There’s No Such Thing as Girls’ Toys and Boys’ Toys

GeekMom Toys

We’ve had a lot to say about princesses, Disney-style and otherwise, during this past week. Our relationship to princesses is as much about our personal identities as it is about the social messages about princesses that come from both popular culture and corporations. Throughout it all, I think the essential question that nags at us is this:  What does it mean to be a girl?

The answer is complex and is generated by each and every one of us, females and males, kids and grownups, authors and artists, movie studios and toy companies. The social construction of girlhood in general and princesshood in particular is like a crazy funhouse mirror maze in which we all project and view different images, simultaneously trying to figure out which ones we like, which ones we don’t, and which ones we actually resemble.

Although I have these kinds of conversations with my friends all the time, I was astonished to have a chat about gender, toys, and marketing with a Disney representative the other day. Several weeks ago I bought my son a gift on Disney’s online shopping portal. Some time passed and I received an email with an invitation to take a survey about my shopping experience. I take those surveys. Every time. It’s easy enough to kvetch about things you don’t like, but corporations are not mind readers. They need actual feedback and your views can’t be considered if you never voice them.

I voiced my opinion. Overall, I like their website, it was super easy to find what I needed, and I was happy with the quality of the product I ordered. The only thing I had to say that wasn’t positive was a small comment about the gendered nature of the toys. I can’t stand the way they are categorized as toys for girls and toys for boys. In response, I received an email asking if I would mind providing my phone number so that they could talk to me more about this. Really?  I was game, and after a couple of missed calls, I found myself on the receiving end of a call from Disney’s presidential service team.

I expected someone who was either disengaged from the issue or a corporate representative who was in some way going to try to continue to sell me on Disney despite my concerns. That is not what I got. The man on the other end of the phone sounded like he actually understood.

“I think girls should be more empowered to play with active toys,”  I said. “I agree!”  he replied. And so it went, even when I explained that I wanted my son to feel more comfortable with toys typically marketed to girls.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that Disney’s entire corporate structure is going to change as a result of this call. I recognize that more than any other company that markets to children, Disney has mastered the art of making its customers feel cherished and welcome. In fact, when people ask me what it was like to spend a day undercover with a cult (true story), I often explain that it was a lot like being on a cruise ship or at Disney World. Everyone makes you feel loved and welcome and snuggly inside. To draw you in. And get your money.

Photo: Jessamyn

Nevertheless, I was very impressed at the effort that was put into a small comment that reflected a big thought. I’ve always told my son that there is no such thing as girls’ toys and boys’ toys. Toys are just toys. I wish that marketers would consider this too, and stop playing such a strong role in defining gender for our children. I had the chance to say that to Disney, and hung up the phone pleasantly surprised.

On such small pebbles are castles built. Perhaps even castles with self-rescuing princesses.

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30 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Girls’ Toys and Boys’ Toys

  1. I recently read that Disney will not be making another “Princess” movie for a while, as it was felt that they didn’t have enough “boy” demographic – they wanted to keep the tween boys’ attention…The next few movies will be geared toward boys or to a general audience. I wonder if this call was in relation to that change in thinking. I remember the older movies as being for everyone…Fox and the Hound and Robin Hood come to mind.

  2. Another great post. As a tomboyish geekmom to a to toddler daughter, this is a topic close to my heart. I already see her drawn to purses and dolls and the pink is EVERYWHERE! I hope Disney really is pushing for more gender neutrality, but I don’t see them giving up their princess empire any time soon.

  3. I agree. Kids know what they want to play with. You don’t have to paint it blue or pink for them to figure it out.

    Plus, if there are fewer “labels” assigned to toys, think of how many more toys our children could choose from. The toy store would double in size!

  4. I definitely agree. I was a tomboy as a kid and wanted to play with mostly typical “boy” toys. I loved blocks, and my deepist wish was to get an erector set. I had pretty much no use for Barbies. It always bothered me when I felt like I wasn’t “girly” enough because I didn’t like girl toys.

  5. I have noticed a distrubing trend of marketing for toys to be more and more gendered. I walked through a Toys R Us once and noticed they actually had signage up for a girl toys section (everything all pink and mostly toys like dolls and house keeping toys) and a boy toys section (mostly action figures and toy weapons). Even when I have shopped for things such as a kid’s digital camera, which is something that has no traditional gender association, I found that one brand marketed them in a pink and a blue version, as a girls and boys version (I chose to go with a different brand that had one version featuring several colors on it)

    1. I also want to ask a question, Jennifer said she bought a different brand of camera than the one that offered pink and blue cameras meaning “boy and girl”. My question is why? Who cares what the color is? Most girls prefer pink, notice that I said MOST not all. Most boys prefer blue, notice again I said MOST not all. If you have a girl that likes pink why wouldn’t you get it for her?

