The Gender Politics of Toys, Part II: Shunning Boys and Turning Lego Pink

In Part I of this post, I discussed that the toy company, GoldieBlox recently made the disappointing marketing move of reacting to pink saturation and gender polarization in the toy market by producing yet another pink and pastel toy specifically for girls. They further added insult to injury by producing a viral ad that not only plagiarized a song by The Beastie Boys, but the ad incited separatist, anti-boy attitudes and inflammatory lyrics claiming falsely that "everything else" in the toy stores (except pink princess accessories and dolls) "is for boys." Part II will focus on the contrast between the toy marketing of the 1970's and 1980's, which was more gender inclusive than previous decades, and the cultural shift of the 1990's and 2000's which led toy companies to disassociate from boys and "pink saturate" their products, causing a regression back to gender polarization.

The 1970's and 1980's: When the toy companies embraced gender inclusiveness

When I was a child in the mid-70's and 80's, there was less gender polarization in children's toys than there is today. I enjoyed playing with a diversity of toys and cared little about whether they were marketed to a specific age-group or to one sex or the other- My goal was simply to have fun and to augment my imagination with props!

Girls were being empowered in the 1970's and 1980's to do and become anything they chose. Girls were proudly working to their potential alongside their male peers, with both sexes rightfully being seen as valuable and capable. However, fast forward to the new Millennium, and gender polarization and stereotyping has become almost more extreme than in the 1950's!

Of course in the 70's and early 80's, there was left over, 1950's-esque gender stereotyping of toys by parents, teachers and advertisers. However, many toy companies were taking notice that children enjoyed playing with toys that cut across traditional gender stereotypes. Playskool, Fisher-Price and Playmobil, for example, were marketing gender neutral toys that encouraged dramatic and creative play between the sexes. Girls were increasingly empowered to play hard, wildly and with any toys they pleased, allowing girls to move freely and fluidly between forms of play and types of toys once designed specifically for one sex or the other.

Boys, on the other hand, were still strictly relegated by parents and teachers to remain in their gender role, with minimal movement. No doubt toy companies realized that they would sell more toys if boys were included in the efforts to empower children to play with any toys they desired!

Toy companies hit upon a financial goldmine with two major transformations in toy marketing that broke down gender stereotypes:

1. By 1984, government regulations on children's television and on advertising to children were deregulated, and toy companies began to market and merchandise and toys to children based on movie and TV characters rather than on gender stereotypes. (The negative affect commercialization has had on children's creativity and neurological development is beyond the scope of this post). This shocking move by the federal government and the subsequent unprecedented marketing strategy was so financially successful that to this day, original 1980's movie and TV-themed toys still have pop-cult status that cross gender lines.

2. Toy companies in the 1980's made it "cool" and socially acceptable for boys to play with dolls. For young boys, there was My Buddy, a large doll that boys could haul along on all of their adventures. For pre-adolescent boys, "adopting" Cabbage Patch Kids became a wildly popular trend. Cabbage Patch Kids were among the first line of  popular "baby dolls" to offer male dolls, a new choice that seem to appeal to boys. Cabbage Patch Kids, which came with officially signed buttocks and mail-in adoption certificates, were so popular with both sexes that frantic parents and grandparents were forming mobs and riots in the toy aisles of stores, grabbing the dolls off the shelves!

Another factor in the trend towards gender neutrality in toys was that it wasn't as popular in the 1970's and 1980's to saturate toys, clothing and accessories in all pink. Girls had little interest in having every toy, stuffed animal, book, accessory and game modified with a "pink version". I recall that in my third grade class, we did a class poll about every child's favorite colors. Most of the class agreed that their favorite colors were either red or blue. The unpopular color pink received only two votes from our class of 20+ children, right alongside brown. Without the excessive pink saturation, children of both sexes had more toy and play options.

Although it was far from perfect, children of the 70's and 80's had a chance to ride the strongest wave of gender inclusiveness seen in United States pop cultural history. However, by the mid-1990's something went very wrong.

