Gender Labels In The Toy Aisle
In August, retail giant Target decided to strip gender labels from toy aisles. Their decision was met with passionate reactions on the Internet, with everyone from child psychologists to soccer mom’s weighing in. Conservative groups blasted the retailer, citing the breakdown of traditional gender roles and in response, proposed a boycott of the company.  
Despite the outrage – including a tantrum by FOX News – many brought smart and progressive ideas to the issue of gender stereotypes in play. Thankfully, the tide has turned on the matter, favoring common sense and fairness.
 
In a rare, culture-shifting moment, the majority reached a consensus: toys should not be gendered.
For those working in children’s media, this is a discussion that’s long overdue.
 
Shaming Target
In June 2015, the debate went viral when Ohio mom Abi Bechtel tweeted a photo of Target’s in-store signage, separating “Building Sets” from “Girls Building Sets.” The caption: “Don’t do this, @Target,” capturing the frustration in her message.
The post was retweeted over 3,000 times and received major social support. She was quickly joined by a chorus of parents, educators and activists who agreed that gender-specific signage and toys are out of step with the times, and even worse, downright harmful to the psychological and sociological development of kids.
 
Dividing The Aisles
The toy industry wasn’t always so gendered.
In the 19th century, gender neutral colors were the norm, in everything from clothing to toys. While there were pastel colors introduced into products in the early 20th century, they weren’t targeted to one specific gender. By the 1940s, pink was becoming a color increasingly connected with girls, and with the creation of Barbie in 1959, the color association of ‘pink’ to the female sex was only further cemented.
The gender divisions saw substantial growth in the ‘80s, when marketers saw great profit in separating children’s toys with gender signifiers in color, typography, and packaging. In parallel, with the Reagan administration’s appointment of Mark S. Fowler as commissioner of the FCC in 1981, the world of children’s television would see substantial changes. In just a few short years, kids TV became a wild west of advertising.
More often than not, the characters and storytelling seen in such shows was not only uninspiring, but strongly rooted in gender stereotypes.
As the industry continued to separate kids into pink and blue buckets, boys were marketed to with 'toyetic' shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) and Transformers (1984), while girls were handed such programs as Rainbow Brite (1983), The Care Bears (1985), Jem (1985), and My Little Pony (1986). 
What do each of these popular cartoon shows have in common, you ask?
Every one of them was created by a toy corporation, with the exception of The American Greeting Card Company, responsible for birthing the many "girl" driven properties of the era. In many ways, these programs were 30 minute toy advertisements, each appealing to their ‘set’ gender demographics and giving way to a slew of merchandising tie-ins and ancillary products. This branded style of gender marketing carried over into the ‘90s and unfortunately, still continues today.
Play Is Neither Pink Nor Blue
In toy stores, most ‘girls’ toys still focus on princesses, mothering and homemaking, whereas most  ‘boys’ toys still focus on building and fighting. Although both play styles appeal to imagination, they model different adult aspirations. Realistically speaking, most boys will never go into battle, a majority of girls won’t become homemakers, and sadly, the princess-thing rarely works out.
Reducing our content to rudimentary gender roles no longer makes sense. Iconic toys of the sexes, like Barbie and G.I. Joe, are struggling for relevance in a marketplace that’s progressive and multi-racial. Today, the once clearly defined gender lines of feminine and masculine are blurred, with content creators left looking for answers.
We must understand that play is a form of role-playing and self-exploration for both girls and boys. It informs the maturation process and establishes a basic skill set for life that carries over to ones adult hood. Right now, a boy expressing vulnerability is “girly” and a girl expressing strength is a “tomboy.”  
This must change.

