we set the stage to continue gender role stereotypes.  We instill shame.  We stop their ability to develop complete and total empathy.

When we see a problem – and the stereotypes promoted through an adult definition of boys’ and girls’ toys & roles is a problem - we should propose a solution.  I propose that we put our fears and biases aside so our children can develop a better sense of self and more empathy than prior generations.  Let’s help them accept themselves and others by expressing our unhappiness with the gender stereotypes imposed upon them at such young ages.  Toys stores should have items grouped by type of play and not gender sections.  I don’t think any harm would come from having action figures in the same section as female dolls.  Dolls are dolls (yes, men – action figures are dolls).  Tools should be with tools.  A hammer is a tool.  A vacuum is a tool.  Dress up items can co-mingle.  Knights and princesses actually share the same fairy tales.  Advertisers should consciously include children of both sexes in their commercials for all sorts of toys.  Let’s see the boys and girls at the kitchen together.  After all, I know my husband and I cook together after we both arrive home from work.  Stop sending messages that promote outdated thinking.  Let’s bring the messages that we send to our children into the year 2013.


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  1. I totally agree. My son has always wanted an easy bake oven and when he saw that it only came in pink he was so disappointed. I think the manufacturer was considering new colors and I suggested turquoise or red. My daughter prefers playing with cars and dressing up like a pirate. She is also more athletically inclined than either of my sons. My children are beautiful just the way they are. In fact I think their differences make them cool.

    1. I'm glad you could relate to the article. I hope you will share it with others. The more people who think about what they see around us, the better! I think we are so used to having things divided by gender stereotype that we don't give it enough thought. If we don't demand more of people, nothing will change.

    2. Crystal, you know, I used to work in a child developmental center, there was a 5 yo boy who preferred all the toys and other objects only of pink color as well as to sit only on a pink chair. And if I gave him other color he alwas threw a tantrum. I was very surprised at such a boy, because I believe that boys should be masculine, but maybe love to pink color and bake ovens (like in case of your son) is the sign of his sensuality :-) I like the girls like yours - they always grow up purposeful and self-confident (maybe because I was not that kind of girls but always wanted to be). You are lucky to be the mother of such children :-)

  2. Good post. I have a 5 year old son and he has always shown an interest in pretending to cook and clean, and loves to play with his doll house. He of course loves his cars and other traditional boy stuff, but I had a hard time finding a doll house that wasn't pink without paying a lot of money. He also has a pink stove and washer, but he doesn't seem to mind. ;) I will say that I was a little annoyed when I went shopping that any item linked to domestic duties was pink. This tells children from an early age that it is a woman's work to carry out those responsibilities.

    1. I am getting an incredible amount of feedback on social media. People are saying the same things you've said, talking about the boy/girl toys as fast food places and more. I'm so glad people agree that these stereotypical gender role messages are not acceptable. I hope you will share this post.

  3. I have seen both sides of the coin. I just had 4 little boys who are my neighbors come to visit my house the other day. We have a little camp in the basement and the first thing they all ran for were the carriages and dolls. My grandson who is about 21/2 loves the kitchen sets as well.
    HOWEVER, as a rule I definitely see the girls gravitate more towards the feminine things and boys towards masculine. When I taught years ago we used to make special block time for the girls and there was very little interest.
    Even though there is nothing wrong with girls playing with boy stuff and vice versa much of it is innate no matter how much people try to say its all nurture.
    There was actually an article in the NY times magazine years ago with a cover story about "Guess what...girls and boys really are different".

    1. I wholeheartedly agree that boys and girls may gravitate toward typical gender roles. I support adults being gender neutral in our approach to children so they can gravitate wherever and to whatever they like. When we set things up as particularly boys' items and girls' items, we run the risk of stifling them. I also agree that much of what we do is nature. By nature, some will gravitate toward traditional roles and others will not. Those who do not should be able to be themselves without shame or doubt.

  4. It's so sad that the gender stereotyping of all things child related has become so ingrained. For example baby stuff was never gendered, because it had to last for several kids, with consumption rising high, brands are painting the silliest things blue and pink and in the end, there's fairly little gender neutral things left


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