Toy stores in the UK promote gender equality: Should the U.S. follow suit?

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The girl section of most toy stores is a all pretty and pink. (Mel Yates)

The girl section of most toy stores is all pretty and pink. (Mel Yates)

Walk into most any toy store in the United States and on one side you’ll find turbo shredders and speed racers stacked on top of bright yellow bulldozers and shiny red firetrucks. Welcome to the boys’ section—where everything shoots, fires, attacks, looks scary, moves fast and makes loud noises!

On the other side of the store, you’re enveloped by a sea of “princess pink” filled with long-haired dolls, fluffy tutus, sparkly tiaras and dainty tea sets. This, of course, is the girls’ section—where everything’s pretty.

Our nation’s toy stores are reenforcing old and tired stereotypes. Play food and mini kitchens are in the girls’ section, sending the message that girls should do the cooking. All things related to building and science, like blocks and volcano-building kits, sit on shelves in the boys’ because society says that boys should build the skyscrapers and cure the diseases.

Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks certainly wouldn’t approve—and even parents like me who don’t get overly caught up in gender politics are irritated because of how extreme the stereotyping has become.

The big toy stores even go to the trouble of labeling areas of the store with “girls” and “boys” signage. You have to wonder why they even bother because the sections are so blatantly male or female. These signs send the message to kids that Easy Bake Ovens are for girls and Lincoln Logs for boys. An open-minded 4-year-old girl might cross into the boys’ area to grab a Matchbox car but once she gets a little older and becomes more self aware, she wouldn’t dare. This becomes a problem when an 8-year-old girl who loves Hogwarts wants a Harry Potter Lego set that’s on display in the boys’ section.

Some toy stores across the pond in the UK are attempting to strip their shops of gender. Toys R Us announced last week that it’s removing signage labeling boy and girl sections from their UK store. Images of girls and boys playing together with the same toys will hang on the walls. The reorganization was spurred by the the group “Let Toys Be Toys”asking retailers “to stop limiting children’s imaginations and interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys,” according to the Huffington Post.

Two years ago, London’s Hamleys, one of the world’s oldest and largest toy stores, scrapped its “sexist” boys’ and girls’ floors labeled with pink and blue signage and is now regrouping toys by type, such as “soft toys” and “arts and crafts,” so kids can wander around more freely, let their imaginations run wild and find what interests them. Harrod’s, the famous London department store with a glorious toy department, underwent a similar makeover.

Should stores in the United States follow suit?

I love how these UK toy stores are challenging social expectations. I wish toy manufacturers would do the same. Toy companies have taken gender stereotypes to an extreme and created narrow versions of masculinity and femininity. They rarely produce gender neutral products in primary colors such as red, yellow and green. Today, everything is either purple and pink (girl) or black and blue (boy). Lego kits used to feature a rainbow of colored blocks and their ads included both boys and girls building awesome structures but now the plastic-block-maker churns out two types of products: those for boys and those for girls. The female Lego line is all pink and girls can build a beauty salon or a cafe—why can’t they make a cool space station? In the male line all the figurines wear scary faces and come with weapons.

Last year, 13-year-old McKenna Pope started an online campaign demanding that Hasbro make its Easy Bake Oven in gender-neutral colors. The oven that was first introduced by Hasbro in 1963 has been made in a wide range of colors over the years, but today it only comes in the gender-specific colors pink and purple and all the promotional materials feature girls. Pope wanted to buy her brother who loves to bake the oven for Christmas but she knew he wouldn’t like the packaging so she started a Change.org petition. The petition with over 45,000 signatures caught Hasbro’s attention and they’ve promised to introduce a silver-colored oven in the future.

That silver oven would go perfectly in a section of a toy store where both boys and girls are welcome, sending a message that both men and women belong in front of the stove. No, small changes like this aren’t going to make a huge difference and spur boys across the nation to play with doll houses—and that’s not necessarily what we want. But lots of little steps will add up and point us in a better direction where kids might be more likely to adopt interests that come from within and not from our overbearing over-commercialized world.

Today’s toy ads often enforce gender stereotypes showing girls playing with pink dolls and boys building with blue blocks. It wasn’t always this way. Vintage toy ads depicted boys and girls playing together. Toys came in gender-neutral colors and girls could be scientists. Take a look.

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