Do Toys Negatively Shape Gender Roles?

I love toys. I have four kids and enjoy playing with them and their toys, but in a moment of true confession, I will say that I still like buying toys for myself. I have collected G.I. Joe toys for over 25 years now. I grew up playing with Transformers, He-Man, Hot-Wheels, Thundercats, and the like.

Recently an article was written suggesting that toys negatively impact gender roles, especially for girls. The article criticized toy companies for advertising for gender specific audiences (noting that when kitchens and dolls are targeted for girls it makes them feel less capable of achieving vocational success outside the home and makes them think that their place is in the home). The article also suggests that when girls want to play with boy toys it is more culturally accepted than when boys wish to play with girl toys. The author states that the stigma associated with being a tomboy (for girls) is much less harsh than being a sissy (for boys).

Throughout the read I could tell that the author was quite put-off that toy companies were creating toys with specific genders in mind. But knowing what I know about toy companies and their desire to turn a profit, it got me asking whether there was something good and necessary about them specifically targeting genders with specific toys.

I did some research and learned that children as young as 9 months old actually prefer gender specific toys. Toy companies don’t advertise for parents, they advertise for children. They know their audience and they provide their consumers with what sells. The research into infants and their toy habits proved that preferences between genders are seen prior to social constructs being formed in their minds by what society typically views as “the way things are.” In other words, there are innate differences between boys and girls.

To me this seems to fit well with the idea that God created both male and female. It fits with the gender roles laid out in Genesis 1 and 2, and with the consequences described for sin in Genesis 3.

While I believe that it is perfectly acceptable for women to work and for men to cook, part of what makes men–well men, and part of what makes women–well women, runs deeper than social engineering. It is part of our physical/spiritual engineering. God creates people in his image in such a way that both men and women equally reflect the image of God. However, God also designs men and women to function differently so as to work together as helpmates to make each better.

Hear me loud and clear. It is ok for boys to play with kitchen toys and for girls to play with army men. But seeing that there are real factual inclinations or differences in gender is as simple as “child’s play.”

Toy companies sell gender specific toys because children are naturally (innately) inclined to gravitate towards specific kinds of toys based upon their physical/mental make-up. There is no reason to be upset about this, because it is not intended to hold anyone back. Instead, it should help us see that we are all uniquely designed. So for now, I think catering toys to the specific play patterns of boys and girls, is the right and just thing to do. Looking at toys for boys and girls should point us to God and cause us to worship him for designing both boys and girls to be different in order to better work together.

How do you think the toys you had growing up shaped how you think about gender roles? Do you think it is wrong for toy companies to cater their toys to specific genders? How does what sells in the toy world speak to the reality of who God created us to be?

I look forward to hearing some of your thoughts on this.


P.S.: Here is the original article I saw on why stereotyping toys for gender is negative. Here are two (1 and 2) articles I saw on how infants prefer gender specific toys. These articles are both based on the findings of the same study. And yes, all the toys I took pictures from for this article are from the 80s. 🙂

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