Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Painted pink - prepackaged gender roles in the toy aisle

When toy manufacturers genderise their products they limit roles for girls by telling them what they can't be, the effects of which can determine their careers as adults

Have you tried to buy a toy for a child lately? A child that is, not a boy or a girl. It’s not as easy as you might think. By categorising toys by gender some shops would have you believe it’s impossible. While much of the adult world is breaking down gender stereotypes, the worlds our girls and boys inhabit are becoming more segregated than ever thanks to the pink aisle and the blue aisle. By gendering toys, manufacturers tell children who they can be: boys are explorers, brave soldiers, builders. Boys don’t cry. Girls are pretty. They are princesses, they make glittery butterflies out of pink paper - did I mention they are pretty?

The great toy divide

There’s nothing wrong with pink, dolls or princesses; it’s the use of gender categorisation to box girls in and box boys out in order to maximise profits that’s the problem. When these stereotypes are reinforced by society, it’s no wonder girls are pink-washed by an early age and boys are repelled by anything “girly”.

While girls are steered away from building, science and boisterous sports, boys lose out on role play and creativity. Boys were already discouraged from playing with “domestic” toys, but making them pink, a colour encoded to signify extreme femininity, excludes boys. Don’t Dads push prams? More Dads must surely push prams or spend time cooking than, say, go into space or drive a tank. The lives of men and women really are incredibly similar and I bet plenty of little boys would like to enact the everyday things their parents do.

Pink globes, make-up for babies, pink bikes, high chairs “for girls”, The Brilliant Boys’ Colouring Book and The Beautiful Girls’ Colouring Book, boys’ superhero baby-gros and little princess ones for girls, even gendered breakfast cereal – gender divisions permeate all aspects of our children’s lives.

There is an assumption that this is normal, that boys and girls just like different things and that toys have always been this heavily gendered. But actually princess culture was very rare before the 1990s; this divided world is a marketing construct, a marketing lie allowed to become reality.

Academic Elizabeth Sweet found that even when societal gender stereotypes were at their strongest in the 20th century, half the toys were still advertised in a gender-neutral way. “This is a stark difference from what we see today, as businesses categorise toys in a way that more narrowly forces kids into boxes.”

It wasn’t always like this

In the 19th century boys and girls wore white dresses and had long hair until they were about seven. Gender-neutral dresses facilitated nappy changes, white bleached clean easily. Pastel colours were introduced later but weren’t linked to gender until the early 20th century and even then inconsistently.

Gendered toys from the early 20th century were very stereotyped, but importantly there were far fewer gender-specific toys. Pink only became a “girl’s colour” in the 1940s when manufacturers started heavily associating pink with girls. “It could have gone the other way,” says historian Jo B. Paoletti.

Princess culture was very rare before the 1990s; this divided world is a marketing construct

That generation grew up in gender-specific clothing but women’s lib changed things for a while in the 1970s. The unisex look became “masculine”, the reverse of the 19th century. Parents felt that dressing girls in “boys’” clothes would allow them to be more active, have more options. For two years in the 1970s the Sears catalogue had no pink toddler clothes and in 1975 less than 2% of toys were categorised by gender. Many adverts even challenged gender stereotypes by showing girls building or playing doctors/scientists and boys with dolls or domestic toys.

Unisex was popular until 1985, but then things changed again. While gender inequality continued to decline in the adult world, the opposite started happening for children. By 1995, half the toys in the Sears catalogue were categorised by gender. Today toys are segregated more than they ever were before, despite the fact that gender discrimination is less socially acceptable than it once was. A recent study by sociologists found that the Disney web shop listed all toys by gender.

Marketing gender segregation

Why did this happen? Peggy Orenstein says toy marketers in the 1980s saw greater opportunities for sales if the toy market was divided: “This profound fetishism of pink is very recent and is a market-driven construct.”

Once unisex toys such as bikes became gendered, sisters could no longer pass on bikes to brothers; parents had to buy new “boys’” bikes. The strategy was quick to make an impact in the US, since the Federal Communications Commission’s television deregulation removed limitations on children’s advertising at a time when cable TV uptake surged. Suddenly a previously ignored, and vulnerable, section of society was available for targeted marketing. With increased exposure to advertising came dramatically increased consumerism among children. It didn’t take long for branded children’s programmes and the heavily gendered marketing approach to reach a global market.

Disney and Lego were quick to seize on segregation by gender. Disney’s princess brand is No. 1 licensed property in the US and Canada.

