As one half of a boy-girl set of twins, I have strong memories of splitting up from my brother so we could each hit “our” toy aisles, the pink one and the other one. I loved the dolls I found in the pink aisle, but had the unusual advantage of knowing I could play with anything from the other aisle, too. Sharing was the only option in our household. So after birthdays I always had plenty of action figures, LEGO kits, plush footballs, water guns, and other non-pink paraphernalia to explore along with my dolls and My Little Ponies.
I was lucky — but for kids without progressive families or a built-in roommate of the opposite gender at the same developmental stage, the segregation of toys is more absolute, and can cause huge problems. Although we all know that many of the toys girls are wooed with are inane and cloying, it was socially easier for me and my friends to hop on board with my brother and his pals’ activities than vice versa. Think about it: while building blocks or sports can easily become a group project, playing with costumes or building a hospital for dolls are coded “pink,” associated with femininity and therefore shame for boys early on, cutting many of them off from their authentic inclinations to be imaginative or caring or domestic, and helping plant the seeds of toxic masculinity. With more and more attention being paid to the experience of kids whose behavior and identification transcends gender roles, toy segregation is looking more retro by the day.
Here’s the bright side: almost everyone, raging feminist, concerned parent or relative, or kid, thinks it’s a bad idea to split toys off this way. Spend time in proximity to a young person, and you’ll see that they have playtime inclinations in multiple directions, from scrabbling in the dirt to bathing and caring for dolls or stuffed animals.
Recently, Amazon lost its gendered toy sidebar. Whether this is deliberate or just a marketing tool remains to be seen, but activists are hoping it’s a good sign one way or another:
The site hasn’t done away with its toy gender categories completely, but users have noticed that when shopping for “Toys & Games,” the sidebar categories for “boys” and “girls” have gone missing. However, the categories still exist through links at the top of the toy department page, so it’s unclear at this point why they were removed from the sidebar. Of course, there’s always the easy explanation that the sidebar options were redundant since the categories are accessible through other means, but we’re holding out hope that it’s part of a slow phase-out for Amazon.
It wouldn’t be that surprising if Amazon were phasing out the gendered categories. That’s because contemporary online feminism has had some of its biggest victories over issues around toys and children’s clothing. From the widespread scorn for the “Rose Petal Cottage” and the backlash against the Barbie who said “I hate math” to the countless hyper-sexualized T-shirts, dolls, and high heels for babies that have been shamed off the market or out of popularity, this is an issue that’s being tackled in many different ways.
For instance, some feminists have begun petitioning toy stores to stop segregating their toy aisles, while enterprising types have begun wildly successful (if non uncontroversial) Kickstarter campaigns for toys like the Goldieblox that “disrupt” the pink toy aisle. In the media world, there are countless essays and blog posts devoted entirely to taking down the gendered aspects of toy shopping and art projects that re-imagine barbies and dolls in more realistic, less problematic incarnations.
Whether advocates use the terminology of protest and social change or the entrepreneurial idea of “disrupting,” the reality is the same. A future with genderless toy aisles is one in which fanciful play isn’t limited to girls, active play isn’t limited to boys, and gender stereotypes aren’t forced down families’ throats at an early age.
“I don’t want my daughter to think there’s anything wrong with liking traditionally feminine things, and my daughter does, indeed, love ballet, tiaras and dressing up,” Jessica Valenti wrote last year. “But she also loves bugs, magnifying glasses, collecting rocks and riding her scooter way too fast. Those aren’t ‘boys’’ activities, they’re just fun.”
I’ve heard feminists speculate that Title IX has been a successful feminist law in part due to of the vigorous support of fathers whose daughters play sports. Social stereotypes become less important when families of all stripes see their kids’ options being limited. If this generation could really do away with gendered toy aisles and similar designations, it would not only be a huge victory for the future of gender equality — it would also probably make a lot of families happier.