gender, marketing, motherhood, parenting, toddlerhood

On toys, gender-roles, and marketing away our creativity

I don’t go out and about stocking up on toys for my kiddo and many of his gifts are typically wrapped up sippy-cups, bottle-brushes, and other practical necessities because for him gift-opening is about the act of opening more than it is about what’s inside [friends and family do give real gifts of the playing sort lest you think my son sits in a barren wasteland of a playroom]. Still, he is getting older, and I’ve noticed the contents are beginning to interest him more than days gone by, so this Eid, K and I headed to Target to see what toys, in addition to the Elmo we purchased him, were available.

Outside of one trip to Toys-R-Us to outfit his playroom with an easel and some musical instruments, I haven’t really gone down toy sections with the intent of purchasing. To say the inventory disheartened me is an understatement. I went thinking I’d find a kid’s doctor’s kit, or a diorama box, or other things that would serve as jump starts to creative play. Yeah, no. All toys were divided into boy sections and girl sections. The girl section pink and frilly and the boy section blue and gray and so very boyish. Each section was further subdivided into not puzzle section, make believe section, but instead, corporate logos. Star Wars, Toy Story, Spiderman. Now don’t get me wrong, my son just got an Elmo, but its one thing to have some corporate toys, its another thing when every single kids item at a store is brand-name-only and specific to scenes in a show or movie.

Attempting to find something for my son that would not be an advertisement for a cartoon company, I went to the toy kitchens: all pink and purple with images of grinning girls in frocks. Don’t get me wrong. My son has a pink stroller and a lavender tea seat and I’m fine with it but the whole color-coded and thus gender-appropriate marketing messages is just getting pretty damn old. What is the message? Boys can’t cook? They can’t push their children in strollers or pour tea for pretend friends? Why on earth are these simple activities of human life taboo in the toy aisle? Didn’t we move beyond these limits as a culture?

I just read an article on NPR about the rise of the toy industry in the past decades and the steady push for corporate toys telling us to play with those things they’ve created shows and movies around and showing us how to play, with sounds and voices for things which children once used to imagine the voices and sounds for. These toys are rapidly depleting our children’s creativity and intelligence by taking away their self regulation and executive function skills. I read a book a few months back that discussed that television is not just bad for young ones because of the higher odds of ADHD and other attention issues, but because children then typically act out and make-believe what they see on television which limits the scope and breadth of their imagination since they’re limiting their play acting to what their favorite characters did on their favorite shows, and not instead tapping into the unbridled creativity stored in reserves in the depths of their being.

In the end, after an hour of searching, we purchased some playdoh. And he loved it. I just wish I had more options. And while yes, there are legos, and blocks, and other open-ended toys, on the whole I wish that toy companies wouldn’t gender-box their toys and limit them to TV shows, and instead worked on making toys that did what they’re meant to do: help a child entertain themselves while expanding their minds, creativity, and intelligence in the unbridled way its supposed to grow.

What are your thoughts about this? Seen this yourself in your own local toy stores or is this perhaps a southern thing? Or a Target thing? Would love your perspectives.

23 thoughts on “On toys, gender-roles, and marketing away our creativity”

  1. Give the kid some cars πŸ™‚ I had lots of cars and toy soldiers as a boy and they were fun. It's even more fun to bang the cars into the soldiers.

    My personal opinion, forget all this trying to have gender equality thing. Kids are kids. My sister always had doll houses and kitchens and they never fascinated me. And yet I love to cook as an adult. One does not imply the other. Young girls like to imitate their mothers and play with dolls – historically.

    Boys just want to break things. We are awesome that way. True story.

    And oh, playdoh rules.


  2. Mezba, ofcourse he has cars. He has trucks, trains, tractors, airplanes and other toys. However, he also enjoys pushing his stroller. He loves his tea set. What is wrong with that? Why do strollers need to be pink and tea sets purple? Historically perhaps girls imitated moms and dads and I think this holds true today but my husband changes diapers, cooks, and pushes strollers, and sometimes he even makes and drinks tea. So why can my son only buy from a store things that model him cutting the grass, or driving a car? Why is he limited by toy companies to what he can model with their toys?

