How Children’s Toys Are Getting a Gender Neutral Makeover For Christmas

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REUTERS/Charles Platiau

A customer looks in the doll section for a gift in the Village of Paris JoueClub toy shop during the holiday season in Paris November 30, 2011.

Following criticism from the Swedish advertising regulator, Scandinavian toy retailer Top-Toy made headlines last month by announcing that its Christmas catalog would be gender-neutral “to reflect the values of the Swedish market.” True to its word, the catalog featured pictures of girls playing with guns and boys taking part in pretend housework.

Now, it seems like the gender-neutral toy movement is spreading. Mattel, the world’s largest toy-maker, is introducing the Mega Bloks Barbie Build’n Style, the first Barbie construction set in the doll’s 50-year history.

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Speaking with the New York Times, Anne Marie Kehoe, the vice president of toys for Walmart U.S., explained that by the end of this year, construction toys for girls will represent nearly 20% of the construction toy category, a marked shift from the handful of products available on the U.S. market last year.

Social scientists say that toys designed to encourage spatial awareness encourage children to go into careers in math, science or engineering. Debbie Sterling, a former Stanford University engineering graduate, came up with her concept for a girl’s engineering toy, Goldie Blox, precisely to encourage young girls to develop these skills.

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However it appears that Mattel’s new toy range is a response to the changing consumer habits of parents rather than gender stereotypes. Consumer surveys have shown that in two-income households, fathers are increasingly buying the toys.

“Dad is a bigger influencer in terms of toy purchases over all, and this sets up well for that, because the construction category is something Dad grew up with,” said chief innovation officer of toymaker Mega Brands, Vic Bertrand to the Times. Such toys are things that men have “strong feelings and emotions about”, he said.

That’s not to say Barbie is doing away with all stereotypes; the toy still features its traditional pink hues and the choice of buildings range from a fashion boutique to an ice-cream cart.

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Mattel may have to eventually rethink this kind of gender stereotyping. Hasbro, the makers of the Easy-Bake Ovens, have come under pressure to change the way they market the toy as something exclusively for girls after a campaign by 13-year old McKenna Pope. Pope, from Garfield, N.J., was upset to find that there were no Easy-Bake Ovens marketed to boys, even though her 4-year old brother Gavyn Boscio had asked for one for Christmas.