Sweet noted that Lego marketed to both genders in the 70s but in the 80s and 90s started adding licences such as Star Wars, aiming marketing at boys. This resulted in fewer girls playing with Lego, leaving a convenient gap in the market for Lego Friends - a pink, easy-to-build set “for girls” focusing on salons, accessories and cakes. Some girls think they aren’t allowed to play with other Lego, and boys won’t touch Lego Friends. This shift wasn’t driven by the free choices of girls but by marketing decisions to first box girls out, then box them back in again.

Early gendered toys were explicitly sexist, but since overt sexism was not acceptable by the 80s, marketers had to rely on implicit gendering using colour, visual signifiers and fictional gender roles. The result was the same STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) action-focused masculine and passive domestic feminine stereotyping, but repackaged as superheroes with dinosaurs and princesses with love-hearts.

Pinkification was further aided by shifts in gender politics. The 80s brought a backlash against feminism: enter “post-feminism” and “choice feminism”. There were still advances in gender equality but the idea that women chose stereotypically feminine roles because of natural preference rather than societal pressure became popular - that men and women were simply wired differently.

Some girls think they aren’t allowed to play with other Lego, and boys won’t touch Lego Friends.

More and more toys became overtly gendered, increasing gender nonconformity taboos, yet making it seem as if children were doing the choosing, that division was driven by preferences (“all girls like pink”) rather than aggressive marketing. The more explicitly and regularly toys were gendered, the more important gender was made to seem, increasing the pressure on children to gender-conform. Falsely attributing such heavy importance to gender plays on the natural desires of children to understand and fit into society, giving a warped world view that can have an impact on the rest of their lives. Profits, however, soared.

Psychologist Dr Christia Spears Brown describes the impact of marketing: “Marketing plays a huge role. Even bigger than most parents think.” Giving a previously unseen toy to a group of children and telling them it’s a girls toy will result in girls playing with it, but not boys. The exact same toy marketed as a boy’s toy to another group will lead to boys playing with it, but not girls. “(Children) want to do what is right for their gender, their ‘team’. This leads them to treat each other very differently. They want to be separated and segregated, because we have taught them that boys and girls are so very different that they can’t possibly have anything in common. The more they segregate themselves and the more we allow them to segregate, the more different they eventually become.”

Marketing, not children, has created this “team girl” and “team boy” divide. One study compared two classrooms. In one gender was used to label and categorise children constantly: pink and blue name tags, phrases like “would the girls line up here”, “the boys are doing well in reading today” (while keeping everything else equal and using no stereotyping). The other class used only names with no gender references. The classroom where children were categorised by gender resulted in children voicing much stronger gender stereotypes despite no stereotypes being enforced in the classroom. Gender was used only as a means of labelling children.

Even if we avoid gender stereotypes we still point out gender all the time: “There goes a girl on a bike”, “What a clever boy”. Young children pay close attention to what we say in order to understand the world and when we use gender all the time to label and sort people they assume gender must be really important. Combine that with intensely gendered marketing and you can clearly see where the princess obsession comes from.

Another study dressed nursery children in red and blue T-shirts and for three weeks they were constantly referred to and sorted by T-shirt colour. They were treated equally but colour was used in the way gender is currently used to label and refer to children. Afterwards the children showed clear group colour preferences and demonstrated “in-group” behaviour, making statements such as “all blue kids…” just as we often hear “all boys/girls…” The study shows that it isn’t gender that makes the differences between the way children interact, but the way we adults categorise children.

Dividing children and labelling them based on a group attribute, as we do with gender, focuses their attention on the group and therefore generalisations, rather than on individuals. And society is full of gender generalisations. If three weeks can have such an impact, imagine what messages are being sent from birth. Many parents say they have tried to steer their daughters away from pink, but they still become obsessed by the colour.

Preference for pink is not a “natural” choice for the majority of young girls. Evidence indicates colour preferences are learnt rather than innate and the marketing of pink has been particularly aggressive; pink signifies “team girl”. Speech therapists even found children identified blue without issue, but said “Barbie” when shown pink.

Research shows that babies and toddlers are drawn to primary colours with no gender-based preferences. Pink is not popular, though preferred to brown and grey. When adults were surveyed for their favourite colour the majority of women didn’t choose pink; the favourite colour, for both sexes, was blue.

Preschoolers are the group most affected by labelling and aggressive, heavily gendered marketing

Another study found that preference for pink in young girls developed as they aged and that by the age of four boys rejected pink. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot points out that preschoolers are most susceptible to gender definitions. It is this group that is most affected by labelling and aggressive, heavily gendered marketing.

