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Megan K. Maas | How toys became gendered

Published:Sunday | January 12, 2020 | 12:00 AMMegan K. Maas - Contributor

Parents who want to raise their children in a gender-non-conforming way had a new stocking stuffer last year: the gender-neutral doll.

Announced in September last year, Mattel’s new line of gender-neutral humanoid dolls doesn’t clearly identify as either a boy or a girl. The dolls come with a variety of wardrobe options and can be dressed in varying lengths of hair and clothing styles.

But can a doll – or the growing list of other gender-neutral toys – really change the way we think about gender?

Mattel says it is responding to research that shows “kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms”. Given the results of a recent study reporting that 24% of US adolescents have a nontraditional sexual orientation or gender identity, such as bisexual or non-binary, the decision makes business sense.

As a developmental psychologist who researches gender and sexual socialisation, I can tell you that it also makes scientific sense. Gender is an identity and is not based on someone’s biological sex. That is why I believe it’s great news that some dolls will better reflect how children see themselves.

Unfortunately, a doll alone is not going to overturn decades of socialisation that have led us to believe that boys wear blue, have short hair and play with trucks whereas girls like pink, grow their hair long and play with dolls. More to the point, it’s not going to change how boys are taught that masculinity is good and femininity is something less – a view that my research shows is associated with sexual violence.


Pink girls and blue boys

The kinds of toys American children play with tend to adhere to a clear gender binary.

Toys marketed to boys tend to be more aggressive and involve action and excitement. Girl toys, on the other hand, are usually pink and passive, emphasising beauty and nurturing.

It wasn’t always like this.

Around the turn of the 20th century, toys were rarely marketed to different genders. By the 1940s, manufacturers quickly caught on to the idea that wealthier families would buy an entire new set of clothing, toys, and other gadgets if the products were marketed differently for both genders. And so the idea of pink for girls and blue for boys was born.

Today, gendered toy marketing in the US is stark. Walk down any toy aisle, and you can clearly see who the audience is. The girl aisle is almost exclusively pink, showcasing mostly Barbie dolls and princesses. The boy aisle is mostly blue and features trucks and superheroes.


Breaking down the binary

The emergence of a gender-neutral doll is a sign of how this binary of boys and girls is beginning to break down – at least when it comes to girls.

A 2017 study showed that more than three-quarters of those surveyed said it was a good thing for parents to encourage young girls to play with toys or do activities “associated with the opposite gender.” The share rises to 80% for women and millennials.

But when it came to boys, support dropped significantly, with 64% overall – and far fewer men – saying it was good to encourage them to do things associated with girls. Those who were older or more conservative were even more likely to think that it wasn’t a good idea.

Reading between the lines suggests that there’s a view that traits stereotypically associated with men – such as strength, courage, and leadership – are good whereas those tied to femininity – such as vulnerability, emotion, and caring – are bad. Thus boys receive the message that wanting to look up to girls is not OK.

And many boys are taught over and over throughout their lives that exhibiting “female traits” is wrong and means that they aren’t “real men.” Worse, they’re frequently punished for it while exhibiting masculine traits like aggression are often rewarded.


Teaching gender tolerance

Mattel’s gender-neutral dolls offer much-needed variety in kids’ toys, but children – as well as adults – also need to learn more tolerance of how others express gender differently than they do. And boys in particular need support in appreciating and practising more traditional feminine traits, like communicating emotion or caring for someone else, skills that are required for any healthy relationship.

Gender neutrality represents the absence of gender – not the tolerance of different gender expression. If we emphasise only the former, I believe that femininity and the people who express it will remain devalued.

So consider doing something gender-nonconforming with your children’s existing dolls such as having Barbie win a wrestling championship or giving Ken a tutu. And encourage the boys in your life to play with them too.


Megan K. Maas is assistant professor of human development and family studies, Michigan State University. Article first published in The Conversation – – reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.