The “Gendering” of Our Kids’ Toys, and What We Can Do About It

As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, I don’t recall feeling that my toy choices were particularly limited because of my gender. I played with both dolls and trucks and had the most fun just making mud pies in the backyard. Maybe this was the result of being raised by parents who didn’t impose traditional gender ideas on me, or maybe it was just emblematic of the times.

But when my daughter Isabella was born in 2002, I began to notice how extremely gendered children’s products seem to have become in the new millennium. Trying to find girls’ clothing that was not pink (which I quickly learned isn’t a very functional color for a toddler who loves to grub around in the dirt) was enough of a challenge. But it was in the world of toys that I noticed what seemed to be a drastic change from my own childhood.

With the exception of preschool toys that were sometimes offered in gender-neutral packaging, kids’ toys were largely segregated into different aisles (or online pages) according to gender. And within those aisles, the markings of gender were clear. The “girls’” section resembled the aftermath of an explosion of Pepto-Bismol. In the “boys’” section, there seemed to be a profusion of aggressive, hyper-muscled, weapon-wielding action figures. And in both realms, the majority of toys seemed to be explicitly tied to movies and television.

Melissa & Doug brand crayon sets.I sought out non-gendered toys for my daughter and found them more readily available in higher-end, independent toy stores—but they also came with a hefty price tag. And even these alternative toy markets seem to be becoming more and more gendered. Just the other day, while shopping with my daughter at the local independent toy store for a birthday gift, I couldn’t help but notice that Melissa & Doug brand crayon sets are offered in two versions—a pink princess model and a blue fire-truck version.

Of course, I’m not alone in noticing how today’s toys seem increasingly gendered. In their books Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood, authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown detail the extensive and problematic stereotypical messages about gender that are embedded in contemporary children’s products and advertising. Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter explores the pink-laden, hyper-sexualized “girlie-girl” culture that is omnipresent in the U.S. today, and the consequences of this culture for both children and parents. And scholars of children’s marketing such as Juliet Schor and Susan Linn have offered extensive evidence of how such trends are connected to commericalism’s omnipresence in the lives of children in the attempt to create cradle-to-grave brand awareness and loyalty.

Ever-more targeted marketing that segments and isolates children into specific categories (“tween girls,” for example) may explain why toys are becoming more ostensibly gendered. But a larger question remains: In light of the significant advances toward gender equality that we see in the occupational realm, in the realm of home and family, and in education, why do children’s toys seem to be moving in the opposite direction? Why are they embodying seemingly regressive stereotypes—i.e., that girls are sweet, domestic, and pretty, and boys are strong, aggressive, and mechanically inclined? And why has gender become such a focal distinction among marketers and toy producers? 

The Historical Context: Trends in the 20th Century

Sears catalogs collected by the author.It was this question that led me to my dissertation research project. I wanted to put what I was seeing in a historical context, and to understand whether it was indeed true that toys today are more gendered than they were, say, in the 70s and 80s. Has there in fact been a change in the extent to which children’s toys are made and marketed according to gender? And how do the changes in children’s toys relate to larger social shifts in gender relations? Do toys merely reflect the ideas about gender that are predominant in the larger culture at any given time, or are they a reaction to these ideas, either promoting more or less egalitarianism than is the case at any given time?

To address these questions, I’ve spent the past year analyzing the content of toys and toy ads in a sample of Sears catalogs from the 20th century—a primary site of consumption for Americans during this time. I’m examining both the images and the text to determine how much the toys and ads are overtly and subtly marketed toward a particular gender, and how this is evident. I'm attempting to ascertain who a particular toy was designed for, and what kinds of qualities and attributes are being ascribed to both the toy and the child. I’m still in the process of data analysis, but already I’ve observed some interesting trends: 

The sheer number of toys produced for and marketed to children has increased exponentially over the 20th century. In the 1905 Sears catalog, there were only 139 toys offered, including card and board games for the whole family. But by 1945, the number of toys had nearly doubled, and by 1995 there were over 1,400 toys on display in the Sears holiday Wishbook. This makes sense in light of the changing understandings of childhood and the shifting patterns of consumption over the course of the 20th century. At the turn of the century, children were productive contributors to the family economy and thus childhood was viewed far less than it is today as a unique and protected status. In addition, the explosion of the toy market in the second half of the 20th century surely reflects the simultaneous rise of the consumer economy where children are now seen as vital consumers. 