Children become gender aware between the ages of three and four, but they don’t understand the concept of gender permanence until they are six or seven. “So they think, for example, that what makes someone female is having long hair and a dress,’’ says Paoletti, “or wearing pink. Marketing tells them gender is important; it also tells them how they can remain in ‘team girl’ or ‘team boy’.”

Reinforcing the gender binary and stereotypes

Gender-segregating toys, books, clothes, even breakfast cereal and further reinforcing stereotypes by using different terminology to describe girls (“pretty little princess”) and boys (“big strong/brave soldier”) makes gender seem extremely important, permeating every aspect of our lives. In reality gender is nowhere near as important as marketing makes it seem. There are very few situations were gender matters, or should matter, and breakfast certainly isn’t one of them. When you consider the need for children to socialise themselves, find their place and identity in society, then it becomes clear why little girls get hooked on pink and princesses; adverts, peers, adults, toy shops, books and even their breakfast tell them how to be, and how to remain, girls.

Gendering products reaffirms the status quo, stereotypes and the gender binary, in turn validating and perpetuating gender inequality. The gender binary is reinforced to such an extent that it limits and constrains the freedom to express “feminine” traits in boys (caring, gentleness, sensitivity, creativity) and “masculine” traits in girls (science, maths, building, being headstrong, brave, sporty).

The idea of gender incompatibility has led to a rise in single-sex schools in the US. Dr Brown says: “Parents really seem to think that boys’ and girls’ brains are very different from one another and they learn completely differently. The research however, says the exact opposite. Research says that boys and girls are remarkably similar in how they think and what they like, they just become different after years of adults treating them differently.”

There are those who scorn gender neutrality, seeing it as depriving children of their natural choices, forcing them into androgyny, into boring grey and beige. The fact that grey and beige spring to mind shows how badly pink-washed society has become; all colours have become gender encoded so there is an assumption unisex toys and clothes can’t have colour. Pink and purple are for girls, therefore not only blue but red, yellow, green and orange are for boys. But you only have to look at the vivid rainbow of colour and variety among 1970s toys to see that gender neutrality actually widens options.

Removing gender division does not mean everyone being the same, but in fact facilitates diversity and individuality. Dr Brown says: “Gender stereotypes are blatantly inaccurate. This isn’t a moral issue or a political issue. Good science is very clear. The differences between boys and girls is not as big as the difference between individual children. This is based on research from hundreds of studies with more than one million children where they were looking for gender differences.” Concentrating on gender limits and restricts this individuality.

Educational consultant and psychologist Lori Day says the way children play has changed and is having an impact on them in later life. “Boys and girls stop playing together at a much younger age than was developmentally typical until this recent gender segmentation. The resulting rigidly stereotyped gender roles are unhealthy for both males and females, who are actually more alike than different.”

Mothers report being reprimanded by strangers for dressing daughters in blue.

Sweet concurs: “This kind of marketing has normalised the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally and markedly different from one another, and this very idea lies at the core of many of our social processes of inequality.”

Neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon says men’s and women’s brains are not different but become wired differently because of cultural programming: “The world is full of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias. It is full of the drip, drip, drip of the gendered environment.” She says gender differences in toys affect the way children’s brains develop and stifle their potential.

These days children’s gender is so important that parents feel compelled to show their infant’s sex to the world, and the world expects to know at first glance – mothers even report being reprimanded by strangers for dressing daughters in blue. The more marketing and society focuses on gender, the more children feel rewarded by conforming to gender stereotypes as they grow up. Girls who immerse themselves in princess culture learn to seek praise for their appearance and value looks above who they are or what they can achieve – hence wearing princess dresses outside the house, inviting praise from strangers.

This extreme conformity to gender roles isolates children who don’t conform. A Harvard study found that gender-nonconforming children (1 in 10) experience ridicule from others and exclusion by peers from an early age, which can lead to post-traumatic stress and have lasting health implications. “The abuse we examined was mostly perpetrated by parents or other adults in the home,” said lead author Andrea Roberts.

Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender-nonconforming in childhood than among those who were not. Homophobia plays a part here since there is an assumption that gender-nonconformity in children is linked to homosexuality later in life, but in fact 85% of the children who were gender-nonconforming were heterosexual in adulthood.

Society reinforces the stereotypes

Despite “post-feminist” claims, we have not moved beyond sexism. We have merely repackaged it. Deeply ingrained stereotypes remain, so adults are quick to accept this repackaged stereotyping as defined by toy marketing strategy. When aggressive marketing is reinforced by society, children are left with little chance to discover their own individuality. They must conform or be marginalised.