      1. I think “pink for girls, blue for boys” is cultural, not inborn. As is white for brides.

        That said, one reason to offer choices beyond pink and blue cameras, bikes, and other non-gender-specific gear is so that you can hand it down to a child of the opposite sex. Why should you have to buy your son a new bike because he’s not into princesses (or your daughter a new camera because she doesn’t like trucks)?

        1. I know I sound really negative etc, but this issue is close to me because of me having 3 girls. The other thing is that as kid I wanted the girly stuff, and it wasn’t available like it is today. As far as pink is for girls blue is for boys I think it is inborn. My girls gravitate towards that color and have since WAY before they had “girl toys”. As babies almost everything they owned was every color. I think there is a tendency to go to pink and purple as a girl and it has nothing to do with what toys r us does in their stores. You market stuff to what people like and the majority of girls like pretty frilly sparkly girly colors and the majority of boys like boyish colors. Its just human nature. (IMO)

    2. Jennifer mentioned Toys R Us– I worked for TRU briefly before my daughter was born. It bothered me a lot how much they segregated toys by gender, especially when it seemed quite arbitrary and even very particular to TRU alone. I did notice that some parents would ignore the designations, though.

      Much of the boys section at the store was picked over by collectors, anyways– most were men, but there were women now and then. This actually bothered me a little more, because I could see collectors tended to scare away people looking for toys for their children and grandchildren. Different rant for another time, though.

      It seems to me that gender-free parenting is a little overwrought: there is much hand wringing when I think it is much easier to allow the children to choose their own way. My daughter had everything pink for a time although it’s pretty clear she’s a gamin girl in other ways: scruffy and tomboyish. My son loves to give hugs and kisses to things (however inanimate they may be) he likes. He is quite active like his older sister but I doubt he would fit a rough and tumble image, at least not yet.

  6. I’m sorry but I am on the opposite side of this issue. In fact I don’t know how more opposite I could be. I wrote a post on my blog about this article today. If you want to read it you can here.
    http://cheeriodiva.blogspot.com/2011/01/what-is-your-take-on-this-subject.html

    If you don’t want to read it thats fine. I am a mom to 3 girls ages 5 and under. I don’t think there is anything wrong with girl toys that are girly. So if they like princess stuff they are going to grow up weaker minded than someone who liked trucks? It makes me very upset to think that people would think less of my girls for being girly, when they are girls!

    Sorry but this article has raised a very hot issue for me and something that I feel very strongly about. If a girl doesn’t like dolls and wants cars great, wonderful but it goes the other way as well. We as parents are the ones that shape who they become, not a bunch of dolls made by some toy company in China.

    1. Monica, I agree that it would have been nice to have had more pro-princess posts this week, but no one stepped forward to write the kind of post you did on your blog. So thanks for adding your response to our conversation, I appreciate it!

      Kathy (mom to two boys, so somewhat neutral in the princess debate)

    2. Monica, I didn’t read this article that way at all. I don’t think the author was saying that there’s anything wrong with “girly” toys, or with girls playing with those toys, but rather, there is something wrong with a company deciding which toys should be for boys and which should be for girls. Why not just label toys as toys and let parents and kids decide what they like best?

      Also, I agree that parents are the main influence in shaping who our kids become, but don’t totally write off the influence of culture and corporations. Companies wouldn’t spend so much money on marketing and advertising if it didn’t work in influencing people’s choices.

    3. I have a little girl who is very girly. She likes princesses, dress-up, make-up and playing house. I’ve let her explore on her own and she has decided the things that she likes. On the flip side she also likes choo-choos and hot wheels and her Tonka big wheel truck.

      I think what Jess was talking about was the marketing of one kind of toy to one specific gender. Boys can like braiding hair. Girls can like monster trucks. But to walk into a store or shop online you would think that girls are discouraged from liking monster trucks because that’s a BOY thing and vice versa on the hairstyling (For the record, the guy who owns the salon I get my hair done at is a strapping, handsome man who is happily married and a figure in the community. He is a boy (man) who likes doing hair.)

