Toy Makers Caught in New Gender Flap -- But Are They at Fault?

Hasbro's on Hot Seat Over Easy-Bake Oven, But There's More at Work. Parents and Peers Foster Gender Stereotypes, Though Marketers May Reinforce Them

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Senior officials at Hasbro hosted a meeting Monday that could have major repercussions for toy marketing. It was with a teenager from Garfield, N.J.

At issue is the Easy-Bake Oven, which is marketed in pink and purple. McKenna Pope wanted one for her brother in a less-feminine color, and wrote the company to that effect. Her quest won support from more than 30,000 people on an online petition and famous chefs who voiced their support in a YouTube video.

But this isn't a tale of social-media might; it's one of social change. Even in this era of blurred boundaries, if you ask 6-year-olds to name a boy toy or a girl toy, they will have no trouble doing so. The question is whether it's society -- peers, parents, teachers -- telling them what's what, or whether marketers are at fault for "pinking up" toys, running TV ads that only show boys with guns or asking "Boy or girl?" before doling out Happy Meals. Better yet, is it the responsibility of the $21 billion U.S. toy industry to become a change agent in the gender-bias toy battle?

Perpetuating stereotypes
It seems like a can't-win situation. Take Lego, criticized earlier this year for a new line of building bricks that targets girls with its curvy Lego figurines who live in Heartlake City and have a beauty shop. Mega Bloks Barbie came out last week and is already getting the same kind of scrutiny. However, the toys are also raking in dollars. Lego Friends sales doubled expectations for the first half of the year and are on Amazon and Target 's hottest holiday toy lists.

Hasbro makes Easy Bake in girl-friendly colors, which caused McKenna Pope to start her online petition.
Hasbro makes Easy Bake in girl-friendly colors, which caused McKenna Pope to start her online petition.

Meanwhile, Swedish toy retailer Top-Toy was labeled opportunistic for revamping its catalog to show boys and girls playing with toys traditionally reserved for the opposite sex, such as girls shooting toy guns and a boy styling hair with a pink hair-dryer.

"If marketers continue to promote traditional gender-stereotyped toys, because we know that marketing is a part of socialization, it will continue to perpetuate stereotypes," said Carol Auster, professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College and co-author of a study on toy marketing.

Her study found that more than 85% of the toys that had red, black, brown or gray as their main colors were classified for "boys only" on Disney's online site. Meanwhile, the site classified 86% of pink toys and 65% of purple toys as for "girls only."

According to a recent survey of kids ages 6 to 12 by youth researcher Smarty Pants, "few parents discourage girls from adopting boy brands the way they might discourage boys from adopting girl brands. [And then], younger girls see older girls ignoring gender expectations and adopting attitudes of being able to do anything boys can do."

Mattel said it doesn't drive gender toy trends, but simply reflects them.

"We're really a consumer-driven company and we're an insight-driven company. We adapt to changing preferences," said Michael Shore, Mattel VP-global consumer insights. "There is no agenda as an angle, other than what our consumers want from our products and brands and how best to meet those needs."

Crossover play
Mr. Shore, however, said the company does note and incorporate the gender-attitude shifts it has seen over the past few years. Particularly in today's "user-defined culture," he said, there is an opportunity to create new products as well as a chance for consumers to define products they want.

Cooking, for instance, has emerged as a popular theme for kids of both genders. The Easy-Bake Oven flap then makes sense because the whole field of cooking has changed so dramatically since the toy was created. Mr. Shore said he also sees more girls engaged in crossover play with traditional boy platforms and, in general, more openness to diversity in gender roles.

"It's no coincidence we're seeing articles about the way boys and girls play, along with articles about changing male and female roles. That's because there is a general overarching cultural dialogue happening in regards to gender roles," he said.

Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, said that he always cautions his students not to demonize marketers.

"Marketers are in business to make money. If it's about selling empowerment to women via Nike marketing, they'll do it. If it's about selling products that reinforce gender stereotypes in toy ads, they'll do that , too. It's not some conspiracy to uphold patriarchal society; it's a very obvious conspiracy to make money." He added, "If you want to change things, start Googling "Easy-Bake Oven for boys.' They'll notice that ."

Still, some experts feel it's an oversimplification to say that toy marketers simply project a reflection of society. Media and marketing can also amplify gender stereotyping and, in effect, widen the toy gender gap. Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," pointed out that today some toy marketers categorize playthings as "boy" or "girl" even if those don't even have a basis in traditional masculine and feminine roles, with such things as "diamond ring" or pink "purse" teethers for baby girls.

Crystal Smith, author of "The Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture Is Teaching Young Boys About Masculinity," researched TV toy-advertising vocabulary last year and found that the most-common words used in boy ads included "battle," "power," "ultimate" and "heroes." However, in girl-toy ads, the most common word was "love," followed by words such as "fun," "magic" and "party."

"From the toddler years on up, they're getting gendered messages," Ms. Smith said. "Marketing is just one piece of the puzzle, that 's true, but they're defining preferences for kids and that 's wrong."

It's a fine line for marketers. "If you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one," said Marc Rosenberg, CEO of SkyBluePink Concepts, and formerly with Tiger Electronics and Hasbro. "When you watch a toy commercial and see a boy in the background for a "girl toy,' I can guarantee some marketer said, "Wait, 13% of our market share are boys, we have to put a boy in there.' It just looks gratuitous."

Still, parents and peers play substantial roles. "Even parents who want alternatives for their children realize that conforming to gender roles is rewarded and breaking out is punished at school. Boys who play with dolls and girls who dress like a boy are going to get shamed," Mr. Schwyzer said. "When you give your child a gender-based toy, it's a kind of vaccination against bullying."

While efforts are slow, companies are trying to change, if for no other reason than to keep up with consumers -- and their discretionary dollars.

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