Consider, if young boys are given opportunities to play with dolls, then they will be free to develop skills of nurture. For far too long, boys have lost out on developing the domestic and social skills that come from dolls and playing house. 
Today, with such an alarming number of single mom’s in the United States, there’s no better time than now to teach the skills of childcare to boys — who someday, will be fathers themselves.  
For years, girls have been lured into the princess trap, pink-washed into playing with toys like play-based cooking appliances and make-up kits. Rarely, if ever, are toys marketed to girls that emphasize exploration and bravery. Today, young girls are missing out on key skills they could learn from building toys, which for the most part are primarily marketed to boys. Girls should be free to express strength and play with electronics, vehicles, science games, and physical sports, in the same way boys are.
Likewise, very rarely are girls ever encouraged to engage in play-based physical activities. In her book, “Big Body Play,” author Frances Carlson, cites a number of cognitive and physical benefits to boisterous, vigorous, and physical play. 
Whether it’s in the playground or the marketplace, modeling a free, gender-neutral attitude will foster a more progressive and socially inclusive environment for play. As a result, we’ll raise kids with better interpersonal skills, who later on, will be more adept to function in a modern, equal opportunity economy.
Progressive Gender Messaging In Play
For those of us working in children’s media, we realize that the messages we promote leave a lasting impression on kids. Children have minds of their own, but are affected by a sphere of influences, from parents and friends, to television, games, and toys.
Toys are essential to a child’s development. They foster creativity and encourage kids to explore. 
For broadcasters of children’s TV, creating content that's free of harmful gender constructs starts with us.
Often, the animated characters we create are licensed into toys. Together, we can introduce strong female, male, and non-human characters that aren’t limited to tightly constructed gender roles. We can work with the toy industry to license these characters, then partner with retailers to sell them. As a whole, we as children’s TV broadcasters can trigger a domino effect that permeates throughout the industry of children’s media, and in time, is felt in the everyday toy play of children.
To do this, we can follow a simple action plan for change:
1.  Review what we have on air now and phase out content relying on gender stereotypes
2.  Develop original programming that supports characters rooted in progressive gender roles and storytelling
3.  Work with marketing to create compelling campaigns that support this initiative
4.  Ensure consistency of ideas is adhered to in the licensing, toy production, and retail presence of consumer products
Above all, the time is now.
We must set the pace by putting forth progressive ideas about gender in our content. Certainly, gendered toys may make the lives of well-meaning gift-givers easier, but the negative impact of gender-driven marketing on kids is far too costly.
The Future of Play
Thankfully, change is before us. Big name companies like McDonald’s are rethinking their marketing to be more inclusive, so it would appeal to both boys and girls.  
 
Kids themselves have also been vocal about the issue. A video of a 5-year-old girl named Riley, denouncing gender stereotypes in toys, went viral, after her dad uploaded it on YouTube. It received more than 4 million views, triggering a fierce debate and inspired more action on the issue.
In 2012, Hasbro released a gender-neutral Easy-Bake-Oven. The decision was thanks to the pioneering McKenna Pope, a 13-year-old girl from Garfield, New Jersey, who created a petition on Change.org. She challenged Hasbro to release its product in gender-neutral colors and to feature both girls and boys on the toy’s packaging. Pope’s petition received over 40,000 signatures. Responding swiftly, Hasbro met with Pope and put her non-gendered toy concept into mass production.
And in Sweden, Top-Toy, the largest toy retailer in northern Europe, broke new ground in 2012, creating a Christmas catalog that is 100% gender neutral. The catalog turns gender perceptions on their head, featuring fully integrated play, with girls shown wielding combat toys and boys shown using houseware. 
United in common cause for a child’s right to play, toy companies, retailers, and media companies are recognizing the shift and wisely following suit.
As makers of children’s media, this is a call to action.
Today, with the endless variety of content for children, we leverage an enormous influence on the lives and social development of kids. Together, with positive and fair-minded messaging, we can eliminate gender stereotypes in our content, and shape the future of play.
The message is loud and clear: Let toys be toys; let kids be kids!
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This article was originally published on LinkedIn
Written by
Brandon Lori​​​​​​​
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