Sexism in the Toy Store Aisles

Hamleys, a British store, has eliminated grouping toys according to those for boys and those for girls. Blogger Laura Nelson, who writes under the name Delilah, had written about how the central London toy store was promoting gender apartheid by segregating toys for boys and girls on different floors as this photo indicates. Indeed the sign for the girls’ floor was pink and that for the boys, blue. I’m sure I’m reading too much into this but is it any surprise that the boys’ floor was the top one?

Nelson wrote to Hamleys and also to Gudjon Reynisson, the chief executive of Icelandic bank Landsbanki, which owns the toy store; in her letter, she pointed out a notable difference in the toys on the separate floors. Those for the girls were “domestic, caring and beauty activities” — let me guess, there were dolls — while the boys’ were rather “geared to action and war, with little scope for creativity,” with none of that “arts and craft” sort of stuff. On December 12, Nelson wrote that her campaign was a success, with Hamleys changing its signs to red and white ones that list the types of toys. Jezebel quotes her announcing the victory on Twitter:

Congratulations everyone! We still have work to do on the nature of the toys themselves, and the gender stereotyping of their marketing [...] but we have come to a milestone. Great work!

But not so fast, Hamleys tell the Mirror. The store only moved things around as part of a “complete refit” to the store layout, following feedback from consultants and customer surveys according to which the “store directional signage was confusing.” Hamleys moved things around in the name of commerce, to “improve customer flow.”

Also seeking to fritter away at the success of Nelson’s campaign, Toby Young in the Telegraph writes that changing the store layout and signs to eliminate floors specifically for boys and girls makes no difference. Boys will be boys and seek out the toys their inner maleness calls for (weaponry, sports equipment) while girls will go for the infamous Barbie, the kitchen set, the bead kit. “Nature will always trump nurture and any attempt to re-educate children so they grow up to be model citizens in some socialist utopia is bound to fail,” writes Young.

I do remember my aunt and uncle purchasing their first daughter a Tonka truck, which she proceeded to use as a carriage for her dolls. Another cousin who has both a daughter and son, and who has sought not to impose pre-determined expectations about gender in raising them, notes that they are gravitating towards the toys society pre-assigns to their genders. Is Nelson’s campaign all in vein?

I think not, not at all. Rather, my relatives’ experiences are a reminder of how deeply set our preconceptions of gender norms and roles are, to the point that we might unconsciously reinforce gender expectations even when we are trying our best not to.

I grew up with only a sister and we had no trucks to speak of in our household. We did have Barbies and while I played with them and dressed them and all that, I really found them a bit eerie (plus, in the 1970s, Barbies with black hair and Asian features had yet to be created; I favored a red-haired one, Kelly, because she was not a blond). Personally, I preferred playlets with lots of little plastic pieces, stuffed animals and books. I have one son, Charlie, who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. With every one of his toys, we have had to teach him how to do more than line the pieces up. Often, Charlie would just ignore the toys in favor of opening and closing the door to the CD player a couple hundred times. I can quite assure you that we have never bought Charlie a water gun (yes, we are quite the peaceniks). Charlie does not pick up on many social cues, norms and expectations.

It has at times been rather wearying to have to teach Charlie how to play with all those toys but, on the other hand, it has been fascinating to see him play with things based on what he wishes to do with them, rather than on what is intuited from cultural standards. Charlie’s first response to any toy, whether stuffed animal, ball or blocks, is to note the color and then set it down in a straight line.

The change in signage at Hamleys is a small thing and, fine, let why the store did so be open to debate. But why not see what happens when we don’t tell boys and girls what they should play with and what they should like?

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Photo by Tony Crider


Emily J.
Emily Jabout a year ago

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with dolls, tea-sets, the colour pink, action toys etc. but kids should have a choice when playing with them- their imaginations are far more interesting than toy manufacturers can imagine, and should never be directed as to what to play with and will pick out things that interest them given the choice!

Emily J.
Emily Jabout a year ago

It's good news that some stores are finally getting rid of the "boys" and "girls" aisles- there was a horrible example where all the science and educational toys were labelled "for boys" and no educational ones for girls at all, thankfully the outcry from parents changed the stores minds and they got rid of the labelling!

It is also ridiculous to stereotype children like this because in reality they have a lot of different interests- my brother and I used to play together and often Barbie would team up with Action Man, a Star Wars stormtrooper and a tiny green alien to go on heroic adventures, we had villains and complicated storylines involving kidnappings, daring rescues, evil spells, sinister experiments involving potions made from bubble-bath, characters breaking out of jail, and the occasional tea-party. We were lucky that our parents didn't care about gender stereotypes too much, and often bought communal toys for us to share such as Lego and art sets. I think this is fairly typical, kids will create their own characters and storylines for the toys that are provided and these don't necessarily fit into any gendered stereotypes and nor should they!

Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen5 years ago

I wonder if the little girl in the photo had seen the Transformers movies. so what if they were made for the audiance of the males who enjoyed them in youth.

she might like them. the special effects are pretty cool.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle5 years ago

I'm glad to see ANY change in stereotyping, no matter that the store later said it was for improved marketing. 40 yrs ago, I raised my two daughters as people, not girls. They were not allowed to have Barbies as I considered them too sexy and unrealistic, but they had other dolls and trucks and legos and building blocks, puzzles, books, records (LPs), bicycles, paints and easel, softballs and bats. They are strong feminist women, caring and intelligent. The biggest problem is that society, not the birth family, influences them so much -- schools, friends, t.v. advertising. It is so hard to get away from the "pink" and "princess" themes! Frustrating, because the world is a much larger place. As we see right now in 2012, the repubs are waging a war on women and trying to put us back in the place THEY think we belong in, not where we choose, whether it be motherhood or singlehood, professional, or all.

Megan S.
Megan S6 years ago

Some makes sense... It's understandable that girls, with maternal instincts, will enjoy 'mothering' a doll or stuffed animal.

I had all sorts of toys when I was younger. Nothing was nearer to me than stuffed animals. I liked Play Mobile, Legoes, K'Nex, cars, plush dolls, Littlest Pet Shop, and more.
Nothing was off-limits to me.

I think the biggest problem is shaming boys who play with dolls. Of course, it's mostly them who do it to eachother, but it's not good. It can make egotistical men...

Ely Cee
E C6 years ago

most toys stores are arranged by the type of toy. why arrange them by who plays with them? When I was born, my mother said NO PINK. I had dolls, and I had cars, too. One of my favorite toys was a big red plastic volkswagon beetle. I liked matchbox cars, and anything like them. (I still have a set of cars from Speed Racer that I found in a store myself a few years ago. And a few tiny ones-so I'm still buying once in a while.)

When I look in catalogs, I see that some companies have pics of boys playing with the kitchen stuff, and very recently, girls with a shop set (tools, toolbelt, etc)...but most catalogs are still showing only boys playing with 'boy stuff' and only girls playing with 'girl stuff'.

Elizabeth Munro
Lizzie M6 years ago

Let the kids play with what they like to play with. "Girl" and "boy" toys are about as true as "boy" and "girl" colours, in other words, not true at all. The marketing and whatnot can aim a toy at whoever they like, if a kid likes/doesn't like a toy, it is their choice.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Madelaine C.

don't tell people you studied marketing!!!!! they will explode, or implode, or harass you! our they will not believe, they may pitty you, pray for you!

no such thing, everything is brainwashing. marketing, testing, R&D, studies, polls, statistics, questionnaires and surveys.

all can succumb to whiny people with a petition.

just for this, i will make anatomy correct plush animals and sell them to children on ebay folks. don't make me create a plush dog with testicles and a retractable penis. it's a bucket of -ist for the clean cut, neuter, innocent plushies.

Madelaine C-H
Pete Smith6 years ago

Sigh. No, I didn't care less when I was a child what isle the dolls were on. I wore pink, did ballet, dressed up, played fairies, owned a dollshouse,barbies,baby dolls, and started wearing make-up aged thirteen. I also played with lego, trains and built castles. I had a lot of friends who were boys. I built treehouses, played football and came up with imaginary countries and islands in the forest that me and my friends used to pretend we owned and had to defend. I was a lipstick feminist from the age of ten.
And putting the toys at different ends of the shop didn't stop me doing what I wanted to do.

I studied marketing very carefully, and I think that many feminists 'including myself, a while ago' forgot what we actually chose to play with when we were little, and how working for a market as a designer and researcher works.For instance, if I, as say the executive of Mattel, decided I wanted to conduct a survey on girls favourite colour, and found it to be on a majority purple, then I would try to incorperate purple into the next product for girls. Is that sexist? No, it's working with knowledge and a majority to create what a girl might want. We are not saying that they can't play with lego or action man or trains. That is their choice. They are the consumer.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Leigh E. I can only assume, some people's minds would implode if their girls want girl things even without the tv telling them to. and "it should be corrected" so she dosen't inadvertly box her self into a world that will bog her down. if some of the kids innately go to "gendered toys"
something might be wrong with them, and a mad rush to sway that is needed.

from my observations, I am believing this is how people are thinking.