by Elizabeth Sweet / nytimes.com
IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.
If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.
Gender has always played a role in the world of toys. 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.
Gender was remarkably absent from the toy ads at the turn of the 20th century but played a much more prominent role in toy marketing during the pre- and post-World War II years. However, by the early 1970s, the split between “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” seemed to be eroding.
During my research into the role of gender in Sears catalog toy advertisements over the 20th century, I found that in 1975, very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.
But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.