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The problem With Toys Aimed At Girls

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

I am very particular about what I stock at Timeless Toys. Not only ensuring everything is sustainable, ethical, natural and plastic-free, but also that they are free of any damaging gender stereotyping they may be giving to children.

Last week saw the arrival in store of the newly redesigned and released Lanka Kade rag dolls that are absolutely gorgeous. However, it may be a surprise to know that until their face change, I consciously refused to stock them. I make a lot of these decisions when choosing what we stock and I thought it would be good to share how and why I make these decisions.

The new rag doll from Lanka Kade is shown below in the first picture, and the same older style is next to it. Can you see what they have removed? The female dolls previously had big eyelashes and the boy dolls didn't as shown below. Do boys not have eyelashes? I'm so pleased Lanka Kade have made this change. However, many more companies need to do the same and well done to Lanka Kade who recognised the need for this update. So what is the significance of this, you may ask...

Another brand item I have consistently avoided stocking, was the Fabelab Animal Cuddle Comforters for newborns because they were allocating which colours are for which gender by adding head bows and big eyelashes on certain colours. Fabelab do this across many of their soft toy and baby ranges which I find very frustrating. I choose to not stock toys or baby items where the gender of the recipient is being predetermined. I want the colour choice for your baby, to be yours, the customer.

Why add eyelashes on girls items but not on boys? You will see it is everywhere and not just limited to toys but it is common with bedding, clothes, books and children's shows like Peppa Pig. By adding eyelashes to 'girls' toys, it is reinforcing that girls should be cute, sweet, adorable, pretty and perfect - otherwise, why have them on the design at all? As well as eyelashes, another common difference on soft toys and other products aimed at girls is they have closed eyes, whilst toys aimed at boys or designed to be male, have open eyes.

Why are items aimed at girls nearly always featuring closed eyes? By doing this, it is suggesting that girls should be demure, submissive, passive, discreet and quiet. Otherwise why do this in the design? Are we (as parents) happy to support these stereotypes being instilled on our children from birth? I personally am not, I don't like it and I don't want Timeless Toys to be a perpetrator of what I believe is unhealthy and outdated messaging and values being given to children. This is why we consciously look out for what I see as flaws in design, however, we do sometimes get caught out ourselves, it's so pervasive and sometimes very hard to avoid!

Another question we need to ask ourselves, is if we are comfortable about how animals are portrayed to children in items for them, to infer what is expected of them as a male or female. Why are predator and wild animals (that have the freedom to roam) like dinosaurs, lions, tigers and crocodiles marketed to boys, whilst cute and generally fluffy prey or domesticated pet animals that are very home orientated like rabbits and cats marketed at girls, along with delicate animals like butterflies and pretty, sweet small flowers. Animals marketed at girls also tend to be caricatured with big heads and oversized wide eyes with thick eyelashes, whilst animals marketed at boys tend to be realistic to scale and real life.

Do unicorns have or need eyelashes in their design? Whilst the turtle (below) is also caricatured here, the design is suggestive of 'being cool, wild and free', which turtles are of course, and cats do have big cute eyes, along with the familiar joke that they use them especially to manipulate their humans (Puss in Boots from Shrek always comes to mind!) Is that another subtle message being sent out about girls (and women's) behaviour, when cats with big eyes are so widely used in design?

This post isn't about saying that pink and pretty is bad (although are eyelashes really necessary?), cats are bad, unicorns are bad and big eyes on toys are bad, but it is about sharing with you the things I have noticed in children's marketing and design of products that is being consistently used in a targeted way. I look out for these things when sourcing brands and items for the shop, and in some cases make the conscious decision to not support or stock them as a result.

Rubens Barn is a great brand we stock and ALL their dolls have eyelashes. Olli Ella is a great brand we stock and ALL their Cozy Dinkum dolls have closed eyes and the same eyelash design.

Most the brands we stock are conscious of this stereotyping and make an effort to ensure their toys and packaging appeal equally to all children regardless of gender.

Other areas where you will see stereotyping occurring:

  • Slogans on clothes, packaging and on adverts - 'Imagine and Play' versus 'Action and Adventure'.

  • Material of clothes. Have you noticed that fluffy soft fabrics will be on the inside of boys clothes and outside on girls clothes? Why are we using clothes as an invitation that girls are touchable, soft and feel nice? From a very young age, girls will be more caressed than their male peers are.

  • Lack of strong female leads in books marketed to boys, as well as girls. Apparently the view from publishing houses is that boys won't read a book with a female lead!

  • Stereotyping on children's cartoons - Peppa Pig and Sky from Paw Patrol are just two examples.

Things You Can Do:

Don't worry too much about the toys your child chooses to play with. Pay close attention to how you react to your child. Offer praise regardless of whether he or she is playing with something designed for a certain gender.

New research from the University of Western Sydney shows baby boys prefer objects with faces over machines. The study, found that like baby girls, baby boys wanted to engage with dolls more than cars. Using state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology, they found that gender-specific preferences are not present under six months old. Yet I only sell about one doll a year in the shop that's being bought for a boy. So when buying a newborn gift, don't be shy about buying a doll.

When buying a gift for any age, be aware of limiting stereotyping in toys and if this might influence your own decision. There's nothing wrong with buying a pink bunny for a girl or a dumper truck for a boy if that's what they will love, but can you mix things up by considering what else she or he may be given for their birthday or at Christmas, and if all the gifts will likely be giving the same stereotyped message; is there something else that they would absolutely love, if only someone was willing to buy it for them.

The issues with gender stereotyping and suggestion of expected social behaviours through the items we buy children, is such a massive area, I am unable to cover it all here, but if you are interested in finding out more, follow those trying to raise awareness and challenge this with toy companies directly, like Let Toys Be Toys, Not Only Pink and Blue and Simply Gender Free.

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