The extent to which children’s toys are overtly gendered (i.e., explicitly marketed to either a boy or a girl in the ad copy) appears to have fluctuated over time, but it is clearly a dominant trend today. For example:1905 Sears Catalog: Doll for boys.

  • In the 1905 catalog, no toys were expressly marketed to either gender, and only a handful (roughly 15 percent) bore more subtle gender messages. Even the dolls, which in subsequent decade were much more clearly marked as “girls’” toys, were advertised in a fairly gender-ambiguous manner. And some dolls were clearly designed for boys as well as girls.
  • By 1915, dolls tended to be much more feminine in form (with hair bows, for example) and doll accessories were overtly marketed toward girls. We also see the emergence of homemaking toys, such as toy stoves and irons, which are expressly made for girls, and toys such as guns, model kits, and tool sets, which were expressly marketed for boys. But the majority of toys in the early part of the century—blocks, stuffed animals, farm sets, balls, pull toys, etc.—seemed to lack the markings of gender. 
  • 1945 Sears Wishbook: Doctor and nurse kits.By mid-century, nearly all dolls were overtly marketed toward girls, as were home-making toys. Fewer toys seemed to be expressly marketed toward boys. While some bore the subtle markings of gender (i.e., being modeled by a boy), only a handful of guns or trucks were overtly directed toward boys. Yet clear gender distinctions had emerged in terms of occupational roles, as is clear in a 1945 ad for “Doctor and Nurse” kits. 
  • By 1965, the gender roles that prescribe the realm of home and family to girls and the realm of science, building, and aggression to boys were even more evident. In one catalog, we see an image with the caption: “Sears knows what little girls like...” and on the opposing page, “Dolls daintily dressed in parfait colors.” The kitchen seems to be strictly for girls (as depicted in the first ad shown above), and girls’ dress-up clothing is framed around the ideas of dating and romance. In contrast, the realm of science is portrayed as the domain of boys, and there are a profusion of toys like G.I. Joe that embody aggression marketed to boys. Yet there are still some toys, primarily toddler toys and those designed to be educational, that remain gender neutral.
  • Interestingly, by 1975 we begin to see some broadening in the gender roles that are prescribed for boys and girls and in the extent to which toys are overtly gendered. Overall, there seem to be fewer toys than in previous decades that are explicitly marketed toward one gender or another, although there are still subtle forms of gendering (such as the use of color or the wording of ad copy). We also see, for the first time, images of boys playing with kitchen playsets and girls playing with construction sets. And the image that goes with the “doctor and nurse kits” is one of two girls. 

Left - 1975 Sears Wishbook: Girls as doctors and nurses. Center & Right - 1985 Sears Wishbook: Dolls for boys.

  • These trends become even more pronounced by 1985, where we see boys not only in the kitchen but also modeling home-making toys such as vacuums. And we see, for the first time, images of boys playing with dolls. For girls, we see the introduction of action figures such as “She-Ra” that embody both femininity and adventure. And boys and girls seem to be more likely to share space on catalog pages and to wear clothing that is less gender typed than in previous decades.

    Notably, by 1985, the majority of toys offered in the Sears Wishbook are clearly branded where they were less likely to be previously. And many are clearly tied in with children’s television programs and movies. In 1984, deregulation removed the legal barriers that prevented the use of children’s programming to sell products. The profusion of branded toys that directly relate to programming in 1985 is likely a direct result of such deregulation.

1995 Sears Wishbook: Gendered beds.By the end of the 20th century, there were signs that the move toward more gender-neutral toys and toys that embody increasingly egalitarian gender roles was waning. In the 1995 holiday Wishbook, although we still see some images of boys in the kitchen and girls doing science, the use of pink to color-code “girls’” toys and playsets seems more prevalent than ever. Some toys, such as beds and building sets, are offered in separate versions according to gender. Although few toys are explicitly stated to be for a particular gender, many show the subtle markings of gender through use of color, specific models, and language in the ad copy. It seems reasonable to assume that few boys will select the pink Fairytale Princess bed or the Fairytale Palace Mega Bloks. And in fact, the gendered Mega Bloks sets are an interesting contrast to the relatively gender neutral Lego sets found in the previous decade.

