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Things to Do With Your Kids

Yet Another UK Toy Retailer To Go Gender-Neutral in 2014


Consumers spoke up, and UK department store Marks & Spencer has decided to ditch the gender-specific packaging that unfairly restricts toys by what gender they “should” be played with.

If you’re reading this site I’m going to go ahead and assume you agree with me that any child of any gender should be able to play with whatever the heck toy they want without being told—either directly (“Boys don’t play with dolls!”) or indirectly (toy weapons with only boys on the packaging or in the commercials)—that they’re somehow “doing their gender wrong.” Unfortunately a lot of that mindset still exists in toy stores, where toys are often labelled as “for girls” or “for boys,” either by the stores themselves (aisle signs) or via packaging.

The latter was the case in Marks & Spencer, which sells a line of toys called “Boy’s Stuff” and another one called “Little Miss Arty.” In the former line you’ll find things like a toy fire station (“This pop up fire station is perfect for little fire men everywhere”) and a joke book that reads “Boys know the best jokes and here are 500 crackers to keep you ahead of the girls.” The “Little Miss Arty” line is mostly “Paint Your Own Door Hanger/Picture Frame/Toy Castle” items, because of course boys don’t like art.

Except now, due to a bevy of consumer complaints, Marks & Spencer is ditching the labeling. “Boy’s Stuff” will now use a simple logo, and “Little Miss Arty” will be “Poppy and Blue.” One of the consumers in question was MP Stella Creasy, who tweeted:

And Marks & Spencer responded:

“We offer a wide range of fun and educational toys, which are designed to appeal to children regardless of gender,” continued Marks & Spencer in a statement. “We have listened carefully to feedback from our customers and by spring next year all of our toys will be gender neutral.”

Wow. That seems… remarkably painless. Granted, it was a long time coming, and such progress wouldn’t have come about if it weren’t for the hard work of individual consumers and activist groups like Let Toys Be Toys, which has as its mission urging “retailers and manufacturers to sort toys by theme or function, rather than by gender, and let the children decide which toys they enjoy best.” But a whole bunch of people asked Marks & Spencer to do this thing, and there was no argument. No debate. Just a “Yep. Sure. Next Spring good for you?”

Part of that is that the UK has already made great strides in removing gender restrictions from toy stores. Well over a year ago world-famous department store Harrods opened their first-ever gender neutral toy department. In September Toys R US’ UK locations pledged to create in-store signage that will remove “explicit references to gender” and show boys and girls playing with the same toys. Let Toys Be Toys found that the number of toy departments organized into “for boys” and “for girls” sections instead of by genre has fallen by 60% in the past year. They estimate that this year only a fifth of stores are organizing stores the old way, compared to 50% in 2012.

Your move, US toy stores. Also your move US consumers. There are initiatives geared toward expanding what’s traditionally thought of as “girls’ toys”—GoldieBlox, for example—but I’ve yet to see a stateside organization that specifically takes aim at toy stores the way Let Toys Be Toys does in the UK. (If there is one, let me know.) Such a thing is absolutely needed. Making toy stores gender neutral won’t fix the problem of toys being pigeonholed for one gender, at least not by itself. We have a long way to go before society as a whole stops regarding baby dolls and pink toys as “for girls” instead of “for whoever wants to play with baby dolls and pink toys.” Same goes for army toys and the color blue. There are deeply-embedded stereotypes at play here. But not bombarding kids with “This toy is for you. This one isn’t.” as they run around Toys R Us or Target is a great place to start.

(via The Guardian, Her.ie; picture by Helen Wells)

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  • Lowprices

    “This isn’t just gender equality, it’s Marks & Spencers gender equality.”

  • Anonymous

    Toys R Us would be an interesting transition to gender neutral toys in the states. They would have to either coordinate with the manufacturers to be gender neutral, or not sell toys that refuse to target both genders.

    But something like GoldieBlox would fail that standard as they are now, since they are explicitly targeting girls only.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    I doubt Toys R Us would do that much. What they’re doing in the UK is changing their signs, which is good if not ground-breaking.

    Maybe someone who lives in the UK can answer this: The Boy’s Stuff and Little Miss Arty lines are made by M&S, yes? So what goes on the packaging is up to them, not some other company?

