One of the many recent projects that have set out to explore the issue of gender and its relation to childhood is JeongMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project,” in which the artist photographed children’s rooms filled with products in only two colors. The boy rooms overflow with blue; the girl rooms are saturated in pink.
The project, inspired by Yoon’s daughter’s obsession with the “girl color,” are at once disturbing and familiar. For every company that vaunts its support of female engineers and every artist who intervenes to wipe the makeup off of a Bratz doll, there are many more examples of toy giants such as Lego and Disney announcing new collections that further cater to a binary and restrictive understanding of gender. And it’s not just popular perception: research shows that today’s toy stores are gender segregated at historically unprecedented levels.
To understand the role of gender in toys we need to begin with an attempt at understanding the very activity of play. Counter to our perception of play equaling free and unrestrained exploration, the idea of play in our society is at best guided, and at worst entirely scripted. Although a large portion of play involves children learning social skills and honing cognitive capabilities, play also reflects social norms and ideologies. As such, play frames and guides children’s perceptions of the world. A problem arises when the frame given is one of a hierarchical, stratified society, seen from a heteronormative, primarily male, perspective.
Since most play involves a toy, toys become the vehicles that convey these ideas and ideals to a child’s developing mind. And while gender stereotypes in one form or another have been present throughout history, the timeline of gendered toys is surprisingly short. Until recently, pink and blue had opposite meanings as gender markers. Pink, in its proximity to the commanding power of red, was thought to suit boys, while blue was considered more passive, and consequently best suited for girls. In the last 40 years, the opposite has become completely naturalized—a testament to the power of trend to make people see reflections of “innate” preferences in arbitrary fashions.
Gendering of children’s activities didn’t stop with the colors attached to them—it also expanded to include the toys themselves. Today’s concept of the “gender appropriate” toy began just after World War II, when Hasbro went from selling its massively popular, gender-neutral Mr. Potato Head to action figures targeting boys, most successfully in the form of GI Joes, which were introduced in 1964 and went on to sell over 375 million units. And of course, their equivalent was also introduced in that period: the even more famous Barbie, that paradigmatic “girl toy,” which hit toy store shelves in 1959.
Once they appeared, connections between genders and certain toys rapidly became standardized and widely accepted. From Easy-Bake Ovens, introduced in 1963, to the wide variety of new dolls, from Chatty Cathy to Liddle Kiddles, the 1950s and 60s placed a great premium on girls developing their domestic and nurturing skills. On the other hand, toys for boys encouraged control, competition and exploration. And while it has often been argued that considering certain toys masculine—building and science sets, for instance—is particularly harmful for girls, the reality is that these toys are considered a lot more appropriate for girls than toys that foster domestic skills are for boys. The gender coding of toys is thus not just a women’s issue. The options for expression through play for boys are in fact much more limited than those for girls. (The lack of a positive term for “tomboy” for boys perhaps best demonstrates that a boyish girl is far more socially acceptable than an effeminate boy.)
In our wish to categorize children rather than give them a spectrum of opportunities for expression, there is often mention of a third option with regards to gender in toy-making. The late 1960s marked a decided shift from established conventions as second-wave feminism arose in response to the oppressive lifestyles of the 50s and activists began promoting a vision of an androgynous, almost unisex child. This was reflected both in the clothes children wore and in the toys they were given to play with. In a 1975 Sears catalog less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to boys or girls, and from 1975 to 1978 Sears sold no toddler clothing in pink.
The de-gendering was short-lived, however, driven out by the rising market of the 80s and its accompanying pressures for constant growth. By dividing the market into a more narrow demographic it was easier for companies to sell more products, as advertising encouraged parents with both sons and daughters to buy toys for each gender. The advent of prenatal testing and imaging technologies allowed for gender-informed shopping decisions even before children were born. Gender-reveal parties grew in popularity, and through them pink and blue become stand-ins for the arrival of a baby boy or girl.
In the 1980s girl toys moved away from a focus on nurturing and began to center on appearance. Pinkification reached its peak in the early 2000s with the advent of the Disney Princess franchise. In her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein famously relates a conundrum many mothers face today, finding that their daughters wholeheartedly embrace the “pretty pink princess” ideal without any encouragement—and sometimes even with opposition—from their parents. The princess obsession was reinforced by a cultural change in childrearing. For the first time, children were given agency in choosing their own toys, immediately driving marketers to develop materials which would target children directly. Research indicates that children understand and apply gender stereotypes by age three. Assigning gender cues to toys, then, appeals to a child’s desire to belong.
While JeongMee Yoon’s now 14-year-old daughter no longer considers pink her favorite color and Peggy Orenstein’s daughter is likely to outgrow her princess phase, the question remains whether the gender binary in toys is a harmless marketing trick, or if it has deeper implications for childhood development. From the expert consensus that all-pink toy aisles have a negative impact on girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects to the even broader question of whether forcing children to conform to preconceived molds inhibits their potential for creative expression, it is clear that children’s toys are more than just child’s play.