Toys and Gender: The Larger Picture

In the 1990s, toys aimed at girls often emphasized beauty, nurturing, domesticity, and romance while boy’s toys seemed to emphasize aggression, action, and excitement. Although these types of gender messages are evident to varying extents throughout the 20th century, they seem heightened in the mid-90s compared to the previous two decades. This is the same period that women were showing an increasing presence in the labor force, in the political realm, and in higher education.

1995 Sears Wishbook: Mega Bloks sets.As gender relations continue to move toward a more egalitarian end, why then do toys seem to be moving in the opposite direction?

One possible explanation for this trend is that as women have gained social and political power, toys have come to embody an ideological backlash to this progress. As the roles of men and women become more similar in the larger society, there is a greater need to distinguish between masculinity and femininity within the culture, and to emphasize that the traditional aspects of gender roles have not been abandoned.

But toys also serve a critical role in teaching children about gender and what it means to be masculine and feminine, so the heightening of gender in the realm of toys seems especially problematic. How do children come to understand that men can be nurturing and can cook and care for the home, and that women can be assertive, adventurous, and competent, when the ideas they see encoded in their toys are so contradictory?

The effect of these messages on children may be more profound than we might think. From my own experience raising a daughter who has always eschewed anything pink and princessy, I know it can be difficult being a child who doesn’t conform to these increasingly rigid gender norms. For girls, there is still some latitude to stray across gender boundaries—girls can, for example, wear boys’ clothing or play with boys’ toys without being socially ostracized. But for boys, the stakes are higher. Consider the massive controversy that arose when J. Crew  ran an advertisement that showed a mother painting her son’s toenails pink.

2010 Toys ‘R’ Us Display: Cooking and cleaning for everyone?This past holiday season, I found myself in a Toys ‘R’ Us store and couldn’t help but notice, in the virulent pink “girls’” section, the signs above the toys that said “cook and clean” and “kids’ cooking.” I couldn’t believe that, in the year 2010, this is where we are in terms of gender and toys. While the language on the signs may suggest gender neutrality, the use of color clearly suggests that these tasks are the domain of girls.

I am troubled by what I see as a move toward more repressive ideas about gender in the land of children’s toys, and I’m also concerned about the constant push to consume and spend for children from birth onward. The manufacturers who make the bulk of children’s products, and the marketers who sell them, generally do not have children’s best interests at the forefront. Rather, the desire to profit is paramount, whatever the social cost. 

As parents, we need to become more aware of the messages being sent to our children via marketing and the products they are surrounded by. And we need to educate our children about those messages. I talk constantly to my own daughter about what I see, and as a result she has begun to decode those messages herself. That doesn’t mean she still isn’t swayed by them from time to time, but at least her eyes are open.

But most importantly, as citizens, we need to demand that corporations be held accountable to make and market products in a responsible manner. Left to its own devices, the toy industry seems loathe to address the negative effects of contemporary toys and toy marketing for children. Thus, pressure from citizens and parents will be necessary if we hope to see a future where children’s products aren’t at such odds with important values like gender equality. 


To learn more about how you can combat the harmful effects of commercial culture on children, visit:

Elizabeth and Isabella Sweet



Elizabeth Sweet is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include sex and gender and the sociology of the family. She is the mother of a 9-year-old daughter, Isabella.

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Your article is timely and raises such interesting points. It seems many toy shops are stereotyping children’s toys, in a very old fashioned way. The messages this sends to kids creating their identities are crazy. Girls are only beautiful home makers, while boys get active, dirty and into science. So out-dated. I created Green Ant Toys Online Toy Shop without Girls and Boys Toys – just plain toy categories for this reason.

