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

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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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