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I’m shooting for the moon on that for the manufacturers to get involved. Something like FAO Schwartz would be more realistic since they make most if not all of their toys. (Sorry, been a while since I’ve been to their toy store) .

  • Anonymous

    I applaud the idea behind Goldieblox, but from everything I’ve heard it’s a poorly made, more expensive version of Tinkertoys. I was really disappointed to hear that the toy itself just isn’t that fun when compared to similar.

  • http://sharqubus.tumblr.com George Trello

    I don’t foresee this happening here in the US anytime soon. Actually, I find it more likely that a campaign would be established to REVERSE a stores decision to go gender-neutral. Probably by some group with “Family” in their name because their small minds can’t see families as anything but gender normative. I’d love to be wrong about this but I am 99% sure that I’m not.

  • Anonymous

    I really don’t care about gender neutral toys, it’s the merchandising and marketing that needs improved. I went looking for Nerf Rebelle at Toys and strolled straight to the Nerf section (both girls want that line this year. Note: we’ve purchased Nerf guns for all the kids in the past and consider regular Nerf to be a toy for everyone.) only to not find it. “Well crap” I thought. You snooze you loose I guess. But they were merchandised on an end cap near the Barbie section in the front. Front I get, it’s a hot item, but Nerfs been hot in the past without being put in the front. Why shelve it right next to the Barbies? And I really don’t see why there can’t be a commercial or two with girls wielding the N-Strike Vulcan.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder how effective it would be just to mix the toys together. Barbie and GI Joe in the same aisle, all the Ben Ten or whatever tiny monsters right next to My Little Pony. Barbie is never going to stop being pink (they’ve trademarked the shade!), but just refusing to segregate the toys might be a big help. All dolls are just dolls, all animal figures are just animal figures. Pink and blue right next to each other.

  • Sabrina Cox

    I have noticed in Toys R Us, aisles have been moved around and things have been organised by the type of toy- so all the action figures are together, the Lego’s almost all together (the Friends sets I keep noticing sliding alongside the dolls house stuff) and the house play is all together. It does make finding a toy easier although I still wince at the huge line of pink that is the Barbie line, especially as all the Disney dolls I like looking at are opposite it.
    Having said that though, there still is this line between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys, usually the centre of the shop. But it’s getting better than it was.

  • Anonymous

    Yay! Another reason to be glad I live in the UK, not the US! :p

  • Anonymous

    I took a look at it just now, yeah, it looks very much like Tinker Toys. What’s wrong with TinkerToys or K’nex? I loved those when I was a kid.

  • Fisty

    It’s the toy manufacturers who need to send out the media depicting boys & girls playing with the toys. I’m not even sure a place like Wal-Mart distinguishes; you clearly see the Toys sign and aisles of action figures, bikes and pink Barbie stuff. From there it’s pretty clear which aisle you need and having similar items together is probably good for them.

  • Anonymous

    Is “store-brand” toys more of a thing in the UK than in North America?

    I wouldn’t expect Walmart or Canadian Tire or Toys ‘R’ Us to have quite this kind of *immediate* control over the packaging used by Hasbro or Mattel or whoever.

    (I mean, if Walmart stood up and said “Nope, make the packaging gender-neutral”, I expect Hasbro would sit up and take notice. Not that that’s something Walmart’s likely to do…)

  • Anonymous

    Hi Rebecca ~
    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post on ending the gendering of toys. It is a serious problem that teaches our children to limit themselves and gender police each other (“You can’t play with that, that’s a girl toy!”).
    I wanted to let you know about some great groups in the USA that are working alongside our colleagues at Let Toys Be Toys to have similar success over here. Of course, in the UK activists have the support of the government which is something we lack here. Previous legislation like HR 4925 have long since died in committee and the toy industry has very powerful lobbyists.

    Still, we march on. You might like to check out my company/blog Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies (www.pigtailpals.com) as I have been working in this space for nearly five years. I’ve also just published a book called “Redefining Girly”. Other wonderful, hard-working groups are: Brave Girls Alliance (www.bravegirlswant.com) and in fact we were in Times Square this past October after crowd-funding $30,000 to rent a billboard and project the tweets of our supporters calling for an end to the gender stereotypes and sexualization of childhood, Princess Free Zone, Achilles Effect, Toward the Stars, SPARK Summit, Reel Girl, and Hardy Girls Healthy Women. There are several experts like Lori Day, Rebbecca Hains, Deborah Siegel, and Jennifer Shewmaker who do excellent work in this area.

