“Companies realised that if they could convince us there are two types of child, we’ll end up spending more because we’ll stop handing toys down between brothers and sisters.”
There are two aisles in toy stores. While these two aisles are seemingly harmless, they have – it has been argued – discouraged children from playing with certain toys because of their gender. Some have also suggested that this, in turn, hinders the child’s psychological development and their identity expression.
It is true that even those who believe in rigid gender roles would be more likely to chastise a boy for wanting a pink fairy doll, than a girl for wanting a train set. However, this could be for a simple reason.
We still have, embedded in our culture, the idea that being a girl is automatically a demotion and that boy’s things are, by default, the best things.
Many have begun recognising the negative effects that gendered toy marketing has on children. In fact, the topic has begun hitting a nerve among some parents, who have decided to act.
The IPF spoke to Megan Perryman, Founder of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, to find out more about what they have been doing.
When did you decide to set up Let Toys Be Toys?
It all started on Mumsnet in November 2012 with several posters complaining about gendered marketing aimed at children. One of the group said, “Why don’t we start a campaign?” and we just took it from there. Most of us are parents and we were particularly shocked at the change in marketing compared to our own childhoods.
Have we divided toys into gendered categories for a long time?
The truth is, although sexism has been around a long time, the insidious gendered marketing you see today only really started in the 1990s.
Companies realised that if they could convince us there are two types of child, we’ll end up spending more because we’ll stop handing toys down between brothers and sisters. Elizabeth Sweet did some interesting research on this.
What do you think does the most long-term damage in children when toys are segregated by gender?
To develop into a rounded individual you need to have lots of different skills and interests. The damage that can be done by limiting children’s interests is that they never realise their full potential.
To get more girls in STEM careers we need girls playing with science toys. For boys to grow up to be rounded fathers we need more boys with baby dolls.
When you were a child, what kind of toys did you mostly play with, and how did they shape your own identity?
My parents were aware of the limitations of only playing with toys associated with your gender, so I grew up with a range of toys including superheroes, robots, the Beano and a much-loved skateboard.
I grew up knowing my gender shouldn’t stop me from doing anything in life.
The potential downside was that, as much as I loved my toys, I also longed for toys I wasn’t “allowed”, such as a fashion doll. So I decided with my children that no toys would be off-limits; I’d just make sure they understood that their gender wasn’t relevant to their toy choice.
Do you think change needs to come from a grassroots level, or do you also think there needs to be legislation to enforce change?
We’ve never pushed for a legislation change and so far it hasn’t been necessary. We were delighted to see that most toy retailers have been prepared to remove sexist toy signage when asked and a number of publishers have agreed to stop publishing sexist children’s books. However, equalities legislation does exist and perhaps some need to remind themselves of that.
How successful is the Let Toys Be Toys campaign so far in terms of changing people’s mindsets?
We’ve had some great successes with toy retailers and publishers, and hope to see manufacturers follow their example this year.
I’ve had countless people approach me to say that they had never thought about the damage caused by gendered toy marketing before, but now that the issue is being discussed, they’re thinking about it for the first time.