    When we go to play groups, the toy kitchens are surrounded by boys and girls. There is a line ten kids long [boys and girls] for the strollers. Maybe things are different where you are, because yes, here too kids are kids, but not just girls with barbies and boys with trucks. Its a shame marketers don't see that.


  3. Ikea has a kitchen that is gender neutral. I get rather annoyed with the pink and purple myself. I have the same problem with clothes. Why does every single clothing item have to pink and/or purple!!!! I would like to dress my daughter in something besides pink!! Pixie


  4. Oooo, one of my ultimate soap box issues!! I could rant and rant and rant about this for hours. Don't worry, I will refrain. I'll just say that, while it existed while we were young, I do think it's getting progressively worse. Also, it's definitely not just a Southern thing, and it's not even just a kid thing — adult products are also increasingly, aggressively gendered (see, e.g., the Bic Lady Pen lunacy, if you haven't been following then here's a synopsis:

    There are tiny glimmers of hope — recently a couple of stores in the UK re-did their toy departments to be “gender neutral.” Here's an article about Harrod's new toy space:

    I don't think it's perfect, but definitely a step in the right direction. Also, it's funny you mention LEGO, because of the big brouhaha earlier this year when they introduced their “LEGO Friends” line which features redesigned stereotypical “girly” LEGO figures and sets to “appeal” to girls (who surely would never want to play with those icky “masculine” regular everyday LEGO sets.) Article about that here: (the contrasting ad campaigns at the top of the article — one from LEGO in the 80s and one from LEGO today — is worth a thousand of my rant-y words).

    So now that you're just beginning to regret flipping my switch on this topic, I'll stop πŸ™‚ (But now you know how to rile me up really fast, if ever you want to in the future πŸ˜‰

    I just take this all very, very personally, as someone who grew up coveting toys society only deemed “appropriate” for boys.


  5. Hmmmm, I just submitted a comment but I may have not used the right log in/ID so it might show up as anonymous. If it has a lot of links to stories about LEGO and gender-neutral toy departments, but doesn't have a name attached to it, then know it was from me!

    Oh, and my opinion is that a lot of the gender coding and gender policing done by marketing departments is just a reaction to our society, which is stubbornly hostile to anything that deviates outside of our prescribed gender lines. In other words, I don't think marketers will change their strategies until society at large changes its antiquated, harmful view that there is actually a “proper” way to express gender identity.


  6. Agree with everything you & commenters have said! Very frustrating! I'm a huge fan of creative play, crayons, play kitchen, etc., and am constantly appalled at how AWFUL most toys are–both on the boy & girl end! Hen gets his toys based on what he likes–NOT what some corporate entity thinks is appropriate for a 'toddler boy'. Which means his rooms is filled with soft toys and trains, play food (yes from IKEA! LOVE IKEA toys for kids!) and matchbox cars.

    We're lucky enough to have an excellent indy toy store nearby, and they seem to do an awesome job keeping the toy areas as gender neutral as possible–and they're quick to admire his prowess pushing the shopping cart as they are to declaim about his status as a budding train engineer. (And yes, I know that's because they'd love to sell me BOTH the toy shopping cart AND the train set, but still, it's the appropriate response!)

    Might be worth seeing if there's a local toy store anywhere nearby!


  7. Totally agree, and no, it's definitely not a Southern thing. I hate this division along gender lines. I think for many kids, the interests naturally develop along what we consider gender lines, and if that happens, it's fine. But they should have the opportunity to explore it all … cars and trucks for girls, kitchen and stroller for boys, etc. I have two girls, but all the pink stuff drives me nuts!
    As for the setup in Toys'r'us – I'll probably never get used to it. I go in there to find a certain type of toy, NOT a certain brand …
    As another commenter said, have a look at Ikea. They have some nice, simple toys, and quite a nice wood-coloured toy kitchen.
    Re: playdough – I highly recommend making it at home. Not only does it not have the horrible smell of some of the store-bought playdough, but it's actually fun for the kids to help make it.



