The toy world’s biggest convention starts this weekend in New York, where more than 900 members of the Toy Industry Association — brands, manufacturers, licensors and retailers who account for about 90 percent of the annual $22 billion U.S. domestic toy market — will gather to talk about the future of the business.
Unfortunately, they’ll start off with something that seems more like it should be a throwback to the past. At the prestigious Toy of the Year Awards Friday evening, honors in two categories — the “Boy Toy of the Year” and the “Girl Toy of the Year” — will rely upon and reinforce the outdated gender stereotyping of toys.
Contenders for the “Boy Toy” award include three Star Wars toys, a remote-controlled Hulk toy, a Hot Wheels garage, a Nerf blaster and a video streaming drone. In contrast, the “Girl Toy” contenders include a Disney’s Frozen Sing-A-Long Elsa doll, a Nerf Rebelle bow and arrow, a Girl Scout cookie oven, a Shopkins ice cream truck, a blacklight-illuminated nature journal and the interactive Zoomer Kitty toy pet.
Such segregation is unnecessary. Many girls like “Star Wars” and Hot Wheels and drones. Many boys like Frozen and cookies and kittens. All of these toys are suitable for children of either sex, as long one doesn’t mind boys playing with the occasional pink-tinged item.
And in fact, the industry was never as heavily gendered as it is today: Children’s toys are now more divided by gender than they were 50 years ago, during an era we like to think of as less enlightened about sexism. If adults’ jobs are no longer segregated by restrictive gender roles, why should our children be taught that some toys are for boys and others for girls — a retrograde idea that limits their creativity and their development of well-rounded skills and interests?
That’s the question entrepreneur Dan Nessel of Northampton, Mass., has been trying to ask the industry. Nessel is a father of two and the founder and editor of DadDoes.com, whose video reviews of toys and gadgets on YouTube boast more 56 million views and 91,000 subscribers. He is attuned to ongoing conversations about stereotypes in children’s toy marketing and found the list of nominees “embarrassing.” As a regular attendee of the annual Toy Fair, Nessel decided early last month to launch a Change.org petition to end the boy and girl awards. He also sent the TIA’s vice president of marketing, Ken Seiter, and its director of strategic communications, Adrienne Appell, a few emails asking them to consider a change.
Neither Seiter nor Appell replied. Instead, last week, upon receiving Nessel’s fourth email request, Seiter shot Appell a quick message, which read: “Needless to say we don’t touch this. Obviously this guy needs a job.”
Nessel, whom Seiter accidentally copied on the message, was disappointed.
“I was fully prepared to have a civilized debate on the merits of having Boy and Girl Toy of The Year Awards,” says Nessel, whose work for DadDoes.com is so successful that it is his day job. “I was not prepared to learn they just don’t want to touch the issue and believe I should ‘get a job’ for caring about gender stereotypes in toys.”
Seiter’s off-the-cuff response is revealing, however, of how hard it is for concerned parents to engage industry leaders. Individuals’ queries usually result in either calculated public relations responses or silence. Social media campaigns, however, have been a bit more effective, because of how much easier it is to engage in collective action online. Consider the new curvy Barbie dolls, the increase in Star Wars products featuring Rey and the release of LEGO’s first wheelchair: Campaigns like #NormalBarbie (praising Barbie’s indie rival Lammily), #WheresRey and #ToyLikeMe have aggregated and amplified individuals’ voices, making it hard for industry executives to ignore them. Organizations that respond quickly and adeptly to such campaigns can reap many rewards — but the larger the organization, the harder it is to do move deftly.
Retailers and brands domestically and in Europe have begun paying attention to such concerns. For example, in Britain, the work of grass-roots organization Let Toys Be Toys has prompted changes from 14 major retailers. Meanwhile, Spanish retailer Toy Planet made headlines this Christmas for its gender-inclusive advertisements, and in Sweden, Top-Toy catalogs now feature boys and girls playing together with toys like hairdressing toys and battle games alike.
At home in the United States, similar changes are afoot. For example, after announcing in August that it would no longer label toy aisles as boys’ or girls’, Target just revealed that this month, they will replace their Circo line of children’s home products with a new gender-neutral line, Pillowfort, which tested very well with boys and girls alike. Recognizing that superheroes are not just a boy interest, Warner Bros. announced this week that it will launch a DC Super Hero Girls line this year that eschews pretty pink stereotypes. Meanwhile, a leading children’s underwear manufacturer has begun making Star Wars and Marvel underwear for girls, acknowledging that girls are long-underserved fans of these brands, too.
Like many critics, however, Nessel is ready for change to happen sooner. “I am a dad to two wonderful children, and I see how their view of the world is shaped everyday, based on what they do and what they play with,” he says. “I do believe these awards are harmful. Every stereotype does harm by definition. If we don’t have awards for Best Computer for Men and Best Computer for Women, why in the world do we have these awards for toys?”
It’s a reasonable question to ask. After all, European toy industry groups don’t have gender-segregated award categories. And as an industry leader, the TIA is powerful and influential. It is in a position to alter how a lot of people think about toy marketing — not just their members, but also those who vote for TOTY winners, including retail buyers, journalists, bloggers, toy specialists and professionals.
So I asked Seiter and Appell by email to comment on the possibility that future toy awards won’t insist that boys can’t pretend to bake, or that girls shouldn’t play with spaceships. Appell replied: “Right now we are reviewing. We are cognizant of the fact that the world is changing and we are looking to retire these categories.”
It’s a glimmer of hope. But Nessel still has his doubts. “At this point, action speaks louder than words,” he says. “These awards should have been retired years ago. Enough talk — just do the right thing and announce the retirement of the Boy and Girl toy awards now.”