By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of Katie Walker.
Imagine walking into your local toy store. More often than not the place will be split into two worlds. One where a pink and glittery atom bomb has been set off, and the other where cars, superheroes, and toy weapons bob in a sea of blue. Toys today are segregated more heavily by gender than by any other demographic. The deep divide is limiting the opportunities and experiences available to girls.
Most parents tell their children that with enough determination and persistence, they can virtually become whatever they aspire to. The problem is, children’s selection of toys–essentially their learning tools–are so heavily categorized by stereotypical gender roles that girls and boys are exposed to a limited number of aspirations.
Girls’ sections are flooded with tulle, tiaras, make-up, and nail polish while the boys’ sections with cars and over-masculine superhero figures. Serious social penalties often arise for those children who breach the divide (often doled out by parents who are, generally, those providing the toys). While the rise of highly gendered toys is a result of capitalism, it also suggests that the toy industry has not followed in society’s stride towards gender equality.
In 2012, the Lego company released its Friends line, aimed at girls, which included figurines set against backdrops like a catwalk, a beach house, a fashion studio, and a beauty shop. Shortly after the line’s debut, the SPARKteam, a girl-fueled activist movement determined to end the sexualization of women and girls in media, wrote an enraged letter to the company, insisting that the toy manufacturers had “sold out” their girls and started to “blow away their futures with little yellow, plastic hair dryers.” Despite the criticism, the Friends line remains one of Lego’s most popular.
Two years later, the company stirred some excitement with the release of The Research Institute, Lego’s first line to feature women in a professional setting rather than at play or partying. The set includes three female scientists–a paleontologist, an astronomer, and a chemist–which sold out on Lego’s website. The Research Institute was developed and submitted through Lego’s fan-sourced ideas platform (where fans can propose their dream Lego landscapes) by Ellen Kooijman, a geochemist based in Sweden. Although the company still received some criticism for the makeup and drawn-in curves on the scientist figurines, the set was reissued this past December due to overwhelming demand.
Lego isn’t the only company that has begun to break down some of the industry gender barriers. In addition to their traditional Nerf guns that boys are all too familiar with, Hasbro released a line of toy guns and toy archery sets aimed at girls. The Nerf Rebelle series includes bows, arrows, and toy guns, all splashed in combinations of pink, purple, white, and gold. The line was inspired by the new succession of heroines in today’s media, such as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Merida of Pixar’s Brave.
These past few years have also seen the release of Barbie in Katniss’ signature brown outfit, and a Black Widow figure styled after Scarlett Johansson from Captain America. Although many of these new toys are still dripping in pink and highly gendered, they are at least taking a step towards making aggression an acceptable emotion for girls, instead of promoting the docility it so often has in the past.
Toy stores are also beginning to see the rigidity in their gender-coded floor plans and are slowly starting to axe the separate sections. Britain’s largest department store, Harrods, has completely done away with a gendered floor plan, and instead separates their toy kingdom into six different “worlds,” the names of which are: The Big Top (circus theme), The Candy Store, The Enchanted Forest, Wonderland, The Odyssey (space theme), and The Reading Room.
At Harrods, children are free to explore any of the rooms without fear of judgment and without the pressure to gravitate toward certain items more than others. Hopefully one day, the rest of the toy world will follow suit.