Gender stereotypes are even reinforced at school. A study found that in an anonymous primary school maths assignment girls outperformed boys, but when names were given boys outperformed girls. A quick glance at the Everyday Sexism website shows how regularly gender stereotypes are reinforced even in education establishments, like the six-year old’s homework asking pupils to research a scientist or inventor: “Who was he? … Did they have a wife and family?” Even if a school goes to great pains to be equal, gender categorisation is still very common.

Gender assumptions affect the way adults interact with children from birth. In an experiment babies were randomly dressed in blue and pink. Babies in blue were played with more physically than those in pink, who were treated gently and given dolls. Each individual incident may seem harmless, but the overall picture for children, especially when combined with toy segregation, is alarming. Many girls simply do not believe they would be allowed to be a doctor or an astronaut.

Girls boxed in

A recent OECD report found that girls are behind boys in STEM subjects. The UK has a particularly large gap and education experts suggested shopping-based maths problems to encourage girls. Professor Alice Roberts attacked the suggestion, putting the issue down to cultural rather than innate biological reasons and condemning the worsening gender divide in the toy market.

The OECD said: “This gender difference in the ability to think like a scientist may be related to students’ self-confidence. When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.”

The report warns that even high-achieving girls have less confidence in their ability in science and maths than boys of equal competence. It is little wonder that girls lack the ability to think like scientists when they are repeatedly sent signals that science and engineering toys are for boys. It’s no surprise they lack self-confidence when their looks are valued above their personality or intelligence, but are given unattainable beauty ideals - and the cruel twist: encouraged to become cake-obsessed.

Dr Brown says: “Sexualised images of girls are reaching younger and younger. It is very difficult to avoid these toys and media images. Bratz dolls are the classic example. There is a lot of research about how this damages children. Girls feel worse about their bodies and have lower self-esteem after exposure to sexualisation, and boys and girls develop more negative stereotypes about one another after viewing these images.”

Experts tend to agree that gender segregation of toys has a negative impact on girls regarding STEM: “Wanting to be a doctor or architect or cook, that really begins when you’re young and walking around with a stethoscope or playing with an Easy Bake oven,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of toy industry consulting firm Global Toy Experts. The concern over pinkification and the increasing gender inequality in STEM even reached parliamentary debate in the UK last year.

Boys boxed out

Just as girls are boxed in, boys are boxed out. It was never easy for boys to maintain “feminine” interests, but it is becoming harder than ever. Dance school director Emily Archer said: “I regularly have boys start ballet at three, but the majority have finished by the age of six.”

Children’s writer Shannon Hale is popular with both sexes, but found that boys had been excluded from one school talk because the book’s lead character was a princess. Boys ask about her books, but are shy of doing so with others present.

Describing one, she said: “He was so afraid what others would think of him, if he read a ‘girl’ book. A book about a princess. Even a monster-fighting superhero ninja princess. He wasn’t born ashamed. We made him ashamed. Ashamed to be interested in a book about a girl. About a princess – the most ‘girly’ of girls. I heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: ‘Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!’, even though I never heard a single time, ‘Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll like it!’”

“The belief that boys won’t like books with female protagonists, that they will refuse to read them, the shaming that happens - from peers, parents, teachers, often right in front of me - when they do, the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don’t have to read about girls, that boys aren’t expected to understand and empathise with the female population of the world… this belief directly leads to rape culture.”

The problem

Social experiences are the building blocks in developing our identities. Studies by developmental psychologists have shown that children are very aware of the social importance of gender categorisation and want to find out what fits into which category. Socialisation is not restricted to guidance from parents since children actively socialise themselves. Looking at the world around them, they quickly realise their identity is constrained by gender preconceptions: pre-existing gender stereotypes are aggressively reinforced by toy manufacturers at an age when children are finding their own role within society and so are particularly susceptible.

“Children use toys to try on new roles, experiment, and explore interests,” explains Harvard Medical School Psychologist Susan Linn (Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood). “Rigidly gendered toy marketing tells kids who they should be, how they should behave, and what they should be interested in.”

By adolescence, girls who watch sexualised media feel worse about their bodies and are more likely to agree that girls who get abused by their boyfriends are asking for it.

We are bringing up girls who lack confidence, shy away from STEM subjects and hinder the understanding of emotions and relationships in boys. Dr Brown says: “The impact of these biases can affect children for the rest of their lives. More than 70% of girls, starting as young as third grade, are unhappy with their bodies. Many report dieting by age 12. Girls who were asked to play with Barbies have worse body image after a brief play period, compared to girls who were asked to play with normally proportioned dolls. Girls who watch sexualised media also feel worse about their bodies and, by adolescence, are more likely to agree with the idea that girls who get abused by their boyfriends are asking for it.”

She explains that a large proportion of toys, games and media targeted at boys foster aggressive and violent behaviour. “Combine this with the stereotype that boys are not allowed to show sadness or weakness. Boys then enter adulthood ill-equipped to handle the full range of human emotion. Research from developmental neuroscience further tells us that these experiences we have in childhood can lead to changes to the brain’s wiring. Reinforcing one type of behaviour over and over … will ultimately make those neural pathways stronger and harder to fight against in the future.”

“Play and media shape how our children view the world and themselves. Thousands of research studies show this. These experiences in childhood alter our adulthood in profound ways. When those experiences are biased by gender stereotypes, children develop in ways that are limited by outdated societal expectations, not by what’s best for our children.”

Sometimes children will naturally align with gender stereotypes, sometimes not, but only by doing away with gender segregation in toy shops, schools and at home will we allow our children the freedom to find their own preferences and skills.

Taking action

As carers we can stop dividing children by gender. We can correct stereotypes and assumptions when children encounter them. We can allow access to a diverse range of toys, avoiding toys that encourage negative body image or aggression. We can do these things, but until public pressure changes marketing tactics, which in turn may change society’s perceptions, we will be fighting a losing battle against multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns and a backward society. Remove gendered marketing and children will play with very similar toys, as they did in the past.

Not all carers attempt to correct gender stereotypes, says Paoletti: “Adults who subscribe to more traditional, conservative gender roles see children’s preferences for stereotypical clothing and toys as natural expressions of innate differences.” Erin McNeill of (Media Literacy Now, says: “Some parents won’t notice or be concerned about the gendering of products. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to gain the critical thinking skills to understand how and why gendered ads target them.”

Schools need to work harder against gender stereotyping and segregation, and more pressure needs to be put on toy manufacturers and shops. Children would be given much wider choice if toys were categorised by age and interest rather than gender, something that parents increasingly would prefer to see. Jim Wilson of independent toy retailer Born Gifted surveyed customers in November 2014. The results surprised him.

  • 90% disagreed that “science toys are more appropriate for boys” and two-thirds felt “action and construction” toys were equally suitable for girls;
  • 90% said “craft-based” toys were equally suited to boys and three-quarters that role-play toys were appropriate for both boys and girls;
  • half saw the dolls/nurturing category as equally suitable for both.

The poll moved on to the influence of marketing. Over three-quarters said they would not buy a pink toy kitchen for a boy, but 85% said they would buy the same kitchen if it was in a gender-neutral colour. Three-quarters would prefer gender-neutral colours on all toys.

So it would appear that customers are increasingly rejecting gender segregation, but are still constrained by marketing.

Things are changing, slowly. Campaigns such as PinkStinks and are having an impact, though have met with surprising resistance. PinkStinks “got hate mail from all over the world (saying) things like ‘you must be lesbians, you’re ugly’. The reaction was so extreme you’d think we’d tried to cancel Christmas.” What kept them going was the steady stream of emails from girls. “They make me cry. They say we need to carry on, you’re our voice.”

Last year a mother’s message to Land’s End complaining about their sexist clothing went viral. Her science-loving daughter couldn’t understand why the boys’ section was full of realistic science T-shirts, but the girls section had unrealistic stars and a dog in a tutu. “In 2014, why are you selling ‘mighty’ tees for boys and ‘adorable’ tees for girls? (Descriptions taken straight from your marketing copy.)” Land’s End responded with science themed T-shirts for girls.

Hamley’s got rid of gender signs and colours in 2011, reorganising toys by category. Swedish regulatory group Reklamombudsmannen reprimanded major toy company Top-Toy for outdated advertisements, resulting in a gender-neutral 2012 Christmas catalogue. Others, such as Nicholay Lamm’s Kickstarter project seeking to make “Real Barbies”, are taking matters into their own hands.

Marketing stinks

The problem isn’t pink. It isn’t princesses. It isn’t girls being “girly”. The problem is heavily gender-encoded toy marketing restricting individuality and limiting the choices of children to outdated gender stereotypes, dividing children into two separate teams who live worlds apart. Individuality in a four-year-old, even with full parental support, stands little chance against billion-dollar marketing. Limiting our children’s personalities and aspirations is not something to be taken lightly.

Do you really want your daughters to grow up thinking pretty is all they can aspire to? Do you want your sons to have no outlet to explore emotions and relationships (other than violent ones) through imaginative play? When my daughter was born I thought the world was at her feet. Having spent a short time in her world, I see that the doors that I thought were open to children growing up are painted pink or blue and slammed in the faces of boys and girls respectively.

This article is a response to the topic idea; Thinking outside the gender box.

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