It's easy to wander the aisles of toy stores, blissfully unaware of the subliminal messages about how girls and boys are supposed to behave. Well-meaning, forward-thinking parents and caregivers spend billions of dollars every year reinforcing that dolls and craft sets are for girls, and boys should emulate action and sports heroes. Even when a company makes an action toy for a girl (see: Nerf Rebelle Guardian Crossbow), it's often been through the "pink it and shrink it" process, based on an assumption that the original version would be unpalatable to young girls.
Play is an integral part of our lives as children. Through play, we figure out how to treat others, how we want to be defined in a group and as individuals, and we discover new things about ourselves and our environments. Toys are the tools we use in those processes, and they matter greatly. Over the last several years, parents and other advocates have been raising alarms about gendered toys and marketing, going way beyond the idea that dolls like Barbie might be promoting unhealthy body ideals.
For example, last summer, a tweet from a mother in Ohio named Abi Bechtel about a sign in her local Target store for "Building Sets/Girls' Building Sets" set off a social media firestorm that resulted in the retail giant doing away with gender labeling on all of its shelves - no more boys and girls clothing, bedding, entertainment, home décor, nothing.
This is a huge step, but so is the acknowledgment in the White House's press release that the proliferation of these stereotypes are damaging to broader efforts to bring more women and girls into STEM careers and activities. At The LAMP, our media literacy programs and resources have taught kids (and adults!) to challenge gender stereotypes in toys and media for just this reason. As early as 2009, a group of LAMP elementary students created a short documentary about a boy who wears pink. It's one of our most popular videos on YouTube and never fails to elicit a response:
We also created a resource guide to help parents and caregivers navigate and understand the murky waters of gender identity, youth and media. Our MediaBreaker programs encourage young people to remix and talk back to media, and our MediaBreaker YouTube channel is full of playlists devoted solely to stereotypes of both men and women; there's even one playlist just about toy commercials. In fact, this week we released MediaBreaker/Studios, a free online video remix tool to help educators nationwide teach media literacy skills and address stereotypes in their classrooms, libraries and after-school programs.
The conference is sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls as well as the Department of Education and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California. Also participating are Discovery Communications, which will launch three programming initiatives on its networks to raise awareness about gender and STEM engagement; Girls, Inc., a nationwide media awareness group; Girl Scouts, which has already produced ground-breaking research on how media messages impact girls; and Scholastic, which will create a new curriculum to help teachers break down gender stereotypes in classrooms. The Toy Industry Association, Inc. has also pledged to devote a session at its annual conference to the topic of gender stereotypes in toys.
We can't all attend the White House conference and benefit from the programs offered over the course of the day, but many tools like the ones from The LAMP and other participants are out there for anyone to use, any time. Gendered toys are not new, and in order to make real change in the way our kids play and are marketed to, we'll have to continue the conversation and take action far beyond the constraints of a day-long event. It's all well and good for the Toy Industry Association to acknowledge the issue, but shifts in practice will only come from an educated, aware public demanding more for our girls and boys.