The Pink-and-Blue Toy Divide

By Jeffrey Day - As a child in the 1970s and 1980s, Elizabeth Sweet played with a Lone Ranger action figure she’d pair up with Barbie for outings in a toy Jeep, Fisher Price Little People with their perfectly round heads and peglike bodies, and Star Wars figures.

But as her own daughter Isabella, now 12, was growing up, Sweet detected a significant shift in toys: There was a distinctive blue and pink divide in girl toys and boy toys.

“I don’t recall when I was young thinking, ‘That’s not for me because I’m a girl,’ but today the messaging is very clear,” said Sweet, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in theUC Davis Department of Sociology. “I think it was something I had noticed for quite some time, but the light bulb moment was when I realized this gender division in toys was something I could study.”

Builders, princesses and inequality

As she was working on her doctorate, she took an op-ed writing workshop and wrote a piece about the resurgence of gender-assigned toys. On a whim she sent it to The New York Times, and they published the piece, “Guys and Dolls No More,” in 2012. That was the beginning. Now she is a go-to expert on the topic, and she has been interviewed by dozens of media outlets including The Guardian, BBC, MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times and NPR.

In early December, Sweet had a piece published in The Atlantic magazine and has another essay coming out on The New York Times Room for Debate website. She completed her dissertation, “Boy Builders and Pink Princesses: Gender, Toys, and Inequality over the Twentieth Century,” in 2013.

Toys segregated by gender are big business

“Gender has always played a role in the world of toys,” she wrote in the firstTimes piece. “What’s surprising is that over the last generation, the gender segregation and stereotyping of toys have grown to unprecedented levels. We’ve made great strides toward gender equity over the past 50 years, but the world of toys looks a lot more like 1952 than 2012.”

She attributes this to two things.

The first is that toys, once a tiny part of the consumer market, are a bigger business than ever before, tied to television programs, movies, food and school supplies. In addition, toy makers and marketers have increasingly played upon the idea that gendered toys reflect biologically based sex differences in preferences and skills.

Personal and scholarly concerns

As a scholar, Sweet is interested and concerned with the societal implications of gendered toy making and marketing, but there’s also the personal side of raising a daughter in such an environment.

“By the time Isabella got to preschool, she was teased for liking things that were seen as being for boys,” Sweet said. “It’s very frustrating and, as a parent I see the negative consequence directly. I’ve spent time talking to my daughter about what messages she’s being sent and how to counter them.”

Sweet admits that Isabella sometimes finds all the talk about the gendering of toys tiresome.

“She sometimes thinks it’s ridiculous,” Sweet said. “All the same, she’s become quite media literate. When we’re in stores she often points out things to me that I didn’t see.”

Originally posted at UC Davis Today.

Filed under: Feature