The late 1990's and 2000's: Elevating girls, shunning boys and turning the toys pink

Despite the solid empowered status of girls by the 90's, our culture  experienced a fierce wave of "Girl Power" sassiness with a strong anti-boy counterpart in the late 90's and the new Millennium. It seems counter-intuitive that political and social campaigns would attempt to separate and antagonize the relationship between the sexes or to elevate girls above boys. However, political and social groups in the mid-90's and early 2000's began to market an intensive, global "girl empowerment" paradigm that, either deliberately or inadvertently, elevated girls and their needs above boys and caused boys and their needs to be ignored, marginalized and pathologized. Girls were presented in the media as more intelligent, clever, competent, good, beautiful, strong, powerful, worthwhile and even more valuable than boys. It soon followed that girls were treated with more respect, compassion and positive regard by adults, institutions and even companies, than boys.

In every faction of society, people were quietly backing away from boys to champion girls. Organizations that traditionally served boys, such as the Boy Scouts, the Boys Club, the YMCA and Boy's Town USA all backed away from their "boy" focus and became co-ed and boy-quiet. Meanwhile, Girl Scouts rolled out their slogan, "The girl is first in Girl Scouts" and programs such as Girls Inc. and Girl Power! remained all about empowering only girls.

Marketers and advertisers realized that it was profitable to follow suit. Toy companies, movies, TV shows and clothing companies, seeing the potential for profit, jumped on the political bandwagon. In the 2000's, everything suddenly turned pink, and "girl-ness" was emphasized as separate from and better than "boy-ness". Girls began to be referred to as "princesses", "divas" and even "goddesses", and a mean-spirited and conceited attitude by girls was being portrayed and championed in the media and in advertising.

Companies began boasting about their focus on girls: American Girl currently states on their website that they "Celebrate girls and all that they can be", adding in their company statement that they "have a passion for who girls are today and who they can become tomorrow". What company "celebrates boys" or has "a passion" for boys? What company would dare admit it even if they did?

Although Lego has always produced toys that have been beloved by both boys and girls alike, Lego was one company that seemed to enjoy scaffolding the imagination of boys. Lego seemed to understand boys developmentally, as evidenced by the passion boys have for Lego sets, lines and even movies, well into adulthood. As the mother of a son and nephew who are enamored with Lego, it felt good to know there was still a toy company that seemed to focus on boys, as Barbie had been doing for girls for decades.

In early 2012, however, Lego withdraw from their association with boys. Although no parents or authors faulted Barbie or American Girl for focusing on girls, parents and authors criticized Lego for focusing on boys! Like the rest of society, Lego "pink-ified" their image and offered "Lego Friends" and tubs of pink Lego and Duplo bricks specifically to girls. Like the popular junior high kid who pulls away from her awkward, bullied friend, Lego realized, after pressure and campaigning from female-focused organizations, that association with the marginalized group- boys- isn't good for one's reputation.

Nerf, Tinker Toy, Mega Bloks, K'Nex, Lincoln Logs and other toy brands have also jumped on the "Girl Power" bandwagon, producing special pink versions of their timeless products, for girls only. Large toy companies have also produced pink versions of games, with Hasbro even going so far as to bizarrely roll out a pink Ouija board!

How toy companies can bring back balance

There is nothing wrong with a child of either sex liking the color pink or preferring pastel colors. While it is understandable to add a pink Lego brick, Nerf dart or Tinker Toy rod to the traditional multi-colored sets to cater to the preferences and tastes of all children, it is a very different move to produce separate versions of classic products in pink and pastel, intended only for girls.

While toy stores have pink aisles dedicated solely to girls, there are no aisles that are specific to or dedicated solely to boys. Boys do not have a socially-designated color all to their own. Girls and boys are both encouraged to play with trading cards, building toys, cars, trucks and action figures, but boys are warned to avoid pink like the plague. Any self-respecting girl can walk down the building toy aisles with her dignity intact.

The products in the pink-aisles of toy stores are marketed to be so polarized that they seem only one step away from containing a sign that reads, "No boys allowed".

Additionally, many gender neutral toys and books now make a point to depict girls in affluent and empowering roles (i.e.: a doctor) while boys are often depicted in less affluent and less empowering roles in comparison (i.e.: a mail carrier).

Rather than polarizing toys and marketing them only to girls, toy companies should evolve the trend of the 1980's and:

1. Stop producing "girls only" pink versions of your regular product unless you are willing to offer a clearly stated "boys only" version as well. Balance product colors so that pink becomes just part of the regular scheme of the product's colors- like a box of crayons!

