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…