Does Labeling Toys By Sex Promote Gender Inequality?

December 14, 2011  |  

On the surface, the change from pink and blue labeling marking girls and boys toys to red and white signs; and the organization of toys by interest rather than gender inside Hamley’s toy store in the UK, looks like a simple store remodel. But a gender equality movement is staking a victory claim in the store’s facelift, claiming that their internet campaign is what motivated the store to remove its stereotypical labeling.

Gender apartheid is what blogger Laura Nelson said Hamley’s, which she also referred to as “shamleys,” was previously guilty of as she explained the horror of a pink girls floor “filled with fluffy objects” and a boys floor that was “all action and adventure.” Citing the dearth of women in leadership positions in the UK, Nelson says it all starts with toys:

“There are many contributing factors, and one is conditioning of children from an early age. Deep-rooted in our society are stereotypes that dictate to women and men and influence them on the roles in society that they are expected to fill.

“There is an underlying current of expectation, tradition and what is accepted as the norm, and it sets

down different paths for different genders which often becomes a reality.

“The toys that children are exposed to play a major part in this. From birth, boys and girls are bombarded with stereotypes; boys are allowed to be more aggressive and climb trees, while girls are encouraged to be passive and play with plastic teapots.

“Even the name that Hamleys uses for its beauty salon, ‘Tantrum’, is consistent with the stereotypical ‘hysterical’ woman – unsuited to leadership and far better aligned with the domestic role and fussing over home and appearance.”

Nelson considers the gender-neutral color scheme that now characterizes Hamley’s to be a “milestone,” tweeting: “Still can’t quite believe it, the campaign worked!!!!!!”

But she says she’s not done yet, “We still have work to do on the nature of the toys themselves.”

Nelson is right, there’s still a lot to do to achieve her group’s mission because even Hamley’s denies that her campaign had anything to do with their store’s redesign. It’s somewhat hard to believe as Nelson’s campaign has garnered quite a bit of attention, but a store spokesperson insist consultants and customer surveys revealed the store’s directional signage was confusing, therefore their intention was merely to improve customer flow. If that claim is true, should stores be listening to the gender apartheid campaign?

Dwindling the lack of women in corner offices down to the root cause of receiving an Easy Bake Oven at the age of 5 is a stretch, but the idea of socialization that it speaks to certainly is not. There are several cultural norms perpetuated on boys and girls that have long-lasting effects. Still, I’m not sure the responsibility of that socialization lies with toy stores. After all, it is parents who purchase toys for kids and who decide whether a video game is too violent for their child or the clothes that come along with a Barbie doll are too revealing. Several parents in Jezebel’s write up of the story even commented that they’ve purchased toy kitchens for their sons and don’t pay attention to gender labels anyhow.

Hamley’s caught some bad press for its store design as a result of Nelson’s efforts labeling it “sexist” when I don’t think that was necessarily at the root of its design. What I see happening is a trickle-down effect that will find any store with a boy/girl toy aisle guilty of gender discrimination when ultimately it is parents who will have the greatest influence on their child’s balance of femininity or masculinity and there’s not much you can do to police that. If you’re going to attempt to get at the root of gender roles in society you have to start with patient education about their influence on their child’s view of male-female roles.

What do you think about the connection between sex-assigned toys and gender inequality later in life? Should stores like Hamley’s be pressured into removing gender labels? Will it make a difference?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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