  8. not 'just' a southern thing…it's a Toy Store thing….every big box store with a toy aisle seems to do this.
    In general i try to stay away from the logo'd stuff…Ikea has a cute kitchen set that my friend's 2 year old son LOVES and i make it a point to check out the independent mom/pop toy stores because generally they will stock more retro toys – wooden blocks, make believe type things. Also, if you check hallmark at the mall they have a small section of gifty toys – usually by melissa&doug which are quite nice and not terribly expensive.


  9. Agreeing with all the others. It sucks. I have purchased almost zero toys from Target, Walmart, etc. I shop on Amazon, and my kid and I both love Ikea. Mostly he plays with open-ended objects: vacuuming with a Mega blocks tower, plain wooden block for phone. Imitating a coffee grinder using a pot and lid.


  10. target does carry a pretty decent line of toys called b. they are not gender specific, they're made really well and i've even seen a doctor's kit:

    and for christmas this past year we got louise a toy kitchen that just has a natural wood finish, perfect for a boy or girl, we got it at penney's.

    also. fisher price makes a dollhouse that's not pink, i've seen it at toys r' us, it's a little pricy but also very elaborate:
    louise has a similar one although it's not quite elaborate and she loves it. while i would have preferred to get her a nice wooden dollhouse set, i talked to some other moms, some who's children have both a plastic on and a wooden one and hands down they all said their kids preferred the plastic ones.


  11. Cylinda, its a good sign of our frieindship that even though it was posted as “unknown” I knew from the voice that it had to be you, lol. I totally forgot about legos “girlifying” absolutely gender-free blocks. And the bic pen. UGH. Thanks for the links I have them opened up on my tabs now. It's very maddening and yet a part of me wonders, can people really want this? Is this that people want this or is it that these are their only options and so they choose? Like if the grocery store only stocks bread and juice and you hate both, but if that's all you can get, you will buy it because its all there is. I don't know if the analogy makes sense. On the othe rhand, I had some people over my house the other day, and their little boy was playing with our pink stroller and the mother was horrifed and told him, “stop stop! that's pink! you don't want to play with that.” I immediately put her straight and told her, “it belongs to my son and boys and girls can enjoy playing with strollers.” I couldn't believe I was having to say this to a fellow grown adult though. It's a maddening thing that is more maddening when you have to witness little people being pressured to conform into their gender roles by such overwhelming cultural pressure.

    [see me on my soap box? lol]


  12. Thanks Reem, any idea where to look for montessori stuff??

    Susan, that indie toy store sounds dreamy!!!! I long for that person touch that a big-box store just can't give. One day I hope to live in an area like that, how sweet and awesome. If you come to read this comment, would love to knwo the name of the store and if they have an online store to support their good work.


  13. Natalie, thanks for sharing that you can relate to this. I am def going to check out IKEA. As for making Play-doh. I need to make it. I have some recipes. I'm just a bit nervous about it which is odd since its no harm no foul if I mess up. I guess I will do it soon πŸ™‚ Any particular recipe you enjoy using? How do you store it?


  14. PJ I'm on a mission after reading all these comments to find an indie toy store. I'm sure they are around here I just haven't looked. I would LOVE some retro toys. Thanks for the great ideas!

    Sara, yes Amazon is awesome, I guess the drawback is you don't get to browse as easily to get ideas as you could wandering a toy store adn watching your kids eyes light up at the physical object. Ikea is not that far from me, I can't wait to go next time I'm in the area!

    Kate, I bought a few things from that B line but am I wrong that they only have stuff for kids under two? At least in my area they only have stuff for that age range. When he was younger I did love their stuff!


  15. I think it is a ToysRUs thing. You cannot get a decent toy there, without it being branded somehow. Thank God in Germany there are loads of wooden toys (they have a thing for wooden anything) and I swear that every 'adult' every life item has a toy duplicate. From tools (George loves his power drill, ok, branded Bosch, but hey, it is an exact replica of his dad's big power drill and it really helps) to food, every domestic utensil (tiny mops anyone? With the professional cleaner's cart and bottles and such?). Anything that crosses your mind, basically. Checking the toy section of is quite interesting.
    But toysrus – gah!