      I don’t think Jess was referring to individual preferences of your children or my children or anyone else’s. It’s fine that your girls are girly. Mine is well rounded. I was an all out tomboy who categorically refused all pink, dresses, frills, and fluff. I turned out fine. As will my daughter. As will yours. I think Jess’ beef, if I read right, is just that marketing tries to cram a specific stereotype of interest ranges down parents (ipso facto children’s) throats.

  7. I get annoyed by the gendering of toys too. My sons get the Lego catalog in the mail, and spend hours poring over each new catalog. One day I noticed a two-page spread in one of the catalogs — it caught my eye because practically everything was pink. At the top of the page it said “Just For Girls”, and all of the featured Lego sets involved babies and horses and dogs. Now, there’s nothing in the catalog that says everything else is explicitly for boys, but I had a conversation with my sons about that page, and they had both (at ages 4 and 7) intuited that the sets on those two pages were only for girls, and everything else was only for boys.

    That led to a “There are no “girl toys” or “boy toys”” talk (which I think got through to them pretty well), but I never considered contacting Lego about it. The positive response you got from Disney, however, makes me think it’s worth a shot.

  8. In case anyone missed the reality–we are rapidly closing in on bio-robots and home based robots in general. We need empowered people, boys and girls, men and women working together on life. Being rescued is rather boring, doing the rescuing does get boring, too. Disney–new plots, please, and all the stores with the clothes and “images” can we be people first, since we are? Starting with reality generally works best……

  9. My opinion is that toys are toys, and both girls and boys should be able to choose what they want to play with for themselves, rather than be encouraged to play with ones that are “supposed” to be for their gender. My son loves playing dress up with my daughter, wearing all kinds of dresses, wigs, make up, but also pirate costumes, super hero capes, detectives, ninjas. They don’t discriminate.

    Another great post, Jess. Thanks!

  10. I understand everyone’s opinions, I just still simply disagree. I really like this blog, but was pretty disappointed in this weeks focus. As a fellow major geek mom I was hoping for more from this blog than having a whole week to dis all the Disney Princesses that I love and grew up with (well Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White). =(

    1. You know, I didn’t think this week was really dissing Princesses. When I sat down to write about Disney stopping it’s princesses, I thought I might write an anti-Disney piece, but that’s not what came out.

      In fact, I enjoyed Belle very much growing up. My issue was more about the stereotypes associated with princesses and how to move past that for great stories. And a lot of these posts have been personal reflections on what is marketed to us as women, us as moms, and to our children. I think geekmom isn’t just a parenting site, but a place for thinking parents to really examine pop culture for ourselves and our children.

      Originally, one writer was going to say something about Disney’s decision, but there was so much that other writers wanted to say that it became a weeklong series. Considering the number of comments they have generated, I think the topic needed to be examined.

      Why weren’t there writers of geekmom that wrote about how much they love Disney Princesses? Perhaps that’s already covered in so many aspects of online life- no one felt the need to reiterate. I’m glad we did this theme.

      1. Not trying to point to my own post, but I wrote a pro-princess piece as did Jenn D and Kate Miller. It’s just my opinion and completely outside my realm as an writer for the site, but if you want it to be understood that girls are allowed to like princesses without being called weak or anti-feminist or co-dependent submissive, then shouldn’t it be ok that a geekmom or two might not care for princesses and did not care for them as children without being called dismissive? It’s a two-way street. We hear your opinion and appreciate it. You seem to hear ours and appreciate it or not, there it is.

  11. As the mom of a 4-yr-old boy and a 2-mth-old girl, I just want to point out something that I personally didn’t even know about until very recently: Pink wasn’t always for girls. In fact, girls wore blue and boys wore pink.

    I quote the following directly from Wikipedia’s entry for “Pink”:

    “In Western culture, the practice of assigning pink to an individual gender began in the 1920s or earlier. From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary. Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.”

  12. Hi

    Good on you for following up with Disney and even better that you received a response from someone who seems less than an automated robot 🙂

    I must say I am not a fan of toys for kids in general, I believe in getting them out and experiencing life instead; as such we are more into bikes, helmets, martial arts gear, camping and outdoorsy items for our children. Unfortunately even some of these items are coming out in blue and pink with no other option in some brands; then again, most of those are the trashy sort anyway.

    That being said, we do end up buying for children’s parties etc and I find that most educational games, puzzles and toys are not gender orientated.

