In the early 20th century, gender-based barriers divided society in ways most of us today view as backwards. Some of these divisions, however, persist today, even among the toys we give to 21st century children.
Toys meant for girls in the 1900s focused on domesticity and nurturing and included toy brooms, mops, and baby dolls, enforcing the idea that women should be homemakers. Conversely, toys meant for boys emphasized construction and industrialization, teaching kids that men should be breadwinners and lead the way for development and progress.
Gendered toys sound like a 1900s problem, but, sadly, toys today are actually less inclusive than they were in the past. Around half of 20th century toys were marketed as gender-neutral, while a recent study found that the Disney Store, for example, separates toys as “for boys” and “for girls.” While a few toys make it on both lists, there is no gender-neutral section.
This toy store implies that cooking and cleaning are girls’ interests and expectations, while electronics and learning are boys’. (Photo Credit: Change.org) Science suggests that toys can influence a child’s thoughts, actions, and careers in later years. Girls learn to focus on attractiveness to the point where they believe that beauty is their primary expectation in life, while boys internalize violence and aggression as mandatory “masculine” characteristics. (Photo Credit: Change.org)
Girls’ toys today are dainty, light in color, and enforce traditional female domesticity as well as an obsession over appearance. The pink sections in toy stores offer makeup, jewelry, purses, fake phones, shopping carts, plastic kitchens, and dolls with unrealistic bodies. Baby dolls remain popular and grow increasingly realistic.
On the other hand, boys’ toys emphasize action, violence, and heroism, as well as innovation and invention, teaching kids to associate these qualities with masculinity. Their toys include a variety of wrestlers, soldiers, guns, cars, policemen, and firefighters, as well as chemistry sets, toolkits, electronics, and coding games. Toys with a STEM focus are three times as likely to be targeted at boys than girls.
Here, the puzzle “for boys” is a toolbox, encouraging construction and innovation while teaching kids that building is inherently masculine. The one “for girls” encourages shopping, beauty, and superficiality. (Photo: Emergent Practices)
Science suggests that toys can influence a child’s thoughts, actions, and careers in later years. Girls learn to focus on attractiveness to the point where they believe that beauty is their primary expectation in life, while boys internalize violence and aggression as mandatory “masculine” characteristics.
On a more positive note, gendered toys may encourage nurturing in girls and spatial skills, building skills, and science preference in boys. The problem is, though, that non-gendered or “moderately masculine” toys are more likely to develop children’s physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills than are “feminine” toys.
It’s not just an issue of toys. In late 2016, a Missouri father snapped a photo of two magazine covers that represent the overarching issue. Girls’ Life and Boys’ Life, marketed to kids age 10-14, enforce incredibly damaging, contrasting messages to kids:
Photo: Matt Frye
Girls’ Life encourages girls to focus on their beauty, clothing, and relationships, challenging them to be as attractive as possible. On the other hand, Boys’ Life cultivates interest in technology and science, stresses career preparedness and future-orientation, and tells boys that they can “be what [they] want to be.”
Later, graphic designer Katherine Young re-imagined what Girls’ Life should represent to develop girls in the most physically and mentally healthy ways possible while encouraging them to embrace their skills and achieve their potential.
Credit: Katherine Young
Exposure to gender roles during childhood development affects us for our entire lives. As children, we “learn gender” from society’s lessons and expectations. Girls as young as six associate terms like “brilliant” and “science” with boys and masculinity and traits such as “cute” and “pretty” with girls.
A study of teenagers in Portugal showed that girls who enjoyed sports refused to engage in physical activity at school because they worried it wouldn’t be feminine or that they would look unattractive doing it. The girls put themselves on diets despite already being at healthy weights in order to conform with beauty standards and the idea that physical attractiveness is the only measure of worth for women in society.
The boys felt pressured to act as masculine as possible and to compete with their peers, even to the point of drinking excessive alcohol or fighting anyone who offended them to appear “macho” and outperform the other boys, However, they struggled with their mental health, as society expects them to suppress their feelings.
None of the kids, the researchers found, were happy about living in these gendered boxes life forced them into. That pressure to fit inside a “box” can promote serious mental health consequences even into adulthood.
Women are horrendously underrepresented in STEM, politics, and business; men are taught not to tap into their emotions or appear as “weak” in any way.
Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop limiting our progress: It’s time to offer gender-neutral toys to help break these barriers we set for our youth.
Emily Rose is 17 years old and from Athens, Georgia. Beginning in fall 2017, she will attend Mercer University. She plans to double major in Journalism and Political Science and to minor in Global Development Studies. She is a writer, musician, activist, and feminist who hopes to use her platforms to inspire positive change by providing different perspectives on the world’s political and social issues.