Holiday Shopping Season Brings Sexist Stereotypes To The Toy Aisle

By Elissa Heller, Membership Specialist

My glowing memories of childhood playtime are filled with Playmobil villages strewn across my basement floor and of pretending to be space explorers with friends, flying my swingset to distant galaxies. My dream job has always been to work at the toy and game store near my house — I wanted to get lost in the aisles of brightly colored boxes inviting me become an expert jewelry-maker or fight a pirate battle. So when The Washington Post published a holiday gift guide in the Kidspost a few weeks ago, I snuck a peek [“Best toys for the holiday season, as picked by local kids,” November 17]. To my utter disappointment, two of the sections stated in bold print: JUST FOR BOYS and JUST FOR GIRLS. I might expect this kind of gender essentialism from toy corporations like Wal-Mart or Toys R Us, but my beloved Washington Post? How could they do such a thing?

Apparently, making clay beads and pipe cleaner animals is “just for girls,” and playing with marble ramps and fancy tops is “just for boys.” The Post redeemed themselves minutely in my eyes by publishing a letter to the editor with the same views as myself. Still, I have questions for this journalist. Did she decide which toys were appropriate for which gender, or did the children pick them? Were the testers forbidden from trying out the toys assigned to the other gender? It’s unfair that the Beyblades Triple Battle Set, which one (male) tester called “the best toy ever,” is considered a boys only toy.

I decided to investigate Wal-Mart’s marketing of toys to girls and boys this holiday season to see how the country’s largest toy seller handles this issue. Interestingly, Wal-Mart breaks some stereotypical gender divides. Most of the toys in their 100 Hottest Gifts for Girls list are arts and crafts, baby dolls, and other pink items, but included as well are Nerf guns shaped like real firearms and rugged bikes in shades of bright green and red, like the Huffy Green Machine 20X (although the full description of this item calls it a “20 inch boys’ extreme machine”). The Hottest Gifts for Boys list includes kitchen play sets, jewelry making kits, and a dollhouse.

Don’t think I’m jumping up and down for Wal-Mart, however. Shortly after the Supreme Court responded to proof of systematic sex discrimination against women associates in pay and promotion with an opinion declaring the retailer “too big to sue” using class-action status, Wal-Mart unveiled a Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative that is an insulting façade of progress toward equality for women. I’m curious to know whether the Nerf guns for girls and dollhouses for boys is part of this “look, now we’re so women-friendly” tactic.

I’d like to see toy companies and reviewers let kids and parents decide for themselves which toys they prefer, rather than dividing them into “just for girls” and “just for boys.” It’s acceptable for someone to point out that one gender tended to prefer a particular toy, but no one should limit a child’s options by saying that a toy is absolutely not for them. Being a kid was fun because we could play however we wanted and make anything we imagined become real, so let’s stop limiting the next generation’s choices and imaginations.

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