2. Start to make doll play, dress up and dramatic "house" play more attractive to boys by simply adding a balance colors. In 2012, a 13 year old girl successfully petitioned Hasbro to produce an Easy-Bake Oven in colors that would appeal to her brother. Will a child have to petition your company for you to do the right thing?

3. Keep politics out of marketing and ads and respect that many children love play that appears gender stereotyped and other children love play that moves fluidly across gender lines- Celebrate all types of play!

4. Keep politics out of your depictions of children. Show groups of children enjoying the products in various configurations, empowering both boys and girls and children of various abilities- Do not portray boys in less empowering roles than girls to be politically correct. Show both girls and boys in equally empowering roles (parents, doctors, astronauts, etc).

How politicizing childhood harms both boys and girls

The more gender-obsessed and gender-politicized our society has become, the more gender polarized it has become, with nothing but harm resulting for children of both sexes. Of course, boys have not been referred to as "princes", "rock stars" or "gods" in the media, and non-compliant boy-ness has been increasingly pathologized in boys. The "Girl Power" campaigning of the late 90's and the new Millennium has had the effect of shaming, pathologizing and degrading boys in the media as well as in other institutions of society, including the educational, legal, mental health and human service fields. I have to question whether the rash of pre-pubescent boys in the media whose parents are claiming that they are transgendered girls are actually boys suffering deep unconscious shame about their bodies and their selves as boys. How can boys feel that they are good, beautiful, precious and wanted as boys when they are exposed to media and cultural institutions that pathologize "boy-ness" and champion "girl-ness"?

When toy companies in the 1970's and 80's began to level the playing field and market the idea to boys of nurturing a baby doll or playing with Care Bears, girls were not shunned, put down or disempowered in the process. Boys were not depicted as "better than" or elevated by playing with the dolls. Children of both sexes were simply depicted as having fun with the products. Why have the toy companies of today regressed? Why were they capable of empowering both boys and girls in the 1980's but not now in the 2010's?

What parents can do to protect their children

Why are parents so comfortable with their sons being put down, pathologized, shunned or ignored by marketers, media, schools, institutions and by political and social "justice" campaigns to elevate their daughters? Why are today's parents comfortable at all with one sex being elevated over another? Tragically, there are very real costs to the self esteem, self worth, self respect and social relationships of both boys and girls as a result of a childhood barrage of anti-male shaming and "princess" elevating. As parents, there are many steps we can take.

1. Do not support or buy from companies that directly incite or encourage anti-boy attitudes.

2. Boycott the "pink versions" of classic building toys and games.

3. Write to companies that are "pinkifying" their products and ask that they stop shunning boys, elevating girls and polarizing gender. Suggest that they simply add pink and purple to their existing color schemes.

4. Realize that toy companies that produce toys traditionally loved by boys are now experiencing enormous political and social pressure to disassociate from being seen as a "boy-focused" company. Write to any companies that still demonstrate that they care about boys and praise them. If you don't make it known that some people still care about the needs of boys, these companies may eventually stop marketing quality toys that are loved by boys, pushing boys further away from dramatic play and into media saturation.

5. Challenge the cultural expectation that our children MUST be exposed to media. Consider screening media and boycotting any media with attitudes that are mean-spirited and degrading towards ANY people.

6. Model respect for all humans. Be careful of your own gender-biased attitudes and comments, especially those that portray boys and men in a negative or degrading light and girls and women as victims or more entitled to empowerment and fair treatment than males.

7. Discuss and point out any forms of sexism, including anti-boy attitudes, promotion of mean-spiritedness in girls and "princess" elevation when you see it in society or in the media and dialogue about it with your children.

8. Respect that children have a right to play and live free from you imposing your political and religious beliefs on them. Celebrate your children's interests and choices. Respect it when children love to play in ways that seem gender stereotyped and when they want to play across traditional gender stereotypes. Children have a right to play in any way that contributes to their healthy holistic development. One of my nieces loves to play princess and my son enjoyed Live Action Role Play (LARP) with "boffer" swords in his teens. I can't imagine telling them that they can't play with what they love. Instead, I have always supported the passions of the children in my life.

It is amazing that we live in a time when we have to remind grown adults that two wrongs don't make a right: Committing sexism against boys today to retaliate against sexism done to girls in the past is a form of violence. Violence always leads to harm, not healing. Let's hope that the youngest generation will grow up to improve upon our unhealthy and tragic gender politics and bring us to a time when play isn't political, but is simply... child's play.