    Vaguely related, my son got an apple toy with a worm inside that


  16. Drat!
    So, a worm inside that rattles. A HABA toy – all of them are gorgeous. To this day, when ever he sees it, he grins and claps and rattles the thing and plays woth the apple for at least 10 minuts. Which in George's world is like 40. πŸ™‚


  17. Last week I posted on FB asking if there was a market for a store where everything was NOT the typical gender colors. clothes, shoes, toys, bikes, helmets (do you know how hard it is to find a helmet for a girl that is not pink or princess-y????!) I was upset when looking online to buy some toddler underwear for my 2.5 year old girl. I did not want to get her pink or purple or princess. Why can't orange, red, lime, teal, bright yellow, blue and grey be regular colors for girls?!?!?! AGH! I will stop my rant now.

    They are big on gender-neutral wooden toys here in Germany. One of the biggest brands I see (and we've purchased a handful of these toys) is Haba. Yes, definitely more expensive, but in my mind, totally and completely worth it. These things will hold up to all kinds of child playing abuse and are not single mode of play toys — which is an awesome imagination building tool.

    We got our 1 year old a picture cube puzzle similar to this one ( in France. Ours has 12 blocks, 4 3-block puzzles. Both girls love it. Right now they're stacking blocks, but soon 2.5yo Big Ive will be putting the pictures together.

    Playmobil has some good products, too. ( Yes, they do have some of the gender stereotyping, but a lot can be gender neutral. My girls love the castle set ( and forest animal set ( Just a couple of ideas for you.

    Maybe things will start to change as more of us parents stop buying the stereotypical gender marketed toys and make our voices heard.


  18. Aisha,
    Here's the recipe for playdough I got from my daughter's preschool teacher. I've used it and like it. I never tried the food colouring option but just add a generous amount of cinnamon.
    You can find the alum powder in the grocery store where the spices are.

    The recipe is Flour, Salt, Oil, Water, Alum Powder, Food Colouring (optional), Cinnamon or Nutmeg (optional)

    One batch of play dough is 2 cups of flour, 2 tbsp of oil, 1/4 of salt, 2 tbsp of alum powder, 2 cups of water

    Use your judgment…..and add whatever is needed like water or flour. Keep it in a bag or container in the fridge and it
    will last you a long while and it's even ok if the children taste it.



  19. Aside from the branding of toys point(s) which you correctly make here, the idea of children learning from toys is one to be pondered over in a little more details.

    It seems, today, we has humans have blindly accepted that toys are 'good' for children, especially when it comes to make the child happy. Much the same way how sweets and fizzy drinks have replaced boiled vegetables and pure drinking water, toys have replaced that interaction between a child and parent.

    Lets not exclude from the equation of how big brands invest billions if not millions into understanding child psychology and then bring that understanding into real-life in the form of toys and kids wear. I remember, someone, somewhere, few years ago, sent me a link to a youtube video of how Nazi Germany and Hitler planned to use children's cartoons and toys to brain wash children from the very start and activate their sexuality at a very early age (for a reason I don't know) and how he did this was to add careful symbols into cartoons and toys which subconsciously worked on activating their sexuality before what nature intended.

    I don't deny that toys or something to play with children is important, like everything, objects, actions, sounds, movement and so forth all have an impact on how a child develops, but are branded toys really the right way of going about in developing a child?

    Let's image branded toys and TV cartoons didn't exist, would our children be more or less intelligent then they are in towards world? I think they would advance in creativity and intelligence in much earlier age than what we see today.


  20. I haven't read the comments to know if anyone has mentioned these toys, but Fisher-Price has a line of gender neutral kitchen toys. It's called Serving Surprises; the main kitchen/table is brown & tan and comes with a serving tray that recognizes the different things you cooked. The accessory sets are also pretty neutral, there's a grill with hot dog & skewer sets, an ice cream cone set, a birthday cake set and a high chair set-which is the only thing that seems at all fem to me. When you put the set on the serving tray it talks to the kids.
    And while looking online at other kitchen sets I found quite a few that were red or blue or brown, not pink.

    My son loves playing with his sister's girl toys, and she loves to play with his boy toys and they both love the nuetral toys we have too. It's very funny to watch J push a stroller filled with legos while dragging the doll.


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