When Laurel Wider’s preschool-aged son told her that boys don’t cry, she was heartbroken. As a psychotherapist that specializes in gender, Wider prioritized raising her child without stereotypes.
She soon realized that these lessons would only stick if they were reflected in his toys. She took matters into her own hands and launched Wonder Crew, a toy company that creates dolls “inspired by boys.”
“If kids learn through play, where are the toys that encourage boys to express feelings?” she said. “They didn’t exist, and their absence was sending the message to many boys that this type of play or this way of being wasn’t for them.”
After years of gendered marketing in the toy industry, major brands and smaller startups are challenging the pink and blue divide. The toy industry is reviewing its assumptions on children, acknowledging the demands of a new generation of parents and recognizing that inclusion pays.
“The generations that are more progressive in gender attitudes are the people that are becoming parents right now,” said Elizabeth Sweet, assistant professor of sociology at San Jose State University, who has devoted her research to gender and toys. “The toy industry has really limited itself to their own, in my opinion, very wrong assumptions about what children are like and what they should like.”
As a small grassroots brand that relied on minimal advertising, Wonder Crew has defied all expectations.
“Parents are writing in telling us that they’ve never seen their son so bonded to a toy before,” said Wider. She shared that Wonder Crew will soon announce its partnership with an award-winning production company to create content for children.
Navigating a bumpy road
Sweet shared that while companies may cite an increase in profits as a motive for maintaining gender-specific tactics, making different kinds of the same product for different people limits a brand’s marketing scope.
“When you take away all other options, it’s not surprising that girls are only going to choose something that they’ve been told is right for them since birth,” she said. “If you don’t market a product broadly to all children, you’re cutting off a possible consumer base.”
While there has been a clear shift from the binary, marketers have been slow to match the sentiment of consumers, according to Valeria Piaggio, head of identity and inclusion insight at Kantar. “There is a widening gap in how consumer identity is evolving and how marketers have been responding,” she said.
Research suggests that these changes will ultimately resonate with consumers. In a 2017 Havas Group survey polling parents, 61% of women and 46% of men indicated that children should be raised in the most gender-neutral way possible.
When Sweet’s research began in 2009, the toy industry intrigued her because of its failure to follow the de-gendering trajectory of other industries. She analyzed more than 7,000 Sears catalog toy advertisements and found that toys are much more gendered today than at any point in the 20th century.
“There has not been a linear progression,” said Tessa Trabue, campaigner at the social organization Let Toys Be Toys. “We’ve had so many grandparents come up to our stand and just say, ‘What happened? We thought we sorted this all out in the ’70s and raised our kids without any of this gendered nonsense, so how in the world is this happening?’”
This lack of progress can partially be explained by the connection between toys and the entertainment industry, which Trabue said heavily relies on stereotypes. “When you look at the toy aisle now, nearly everything needs to be tied to the media franchise,” she said. “It has become Disney princesses and Marvel sets, and it’s pretty rare for toymakers to stray outside of that.”