Trucks For Boys, Dolls For Girls: How Toy Stores Reinforce Gender Roles

Ask anyone how to get children to like you and they’ll tell you the age-old secret – get them some toys!

I have an eight-year-old nephew and being a doting aunt, I find it quite hard to refuse to buy him toys. Until 2020, having lived with my nephew, I had only been to the boys’ section of toy stores, picking out blocks, cars and action figures for him. I was blissfully unaware of the rest of the toys in the store.

In 2020, my three-year-old niece came to live with me too. As I started spending more time at toy stores in Chennai, I noticed something quite strange – the girls’ section (think: filled with pink banners and pink toy boxes) had hardly any blocks, cars and action figures. Instead, I saw dolls, cooking sets, makeup sets, kitchen sets (with a small sink and pots and pans), miniature mops and ironing kits. This was the case with multiple toy store chains.

When I was a child in the ’90s, the section for girls at toy stores had dolls (including the infamous Barbie range) that would focus largely on appearance, with clothes that you could dress them up in, and accessories like bracelets. Today’s toy stores in India go a step further – they sell life-sized baby dolls with diapers, milk bottles, baby food and utensils to feed the doll.

So, while boys get action figures like Spiderman, Superman and The Hulk, girls get baby dolls that they have to feed and whose diapers they have to change (female action figures are extremely limited, especially in India).

Childcare and housework being done by women while men muck about without putting in much effort… why does that sound familiar?

If you’re reading this, you might wonder why I can’t just buy my nephew a toy from the girls’ section (like a craft kit) and my niece something from the boys’ section (say, a car) and even the balance. Then they would both get toys that encourage them to explore a world beyond the confines of gender stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Gendered toy marketing involves dividing toys into boys’ toys and girls’ toys, through explicit signs and labels mentioning the words “boy” or “girl” (in toy stores), colours used, advertisements and packaging. Action, construction, science and technology toys are predominantly marketed to boys and role-play and arts and crafts toys are usually aimed at girls. This is done through the use of colours (pink and purple for girls, and blue for boys) and the pictures of children on the boxes of the toys (pictures of girls on the boxes for kitchen sets).

Also read: It’ll Take More Than a Gender-Neutral Doll to Change How Boys Perceive Femininity

If I’m aware of this, you might ask why I can’t avoid the issues posed by such marketing. Well, as informed as I may be about the dangers of such targeted marketing, I do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do my niece and nephew. My nephew is at an age where he strongly dislikes anything that he considers to be “girly”. I refuse to force him to play with “girly” toys because I know how common bullying is. I do not want to subject him to that.

My nephew likes his toys, my niece likes hers. They’re both happy. What’s so wrong about it?

Here’s the problem: Remember I mentioned the boys’ section of the toy store? It had none of the toys present in the girls’ section. All the toys in the boys’ section involved science, construction, action and war. The girls’ section was filled with items that focused on cleaning, care-giving and crafts.

According to Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, rigidly gendered toy marketing tells kids who they should be, how they should behave, and what they should be interested in. This also reinforces the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally different from each other.

If boys are not encouraged to take part in housework and childcare while playing when they are young and if they are made to believe that this kind of work is beneath them, it makes perfect sense that when they grow up and have children of their own, they are unwilling to engage in childcare and help around the house. This belief that childcare and housework is the “job” of the woman throws up many issues with time. It causes problems in marriages since women are expected to be able to manage childcare and housework in addition to working full-time professional jobs, while men are only expected to hold onto their jobs.

Boys are encouraged to be active and aggressive via the toys they play with – trucks, toy guns and action figures. Girls are taught to work towards looking pretty and caring for others.

Research based on more than 100 toys cited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children provides insight into how girls’ toys are associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, while those for boys are rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous. This will likely encourage unwelcome traits in both boys and girls – for girls, the traits encouraged are tied to their attractiveness and appearance, while for boys, the emphasis is on violence and aggression.

Is there a solution to this then? Pay attention to the kind of language you use with respect to certain toys (avoid using words like “girly”) and encourage children to partake in activities supposedly for the opposite gender (ie encourage boys to help with the housework and encourage an interest in science and construction for girls).

Asma Mohamed is an aspiring feminist writer who hopes to contribute to the achievement of some semblance of gender equality through her writing. You can find her on Instagram @aliya.m1995.

Featured image: Craft kits made for girls at a toy store in Chennai/credit: Asma Mohamed