Posted by Polly Green at July 18, 2013 at 8:51pm

Your NY Times article “Guys and Dolls No More?” was forwarded to me by my father-in-law, which then led me to this blog. I can’t tell you how happy I was to find your site! This has been a subject that has both interested and deeply concerned me, especially since my daughter was born. I’ve been finding that shielding her from all of this ridiculous advertising is really pretty challenging. Of course it doesn’t help that most the folks around me are taking the bait. Even my own sisters think I’m nuts for being so sensitive to this nonsense! I’m glad to read your blog, and the wonderful comments from other women (hmmm…why aren’t men commenting more?). Thank you, thank you!

Posted by Faith at December 23, 2012 at 8:37pm

THank you so much for your work!! I think the pink/blue divide is entirely driven by toy companies and clothing companies who set the agenda. Parents, in turn, blithely follow. We do not have a TV and do not shop for fun. My children attend a Waldorf school that has a no media and no commercial images policy. My daughter and son wear practical, active clothing and enjoy wearing ALL types of colors and patterns (though we tend to stick to stripes of navy blue and red and greens). I have noticed that in the decade since my children where born it has become increasingly difficult to find girls clothes NOT in pep to-Bismol pink or boys clothing not in camouflage colors. I spend great amounts of time and money to defy the social norms and trends. Can be band together and do something about this shrinking rainbow? Ironically I’m not looking for more choice—Barry Swartz has taught us well that choice can be oppressive. I’m just looking for a paradigm change. What we have now is as totalitarian as anything the Soviet Union was serving up in different mediums and venues.

Posted by Barbara at December 21, 2012 at 10:55pm

Thanks so much for the post! It’s both fascinating, and more than a little scary. Thinking specifically about the increased gendering of toys that you mention at the mid-century mark, I was wondering if it could be in part attributed to post-WWII attitudes about women working outside of the home. During the war there was a lot of propaganda that encouraged women to work, but after there was at least as much propaganda encouraging them to return to the home, take on womanly/wifely duties exclusively, etc., etc. Could some of the toy gendering at this time have been for the same reason; to encourage girls to know their place in society when they became adults, and to make sure that they didn’t take examples of their mothers working during the war as the norm? Just a thought. Good luck with your research!

Posted by Warda at December 19, 2011 at 2:49pm

Wonderful article! I have been very interested in this subject since the birth of my granddaughter in 2001. I raised my son in the 70s and 80s and did not experience the extensive gender stereotyping that I see today. it seems as though our society is going backwards in our attitudes towards women. The pinkism is over the top as is the overemphasis on “looks” for girls. I have been working the last several years in my spare time to develop alternative ideas and toy designs for kids with emphasis on developing their creativity and individual talents. I hope to make it full time soon. As concerned parents, grandparents and friends of children we need other options and alternatives to the large toy company products.

Posted by Diane at October 20, 2011 at 4:52pm

I’m with Michelle (4th oldest post): I think it’s about getting parents / grands / friends to buy more more more. if there is a pink baseball bat, the younger boy is taught not to accept is as a hand me down and therefore a “new” one has to be acquired. It makes me sick what all this is teachin’ our kids. I too don’t let my daughter watch tv at our house—I think she was surprised last year during the World Cup to see a tv behind those doors!—but she sees it elsewhere, and the hand-me-downs from our neighbors and friends, as well as friends’ toys and dress up dresses (and tiaras, and high heels ugh, etc etc) still exposes her. It sickens me and I am tired of bein’ the “Nazi-mom” who is hyper vigilant when so many other parents roll their eyes and think it’s cute, or just natural, or whatever…Shared the article with lots o’ friends and family! Thanks!

Posted by Michi at October 20, 2011 at 12:35am

It’s all about companies building lifelong consumers. Telling girls that you are not feminine unless you have pink, froofy, things (anything from toothbrushes to bikes.) And getting parents to buy more stuff for their kids. Why sell one set of blocks that could be used by all your children, when you could sell gender specifc blocks so that you need two sets one for your son and one for your daughter? I see this issue to be a close parallel to putting children’s media characters on everything. It’s not enough for your child to have underwear, it has to be Disney Princess underwear. You can’t just throw your child a birthday party, it has to be a Dora themed party. Big business should be banned from marketing anything to children, and we has parents need to thoroughly think through how we spend money on our kids.

Posted by Karin at October 19, 2011 at 11:43am

It seems as though “Shelly” didn’t really read the entire article, which in fact appears to suggest that girls and boys don’t necessarily “innately” prefer certain toys. Of course manufacturers pay attention to consumerism, but don’t tell me they don’t try to steer it as best they can, since if manufacturers can control consumerism they can obviously maximize their income.

The regulation referred to above applied solely to tie-ins between children’s television programming and toys — nothing else; no other regulation was implied or should be inferred.

Gender equality has most to do with modeling. Saying schools should have it as a higher priority if parents can’t enforce it is absurd. Modeling begins at home, and schools should not be the provider of last resort, to do whatever parents are unable or unwilling to do.

Posted by Kerry Canfield at October 17, 2011 at 3:55pm

Look at the picture of the boy and girl toddler bed sets. If your first child is a girl and you purchase the pink bedset when your second child who is a boy comes along you will not be handing that bed down to him. Off to the store to purchase his bedset. You can sell a lot more products if kids are trained they can only use things that are “girl” colored or “boy” colored. Even things so gender-neutral as sets of crayons!

Posted by Barb at October 17, 2011 at 10:06am

Thank you for your post. We are in the midst of foster to adopt and in preparing bedrooms for children that we do not know the sex of, we had a very challenging time trying to find fun, kid friendly non-gender specific bedding to welcome them home. Even the basic children’s ABC and 123 bedding seemed to be geared toward either boys or girls.

Posted by Mary K at October 15, 2011 at 7:08pm

Manufacturers are most certainly not following what children want—but it is capitalistic. They have simply split the gender lines more clearly to make more money. Research shows that boys and girls have no definitive ideas about pink or blue before the age of two. That’s when girls begin to choose pink and boys reject it. That’s because throughout infancy and toddler-age they are inundated so that by the time they reach an age when they can begin to choose—they begin to conform to what are society’s ideas about gender. In the early 19th century, for instance, the colors were reversed—pink was considered masculine and blue feminine (think the Virgin Mary). Most of gender is constructed by external forces which is exactly why you see these varying trends. If gender were truly fixed, there would be nothing you could do to change it. I really appreciate Elizabeth’s well analyzed and illustrated historical purview of this particular industry. The children’s toy market is one of the largest there is in terms of dollars and companies are constantly capitalizing at—often limiting how our children see gender. I have a daughter who is not girly at all—I would love to see some girls in a Lego or Bakugan ad…you just don’t see it.

Posted by Michele at October 14, 2011 at 8:08am

We’ve managed to avoid this to some degree by not having TV and just watching DVD’s, ones which are suitable for our sons AND our daughter, and raising geeks (much like ourselves) who like reading and crafts and Legos. :) I remember someone asking me one time whether our daughter was a girly-girl or a tomboy, having two brothers and all, and I thought about it and said, “Neither, really— she’s a bookworm.” Even so, both boys have been crazy about trains, which our daughter never got into— and she likes crafts like knitting and sewing that they don’t have the patience to sit down and get into. And we just go with what they enjoy. But they all have a lot of toys and books and interests in common, probably because they only rarely see the ads that would try to steer them in one direction or another.

Posted by Bookaholic at October 13, 2011 at 1:27pm

Thank you for this extraordinary post. I had written one on my own blog about the sense of moving towards more gendered toys for children, but it’s wonderful to see the research behind what I implicitly felt. Well done on your dissertation and on bringing to light this disturbing trend.

Posted by Asha at October 8, 2011 at 8:08pm

Could the marketing changes you are describing simply be product of Capitalism? Perhaps girls innately prefer certain toys and boys others, so the manufacturers market them in this way due to consumerism trends? This would mean the consumer is directing the packaging trends rathe than the manufacturer as you suggest. So regulations on on the msunfacturers would not be an effective solution. Perhaps gender equality should be a higher priority in our schools, if the parents are not doing a good job of enforcing it.

Posted by Shelly at October 8, 2011 at 9:00am


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