FOR THE WEEK OF OCT. 25, 2021
A toymaker and a state show sensitivity to how playtime can create and reinforce gender stereotypes
Look for a woman in a job or sport that wasn't as diverse when your grandmothers were young.
Now show a profession or athletic activity that's still generally male-dominated.
Try to find an example of gender-neutral language.
Old ways of labeling and selling toys are changing as one U.S. state and one large company support the reality that girls and boys sometimes – often, even – like the same playthings. The state is California, the country's largest with nearly 40 million people, where big stores must have non-gendered toy sections starting in 2024. The other sign of the times comes from Lego, the world's biggest toy manufacturer. It pledges to eliminate gender stereotypes from its products — including box labels that say "for girls" or "for boys."
The Danish company, known for colorful plastic building blocks, said a few weeks ago on the United Nations Day of the Girl: "Despite the progress made in girls brushing off prejudice at an early age, general attitudes surrounding play and creative careers remain unequal and restrictive. . . . Girls today feel increasingly confident to engage in all types of play and creative activities, but remain held back by society's ingrained gender stereotypes as they grow older." California's move also reflects closer attention to the role that toys play in creating and reinforcing gender stereotypes. A law signed recently by its Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, gives retailers with over 500 workers more than two years to provide "a reasonable selection" of toys and child-care items in a "gender-neutral section . . . regardless of whether they have been traditionally marketed for either girls or boys." Similar legislation didn't pass in 2019 and 2020.
Backers of California's law say it'll help families comparison-shop and combat assumptions that hurt children who play with toys marketed to a different gender. Critics feel it erodes merchants' freedom to showcase items and design stores as they see fit. "Activists and state legislators have no right to force retailers to espouse government-approved messages about gender," says Jonathan Keller, president of the conservative California Family Council lobbying group. "It's a violation of free speech and it's just plain wrong."
Lego says: "Our job now is to encourage boys and girls who want to play with sets that may have traditionally been seen as 'not for them.'" -- Julia Goldin, chief product and marketing officer
Lawmaker says: "Traditionally children's toys and products have been categorized by a child's gender. In retail this has led to the proliferation of STEM-geared toys in a 'boys' section and toys that direct girls to pursuits such as caring for a baby, fashion and domestic life." – Evan Low, Democratic assemblyman in California
Critic says: "We do not believe it is the role of the California Legislature to overstep the natural process of the free market." -- Capitol Resource Institute, a public policy organization in Sacramento, Calif.
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