    Again, thanks so much for bringing more attention to this issue!
    Melissa Atkins Wardy

  • Anonymous

    Probably more an M&S thing. Until very recently (maybe the last two years) all of Marks & Spencer’s stock was exclusively theirs, there was no other branding. They’ve had to bend that slightly with their food in order to keep up in a competitive market and so now stock a limited number of other food brands but I believe everything else of theirs is their own.

    I think other toy stores – such as Hamleys – here have their own ranges but they’ll be alongside other brands, not exclusive like in M&S.

  • Anonymous

    Yes M&S exclusively stock their own items (except in the food department now where there is a limited number of other brands) so those toy lines will be made by the company itself giving it control over packaging. Marks is unique in that way so it makes it easier for them to make changes like this and I’m really glad they are.

    About 10-15 years ago M&S was struggling as a company and they’ve worked hard to modernise their brand, meet market demands and adapt to changes (they were seen as a bit old-fashioned for a long time). That’s possibly why they’ve taken action so swiftly having paid attention to customer feedback; it keeps them ahead of their competitors in the market and gives them more positive publicity. As a brand their focus is high quality not low prices so they have to rely on their reputation in order to survive.

  • Anonymous

    Yes M&S exclusively stock their own items (except in the food department now where there is a limited number of other brands) so those toy lines will be made by the company itself giving it control over packaging. Marks is unique in that way so it makes it easier for them to make changes like this and I’m really glad they are.

    About 10-15 years ago M&S was struggling as a company and they’ve worked hard to modernise their brand, meet market demands and adapt to changes (they were seen as a bit old-fashioned for a long time). That’s possibly why they’ve taken action so swiftly having paid attention to customer feedback; it keeps them ahead of their competitors in the market and gives them more positive publicity. As a brand their focus is high quality not low prices so they have to rely on their reputation in order to survive.

  • Anonymous

    Also worth noting is that Marks is a very upper-middle-class high street chain. (Perhaps a bit like Whole Foods? Except they are a department store, not just for food. Slightly more upmarket from JC Penneys or Yonkers from what I understand).

    This is a very welcome move on M&S’s part but it’s not quite equivalent to Walmart making a decision like this.

  • Anonymous

    I’m curious: I wasn’t in many toy shops as a kid (I don’t mean to sound like Little Lost Orphan Annie, I just mean my parents got us second-hand toys or gave them as Christmas gifts, or we went to the toy library) so perhaps my memory of the places is hazy.

    But isn’t this retrogressive gendering thing actually quite a recent resurgence? At least in Britain? I feel as if when I was growing up in the late eighties and nineties this sort of thing was more frowned upon. I even have a vague memory of going to Hamleys and it not being divided by gender.

    I might be mistaken, but if I’m right in detecting this trend back towards old-fashioned ideas of gender, I think it came in on a wave of nostalgia and irony and as ever the irony swiftly melted away.

  • Ashe

    Every time I see an organization that puts extreme emphasis on ‘FAMILY’, I brace myself for some heteronormative, sexist, conservative crap.

  • Baby Names

    Hi Rebecca,

    there is nothing wrong with going gender neutral toys. In fact, more and more parents don’t really pay too much attention on this. This is evident by the meteoric rise of unisex baby names (find some really cool unisex baby names here: http://www.babynameslog.com/top-unisex-baby-names. Mom and dad don’t mind picking a girl baby name for their son or a boys name for their daughter. So why would they mind having gender neutral toys?

    Thanks again and Merry Xmas everyone !!!

    Love Amanda
    xx

  • Charlie

    My local Morrisons store (A retailer in the north of England) literally has shelves labelled boys toys and girls toys and of course the dollies and the robots are separated just so. I have tweeted about it and complained in store but they just look at me like I’m mad.

  • debiparna c

    This sort of thing doesn’t happen in India. Not at least in Calcutta where I grew up and still live. The toy stores usually keep things according to age/category, etc etc..I have never seen a gender segregated toy aisle in my life. The idea is as stupid as colour coding all your books in your library, to me.

  • Anonymous

    I said upper-middle because in America the feninition of ‘middle class’ differs from ours – what we call working class they call lower-middle class etc. But I take your point.