Across the Pink and Blue Aisles: A Look at Toy Gender Bias

By Anya Sczerzenie

We’ve all seen them before. In Target and Wal-Mart and Toys R’ Us. Twin aisles, but as different as night and day. One is full of cars, building kits, and different shades of blue and black. The other is a pink and purple wonderland of glitter, dolls, and play kitchens. The “boy” aisles and the “girl” aisles are staples in toy stores, and most children go for the toys meant for their gender. Sure, there may be a girl who wants a toy car or a little boy who wants to use an easy-bake oven, but those children aren’t the average.

Although it’s true that gender equality in our society has grown, toys seem more biased than ever. Boys are drawn to the blue and black aisles, and girls to the pink and purple aisles. But why?

According to a 2014 Slate.come article, “Why Are Toys So Gendered?” some researchers say that it’s a biological preference that females are born to love caring for dolls, just as boys are born with a need for speed and destruction. According to a 2008 article published in the Journal of Hormones and Behaviors, scientists hypothesized that during experiments in which baby monkeys were given a toy car and a stuffed dog, the males would prefer the car to the stuffed dog, and the females would have the opposite preference. However, most of the experiments actually concluded that both genders of baby monkeys liked to play with the fluffy stuffed animal instead of the toy car. Other experiments with human babies showed that both genders liked looking at faces instead of hanging mobiles, which was supposed to be the preference of only females. If this shows that the preference isn’t biological, then what is it?

Is it possible these toy preferences are caused by society? Even in the past, girls’ toys were seen as a way to prepare young girls for a future life of domesticity, from baby dolls to ovens to play food. Boys, on the other hand, had toy trains and cars or simply handfuls of mud to fling at each other. They were the explorers and breadwinners, while women ran the house. This system of thought continues today, even though a lot has changed. According to blogger and gamer Aleks Krotoski, who was named one of the “Top 10 Girl Geeks of 2010” by CNET.com, video games, for example, target male gamers in ways that emphasize dominance and exploration, while games for girls emphasize socialization and self-reflection.

Society, just as it impacts the choices of adults and teenagers every day, can also impact the choices of kids who don’t even know what the word “society” means yet. The pinks and blues of toy packaging seem to tell children which toys are for them, and colors and symbols associated with the genders go beyond toys. However, a lot of children play with toys of both genders just the same. In a survey of 17 Tuscarora students of both genders, 11 of the students said they played with a variety of different toys as a child, as opposed to just “girl” or “boy” toys.

People are beginning to cross gender barriers, especially in toy advertising itself. A recent CNN story focused on McKenna Pope, a 13 year-old girl from New Jersey, who has recently launched a petition to change the pink packaging of the Easy-Bake Oven (a small toy oven which children can use to make desserts from a mix) because the “girly” colors discouraged her four-year-old brother from playing with it. Pope believes the packaging should be changed to a more gender neutral color, and that little boys should be shown playing with the oven in addition to the girls already on the package. Her petition has gained attention from the media, and many people have signed it. “I want my brother to know that it’s not ‘wrong’ for him to want to be a chef, and that it’s okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate,” said Pope.

Recently, a toy company introduced a toy that they believe to be revolutionary: a construction toy for girls that isn’t pretty and pink. Called GoldieBlox, these building kits are packaged in yellow and orange instead of the pinks and purples of most “girl” toys, and they focus on engineering and building machines. According to a New York Times article, they come with stories and characters that “tap into girls’ strong verbal skills,” to encourage their building and spatial skills. Elizabeth Weiss, writer of the article in the New York Times about GoldieBlox, said that companies are “relocating construction kits into the ‘girl toy’ aisle.”

It seems like society is making great strides in reducing gender inequality in toys. But what else can or should be done? In the Tuscarora student surveys, five out of 17 students said that toys should be marketed to both genders— like the Goldie Blox and Easy Bake oven examples. Three of the students said nothing should be done, and the majority—eight students—said that children should simply be encouraged to play with toys of both genders.

The question remains: Where do the toy companies go from here? Are gender-biased toys an actual problem? And if they are, should companies change advertising or should society change their community values? Or maybe big companies and small families need to work together to let children play the way they really want to.