/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
Back in the 1970s, feminists took toy companies to task for their sexist marketing practices. They railed against the board game â€œBattleshipâ€ for depicting a father and son at play while an apron-clad mother and daughter washed dishes in the background. (One outraged mother even sent the cardboard game box to the editors of Ms. magazine to prove her point.) They questioned why pretend kitchens were fashioned out of pink plastic, when the majority of professional chefs were men. And they urged puzzle-makers to depict women piloting airplanes and fighting fires.
One of the youngest toy activists was a seven-year-old from New York City named Caroline Ranald. In 1972, the second-grader wrote a letter to the Lionel train company admonishing them for their boy-dominated ads. â€œGirls like trains too,â€ she explained. â€œI am a girl. I have seven locomotives. Your catalog only has boys. Donâ€™t you like girls?â€ Carolineâ€™s short letter made a big impression. Not only did the toy train makers feature girls in their subsequent catalogs, they also circulated a press release with endorsements touting the psychological and cognitive benefits of train play for girls.
Fast forward to 2009â€¦and we have to ask: what happened to the gains feminists made in toyland? I literally did a double-take when I read that the Toy Associationâ€™s â€œToy of the Year Awardsâ€ offer separate prize categories for â€œBest Boy Toyâ€ and â€œBest Girl Toy.â€Â Sure, they slot some contenders into gender-neutral categories like â€œBest Outdoor Toyâ€ and â€œBest Educational Toy.â€ But they donâ€™t even try to airbrush the fact that when it comes to selling toys, gender divisionsâ€”and gender stereotypesâ€”still reign.
In case youâ€™re wondering, the â€œBest Boy Toyâ€ of 2009 went to the Bakugan Battle Brawlers Battle Pack Action Series. These intricately wrought orbs of plastic snap open into dragon- and vulcan-like shapes when they are hurled onto corresponding magnetized cards. Bakugan isnâ€™t just a Manga-inspired action toy, itâ€™s an entertainment brand, complete with a website, television show, and other paraphernalia. According to the Toy Associationâ€™s website, Bakugan beat out the Handy Manny 2-in-1 Transforming Tool Truck, the EyeClops Night Vision Infrared Stealth Goggles, and a few other trinkets for the top boy toy honors.
My own boys, ages 8 and 11, canâ€™t seem to get enough Bakugan spheres, priced around ten dollars a pop. When I asked my younger son why he thinks girls arenâ€™t into Bakugan, he replied that â€œthey donâ€™t like to fight and brawl the way boys do.â€ Maybe so, but when toy companies are so explicit about developing toys for gender-specific markets, we have to ask the proverbial chicken-and-egg question: do boys like Bakugan because it taps into some innate affinity for competitive, militaristic playâ€”or because they are being socialized and culturally conditioned to prefer those forms of play?
For the record, the Best Girl Toy of 2009 was the Playmobil Horse Farm, a plastic play-set complete with stables, ponies, and equestrian figurines. (In 2007, the honor went to Hasbroâ€™s FurReal Friends Butterscotch Ponyâ€”which raises the question of why a horse-related toys have become so feminized in recent years.) Runner-ups for Best Girl Toy include a Pedicure Salon activity kit, a Talking Dollhouse, and Hannah Montanaâ€™s Malibu Beach Houseâ€”toys based on stereotypes of beauty and domesticity so blatant they speak for themselves.
Although most elementary-school boys probably wouldn’t beg for a kiddie pedicure set, children display more variation and boundary-crossing in their play than the toy industry might care to admit.Â Decades after the heyday of second-wave feminism, few parents would bat an eye at a girl playing with StarWars action figures or a boy weaving a potholder on a loom.Â But for the purveyors of playthings, pink and blue don’t make purple; they make green.Â Toy makers have a vested interested in selling to a gender-bifurcated market, because they can make double the money selling twice as many toys.
In the spirit of feminist toy activism, perhaps itâ€™s time, once again, to argue the point. If there are any little boys out there who have a thing for horses, maybe they can e-mail the folks at Playmobil and set them straight.