    Great blog, very enjoyable to read, it’s always good to see what parents around the globe think.

    Cheers, Lui (A Kiwi in Oz)

  13. There will always be girls who like princess. I know mothers who adamantly try and prevent it from happening and it still does. I agree that sometimes it is a natural gravitation. But that’s what it must be. A natural gravitation. Not because we have surrounded girls with pink, lace, and tiaras. I think that, often, this is the problem. Of course, there shouldn’t be a distinction made in the sense of, “cars are for boys,” and “dolls are for girls.” Kids need to be introduced to a variety of “play” from early on so that they actually make the choice themselves. I created Princess Free Zone (www.princessfreezone.com) because I had a daughter who rejected anything and all things girlie. While I didn’t fill her room with baby dolls, or princess things, I did dress her in pretty dresses and painted her room bright pink and orange. As soon as she could speak, she let me know that she wasn’t having any of it. And so I began to get her the things I knew she liked: race cars, trucks, boys clothes (including underwear), sabers, super hero outfits, etc. After realizing that she had few options in girls departments/stores, I created PFZ and the super hero character Super Tool Lula (because my daughter only had Spiderman, Batman, Superman, etc.).

    I believe the gender demarcation is too strong regarding toys. It forces kids to choose from what’s in front of them. That needs to change so that there is no stigma if a girl wants a truck or a boy wants a tiara.

    🙂

  14. Reminds me of how, last year or the year before, I wanted to get my toddler son a toy vacuum cleaner. How come the only one I could find was pink and actually SAID “Just for girls”? Dang, if my son is showing an interest in vacuuming, I want to ENCOURAGE rather than discourage that! What is the household of whoever designed that vacuum cleaner LIKE?

  15. This drives me nuts too. As a geeky girl, I regularly asked for Legos and model aircraft/spacecraft for birthdays and Christmas. #1 on the list, circled, starred, underlined, etc. I was in college before I got either one, and the models I bought myself.

    Now I have a 3-year-old boy, and the shoe is somewhat on the other foot. To bring this back to Disney marketing, my son LOVES Winnie-the-Pooh. I was very disappointed at the store a few months ago to observe that the Pooh clothing was aimed at girls (pink, dresses, etc.).

    Now, I have bought him a pink hat when he picked it out. He seems to have an on-again, off-again relationship with his pink pacifier (sometimes he prefers the blue or green). If he chose a pink Pooh shirt, I’d probably buy it for him. But I don’t generally get it on my own.

    But what really drives me nuts is that the Pooh series, as originally written, is predominately about boys, and it’s a good, *gentle* role-model for my son. Right now, at 3, I feel he’s too young for violent action-oriented cartoons. He’s been *very* sensitive to violent TV in the past.

    Eventually, as all good geeks, we will introduce him to Star Wars, Star Trek, the Avatar animation, and other shows with action and fight scenes… but there’s time enough for that when he’s ready for it.

  16. I’ve always had issues with this – girls and boys can do and like the same things, and that’s okay! I bought my son and daughter capes from http://www.powercapes.com, and someone told my daughter that girls couldn’t be superheroes?!?!? What! Nonsense. She can be whatever she wants. As can he.

  17. I’ve been saying this even since I had my fisrt job ever, which was at McDonalds. There’s no such thing as girls toys and boys toys! Thank you!

  18. I’m with you, as a mom to 4 kids, all of whom have played with dolls, had tea parties, played in the mud, wore dress up clothes in the form of knights/princess/dragon/viking/space person, planted things with their own gardening tools all the while dressing like they want (and 2 boys/2 girls) My youngest now is a white blonde haired, long black eyelashes surrounding striking blue eyes, and dresses/acts like a pretty pink glittery princess. Or so it looks like. Until she sneaks a sword out from her purse and wacks at your knees, or takes her brown baby Tanna outside in the dirt to dig roads for her cars in her pink glittery dress. The boys do everything from play Barbies to pretend to be CSI’s and everyone plays with Legos.
    Many parents however, don’t provide their kids with ‘other-sexed’ toys. They don’t give their boys dollies or dress up clothes. They don’t give their girls swords, cars or Legos.
    But really, for all us geek parents, you are most likely preaching to the choir LOL

  19. I agree toys are just toys! If boys want to play with dolls and girls with trucks who cares? Is it likely to affect them in any way – nope!

    This pink revolution going on with girls toys all gets a bit boring after a while – give them the toy they want to play with not necessarily the pink / blue option

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