Why do parents buy into gender segregated toys?

The New York Times reports on the gender Jim Crow that dominated Christmas shopping for children:

IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.

If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.

When I write or speak about this stereotyping as gender Jim Crow, it is not uncommon for a white, educated dad to tell me that I’m trivializing segregation.

About this article, Melissa Wardy, founder on Pigtail Pals comments on her Facebook page:

I still am unable to understand why this generation of parents – the most educated, most informed, most well-traveled, most well-rounded generation of parents to ever raise children accept the gender divide in the marketplace and believe it to be biological truth.

I have no doubt that humans in the future are going to look back on the radical gender segregation of children, babies, fetuses, accepted and ubiquitous, and wonder how loving parents became so brainwashed.

When CNN interviewed me yesterday about stereotyping gender in media for children, I was asked: “Isn’t it getting better?”

It’s getting worse. It really freaks me out how accepted it is. From the NYT:

What’s surprising is that over the last generation, the gender segregation and stereotyping of toys have grown to unprecedented levels. We’ve made great strides toward gender equity over the past 50 years, but the world of toys looks a lot more like 1952 than 2012…But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.

Read the NYT post for details of the research.

Why is this happening? Reporter, Elizabeth Sweet, writes:

On a practical level, toy makers know that by segmenting the market into narrow demographic groups, they can sell more versions of the same toy. And nostalgia often drives parents and grandparents to give toys they remember from their own childhood.

In her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein delves into great research about how segmenting any market drives sales. When I read her book, I thought about face cream, how instead of buying one jar, you’re supposed to get 5– night cream, day cream, eye cream, serum, and sunscreen.

I like how Sweet brings up “nostalgia” of parents because this is an important factor. Not only with toys but with stories. We remember and love the stories we read in childhood and want to share them with our kids, often ignoring the stereotyped gender roles the narratives promote. The result is, as Orenstein writes in her book, children are saturated with gender stereotypes as their brains are growing and developing. At the very least, parents are priming the next generation to be “nostalgic” about sexism.

If the brain development issue is hard for you to buy, think about this:

But if parents are susceptible to the marketers’ message, their children are even more so.

So true. If you, a grown-up, are influenced by all of this, how do you think it affects your little kid?

Here is my favorite part of the article:

Moreover, expert opinion — including research by developmental and evolutionary psychologists — has fueled the development and marketing of gender-based toys. Over the past 20 years, there has been a growth of “brain science” research, which uses neuroimaging technology to try to explain how biological sex differences cause social phenomena like gendered toy preference.

That’s ridiculous, of course: it’s impossible to neatly disentangle the biological from the social, given that children are born into a culture laden with gender messages. But that hasn’t deterred marketers from embracing such research and even mimicking it with their own well-funded studies.

I am so happy she wrote this! It is so amazing to me when biased “experts” create biased studies on biased children and then call it objective science.

I better stop pasting or the NYT will come after me, but you should read it. It’s a great piece.

Update Elizabeth Sweet comments on Reel Girl’s FB page:

Thank you, and thank you for the important work you do! I think the term you use, “gender Jim Crow” is so fitting. It’s de facto versus de jure (though that seems to be coming right back too in regards to women’s rights), but what troubles me the most is how untroubled so many are by it. And it’s happening on all fronts–media, products, science…

10 thoughts on “Why do parents buy into gender segregated toys?

  1. Pingback: When Our Toys Tell Kids Who They Should Be – on Gender Stereotypes and Gender-segregated Toys | Science, I Choose You!

  2. I’m not happy with the analogy– the “inner city play set” strikes me as a bizarre comparison– but “segregation” doesn’t refer only to race or ethnicity. Here’s a definition, and I think this is the relevant one:

    The action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things or being set apart.

    I think it’s impossible to argue that toys separated by gender are not being set apart, when the aisles are clearly marked “boys” and “girls”, in most major shopping venues. Absolutely, there is gender segregation. And it’s fine to call it that… but it hasn’t been legislated, as with the Jim Crow laws, so I think it’s extreme to describe gender segregation in the toy aisle as “Jim Crow”.. In my opinion, it distracts from the message that girls and boys can play together, by focusing on divisiveness.

    • Hi Kristen,

      I see you point about legislation, but the fact that parents, loving parents, voluntarily participate in rampant, stereotyped, and sexist gender segregation is terrifying to me. It’s like pre-legislation tribal ritual, based on peer pressure and threats of being ostracized.


  3. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having toys sorted according to interest – be that the pink pony or the aggressive brute aisle – the problem is the parents who are the gatekeepers to each area. I will let my son walk down whichever aisle he wishes and buy for him toys that he chooses. When I was a boy, I desperately wanted to play with My Little Pony among other pink things, but wasn’t allowed to.

  4. As for gender segregated toys, when I think back to my childhood bedroom I remember a few dolls but an overwhelming number of books and plush animals. If I’m ever lucky enough to have children, I think I’d want to stress the stories we can tell vs. the vehicles we use to tell them. What a child imagines a doll is capable of doing is a lot more important than what the specific doll is intended to signify.

    It’s difficult to imagine how to force a change in the toy industry. Normally you would endorse one product over another. But when everything is overwhelmingly a certain way do you just boycott the system altogether?

  5. As for vocabulary, here is where I stand. To me it does seem like a misappropriation of the culture/fight of another group to use the language of their struggle. I know I talk about it a lot but it makes me think of Jane Eyre. There’s something discomforting in the way she uses the language of slavery and harems and oppression as a white, middle-class woman who is in full support of her aristocratic husband and the colonizing, missionary work of St. John.

    But what I think is also disturbing about it is how necessary it might seem. Why can’t women use their own language to argue their points? Why is it necessary to appropriate these terms (for shock value or to get people to recognize the similarities in the situations) before they will take notice?

  6. “Why do parents buy into gender segregated toys?” I think nobody could’ve answered it better than you when you said parents by into stereotypes as it makes their kids easier to parent. Like how they’ll excuse not taking their girls outside more often because they, by virtue of being girls, actually wouldn’t like that, being more artsy i.e. quieter.

Leave a Reply to KirstenCancel reply