Following lobbying from a parents advocacy group, Toys R Us in the U.K. will stop marketing its products as gender-specific. Could such a trend catch on in the U.S.?
Toys R Us will create more gender-neutral marketing and remove references to gender in its stores in the United Kingdom, the Telegraph reported this week. The changes came following pressure from an advocacy group.
Let Toys Be Toys, a U.K.-based parents group that petitioned Toys R Us for the change, reported on its website Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with the retailer to strike "explicit" references to gender in its stores and feature more ads with girls and boys playing with the same toys.
The organization has lobbied retailers, marketers and advertisers across the U.K. to raise awareness of gender-stereotyped toys. Let Toys Be Toys has made agreements with popular British chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, The Entertainer and TK Maxx to alter the way they market toys.
Toys R Us' pact with Let Toys Be Toys will apply only to the retail giant's U.K. stores, but a spokesperson for the company said it does not have gender-based sections in any of its U.S. stores. Instead, its stores are organized by product type. The company's 2011 U.S. holiday catalog contained 83 images of boys and 93 of girls, a closer ratio than Kmart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart, according to an assessment by trade publication Gifts and Decorative Accessories.
"As a company, we will continue to be diligent and caring in gender portrayals throughout our stores and in our various marketing vehicles," Kathleen Waugh, vice president of corporate communications at Toys R Us, said in a statement to MSN News.
While the fight against gender labeling in the toy industry has been waged for years, it wasn't as common in past decades, when many toys were thought of as universal, said author Carrie Goldman, whose book, "Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear," includes an entire chapter dedicated to gender-specific marketing.
"In the '70s," she said, "toys were toys."
"You played with what was put out."
According to Goldman, that ethos has changed, due in large part to savvy marketers and manufacturers who realized they can make more money by creating gender-specific products.
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"Marketers discovered that a pink ball sells best for girls and a blue one sells best for boys," Goldman said. "Previously parents purchased a single ball but this way you can make twice as much money."
"The girl says, 'I want my own ball,' and so does the boy."
This shift created problems for parents and kids, advocates say. Children lose opportunities to develop sharing skills, and they become marginalized if they choose to play with a toy that's been assigned to the opposite sex.
Gender-specific marketing can be particularly harmful for young girls who are sexualized by marketers and advertisers, advocates say.
"Whereas 15 to 20 years ago you had pink products for girls," Goldman said, "now you have sexy pink products. You see it at Halloween where every girl's costume has been sexualized — sexy witch instead of witch, sexy super hero instead of super hero."
Dr. Deborah L. Tolman, a professor of psychology at the Hunter College School of Social Work and co-founder of SPARK, a group that works to promote the healthy sexuality of girls, calls this "showing things with your body and not doing things," and believes gendered costumes and toys confine girls within gendered roles that have already been broken down for them.
"The primary outcome for girls is not having aspirations and thinking they're not able to do the kinds of work that was gendered, but no longer is," she said. "Plenty of women are engineers and scientists. Plenty of girls are now in what have stereotypically been male lines of work."
Tolman said progress has been made though, especially in terms of groups who are organizing and asking companies and marketers to make a shift in how they deal with children's products.
"We're seeing more grassroots organizations generating alternative ideas and more attention being paid in the media about problematizing the princess culture," she said.
"Hopefully what's happened in the U.K. is an indication of what may happen in the U.S. going forward."
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