Sunday, March 9, 2014
By KJ DELL'ANTONIA
It may be the 40th anniversary of "Free to Be You and Me," featuring the song "William's Doll," but the decision of a Swedish toy company, Top Toy (a licensee of Toys "R" Us), to put blow-dryers and dolls in the hands of its boy models and feature photos of Nerf-gun-wielding girls is still able to generate headlines.
"This holiday season, how about a toy gun for the girl on your shopping list, and a doll for the boy?" a writer at The Wall Street Journal asks. "Dolls for Billy, toy guns for Sally?" The Toronto Star demands.
The interest that the images of boys with toy irons and girls with action figures has generated should be more surprising than the images themselves. Haven't we settled that making assumptions about which playthings will interest which sex is for out-of-touch bastions of the old school?
I'm not sure I would have even noticed Top Toy's apparently gender-bending pictures if the catalog had arrived, in English, in my mailbox. But then I'm in the HearthSong demographic, and pictures of boys dancing with scarves and girls building with blocks are scattered throughout that catalog's pages.
The gender-typing of toys and toy advertising may remain strong in some places -- stronger, I suspect, than the gender-stereotyping you'd find in most preschools or playrooms, no matter how traditional the area -- but the modern, educated parent (she wrote, with her tongue firmly in cheek) counteracts that by keeping purchases and gifts gender neutral.
As I buy holiday gifts for my four children this year -- two boys and two girls -- I'm remembering, again, that I am not always that parent. I set out, with the best intentions in the world, to buy gifts they'll enjoy. But faced with a limited number of acceptable choices and the desire not to buy two children the same thing, I sometimes find myself defaulting to stereotype: the first-grade boy gets the toy cars, and the first-grade girl gets the cool art supplies.
In some sense that's fine -- my youngest son likes cars, and my youngest daughter likes spray bottles that connect to markers and make a horrible mess. If I were just catering to their tastes, I wouldn't give the gendered-playthings question a second thought.
What troubles me is that I sometimes assign the gifts according to sex even though the opposite would be true, as well. That's not my intent. It's not even my personal preference -- of all the toys in our house, that Nerf gun would have been the one I would have gravitated to as a child. (Perfect for playing Charlie's Angels!) Yet I'm still surprised by how often I do it anyway.
Last year was, for me, a big year of accidental stereotyping. It wasn't until I considered the small piles of wrapped gifts in light of a furious discussion over whether Lego really needed to create Legos specifically for girls that I realized the building toys had gone boyward and the stuffed animals and crafts to the girls (the video games, at least, were equally distributed).
This year's piles (largely already purchased, but certainly not wrapped) have played out in a much more equal way (electronics kits and Furbys for all!), but the story of Top Toy's efforts at a gender-neutral catalog has me wondering just how much things have changed in the years since "William's Doll."
Sure, if your son asks for a doll, you'd buy one (I did). The question is, what will you buy him if he doesn't ask?
The issue of how much gender matters in marketing arises every year with the onslaught of holiday advertising, and it doesn't end with toys -- Bic went famously awry with its "Bic for Her" pens this year, and fathers and mothers alike objected to Huggies diaper ads that depicted men as potentially clueless when it came to the basics of caring for their own infants.
But do marketers make these mistakes at least in part because out here in the real world, we're still figuring it out ourselves, or is their persistent desire to slice and dice the market into manageable segments a big part of what makes some of us toss pink pens into our daughters' stockings and cars that fold up into balls into our sons'?
Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at: