Sexism in Toy Marketing

Toy astronomical telescope with a handwritten sign saying it's best suited for a boy. My hand holds the sign down

The text beneath this toy telescope says: “The perfect present for 6 year boys, but not their little sisters. – Lachlan, 6.” I took this photo at a department store one year a go. I had set out specifically to find a telescope for my niece who was excited about learning about space. While admittedly this is meant as a toy rather than a real telescope, I was fuming.

On the one hand, if this comment is from an actual 6 year old customer, rather than a marketing gimmick, you might think: he’s only little. On the other hand, children adopt the views of their parents. This attitude needs to be questioned as the public perception of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a major issue that scientists from various disciplines are committed to changing. Either way, the fact that the store thought this comment was fit for public consumption is an outcome of sexist culture.

I’ve thought about this again because shopping for my nieces and nephews last Christmas made me ponder the gendered packaging of toys. Sociology PhD student Elizabeth Sweet writes for the New York Times that gendered toys were “remarkably absent” from toy advertising at the beginning in the 20th Century, but this appears around WWII. It declined by the early 1970s only to rise again in the 1990s. Today it’s almost impossible to find gender neutral toys. Why did gendered toys take hold? It’s the remarkable and insidious story of marketing!

Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos.