Mon December 17, 2012
The Two-Way

Girls, Boys And Toys: Rethinking Stereotypes In What Kids Play With

Originally published on Tue December 18, 2012 6:50 am

We've been focusing on some serious news today. Here's something on the lighter side.

A New Jersey teenager who launched a campaign to get Hasbro to make a gender-neutral Easy-Bake Oven is expected to meet with the toy company Monday afternoon.

Update at 5:40 p.m. ET. Easy-Bake Oven goes gender-neutral:

After meeting with Pope, Hasbro now says it plans to introduce a new black, silver, and blue model of the oven, and to feature boys in ads for the product. Our original post continues:

According to The Associated Press, the oven's team at Hasbro invited 13-year-old McKenna Pope of Garfield, N.J., to share her thoughts and ideas. McKenna wants the company to make the pink and purple oven in more boy-friendly colors and also feature boys in their marketing for the toy. The oven, she says, reinforces gender stereotypes to the point that her younger brother thinks boys shouldn't cook.

"We continue to enforce this stereotype that men don't cook, they work," Pope says in a YouTube video created as part of her effort to get Hasbro to change the way it makes and markets the toy oven. Her online petition has garnered 44,000 supporters since it was launched in November and has the backing of top chefs like Bobby Flay.

(Incidentally, the oven hasn't always been pink. Introduced in 1963, it's been green, yellow and orange. It turned gender-specific pink in 1993.)

Pope's campaign seems to be part of heightened gender messaging awareness in toys this holiday season.

In Sweden, a toy company recently revamped the way it advertises toys to boys and girls. The company, Top Toy, was told by a Swedish regulator to stop advertising using stereotypes, toy analyst Sean McGowan of Needham & Co. tells NPR's David Greene. So in Top Toy's 2012 Christmas catalog, boys are shown playing with a pink ironing board set, for example, and girls are shown playing with a Nerf rifle.

"I think what they were worried about was causing gender identification needlessly — to turn off passive learning, passive expression down the road, even passive economic opportunity for girls or boys if they felt they couldn't do something because of societal norms," McGowan says.

Time will tell, McGowan says, whether trying to take gender out of toys will affect play habits.

"It'll be interesting to see how this changes the attitudes of parents and of kids over time or whether or not it does. There may be some hard-wired differences," he says.

Meanwhile, Lego has developed and marketed a line of toys specifically to girls after researching for years how to get girls to play with the toy bricks. The Lego Friends line includes a cafe, a vet's office and a pet salon. The figures, McGowan notes, are bigger and are more realistic than other figures because Lego learned that girls see them as avatars of themselves.

"By unlocking that mystery — what is it that the girls are looking for out of the play? — Lego was able to get a lot of girls and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue just in one year, whereas they couldn't get that before," McGowan says.

Ultimately, for good or bad, there really are just fundamental differences between boys and girls, he says.

"I don't think anybody here is kidding themselves that we're going to get girls to like all boys toys and boys to like all girls toys," McGowan says. "But I think it's a noble effort to say, 'I have a product I believe in, that I think is good for kids — what can I do to make it more attractive to more of those kids?' "

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



Now let's talk about toys, an important subject in any holiday season, especially important to one 13-year-old in New Jersey. Her name is McKenna Pope. Her little brother loves to cook and wanted an oven. And she noticed something about Hasbro's Easy Bake Oven, and she made a video to take the company to task.


MCKENNA POPE: Why don't they have any boys in the Easy Bake Oven commercial?

GREENE: McKenna's campaign raises some interesting questions about toys and gender. And so we called up veteran toy analyst Sean McGowan to talk more about this.

SEAN MCGOWAN: I remember when I started covering this industry in the mid-'80s. There were a couple of action figure lines that were surprisingly popular with girls. And once they became very popular with girls, they actually lost appeal for boys because boys didn't want to be seen playing with a girl's toy and the girls didn't mind being seen playing with the boy's toy. You know, maybe the thinking is a little bit more progressive on that. And there's a very interesting experiment going on, you could call it that, in Sweden, I think, with gender-neutral advertising for toys.

GREENE: And tell me a little bit about that campaign.

MCGOWAN: Well, the campaign was really forced by the regulatory authorities who govern advertising that did not want to see gender specific targeting in ads. And a Toys "R" Us affiliate, I think it's called Top Toys in Sweden, actually shows boys playing with vacuum cleaners and blow dryers and girls playing with Nerf guns. It will be interesting to see how this changes the attitudes of parents and the kids over time or whether or not it does. You know, there may be some hardwired differences.

GREENE: Well, what exactly was the Swedish government worried about, you know, on a broader level?

MCGOWAN: I think what they were worried about was causing gender identification needlessly. In other words, to turn off paths of learning, paths of expression, you know, down the road even paths of economic opportunity for girls, you know, if they felt like they couldn't do something, or boys, if they felt that they couldn't do something because of societal norms. So they're really trying to create opportunities and to further equality and then further economic opportunity.

GREENE: You know, one Scandinavian company, speaking of that part of the world, Lego, has a pretty successful ad campaign going right now and it seems like there's no doubt that they're trying to reach girls. Let's give a listen.


STEPHANIE: Lego friends, welcome to beautiful Heartlake City. I'm Stephanie. I'm going to a party at the new cafe with my friend Olivia.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That's me. I just finished decorating my house. Time to chill with the girls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: At the beauty shop, Emma is styled and ready to go. That's just because you're so much fun.

GREENE: Sean McGowan, what do you think? I mean is this a positive decision for a company like that to try to go after the other gender or is this something the Swedish government would say hey, hey, hey, this is exactly what we don't want?

MCGOWAN: Yeah, I think the Swedish government might have some issues with the marketing itself because it is pretty gender specific. You know, Lego's a Danish company but I would give Lego enormous amount of credit not just because they're marketing to girls; this product was developed with eight years of solid intensive research behind it to figure out how to crack that nut of how do you get girls interested in Lego toys. You know, girls tend to gravitate towards more cooperative play, more social play, more communicative play, you know, and the boys are more about the outcome and the building and destroying and, you know, fantasies that are maybe outside of themselves. So it really comes down to - this product, the most important thing is the distance and the figures.

The figures in Lego's Friends are bigger. They have more parts that are interchangeable. They're more realistic, if you will, to the extent that a, you know, couple-inch plastic figure can be realistic. And what they learned from their research was the girls really see these figures as avatars of themselves. It's a way to express themselves, whereas the boys tend to think of the figs - as they call him - as their guys. They're just, you know, they're just guys - good guys, bad guys, they fight each other. So by unlocking that mystery - what is it that the girls are looking for out of the play - you know, Lego was able to get a lot of girls, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue just in one year, whereas they couldn't get that before.

GREENE: Well, I guess that raises the question - is there something about toys that make them hard to try and market for girls and boys at the same time?

MCGOWAN: Vive la difference, right? I mean there is a difference. We may wish that there weren't sometimes and we may celebrate the difference at other times. I don't think anybody here is kidding themselves thinking we're going to get girls to like all boys' toys and boys to like all girls' toys, but I think it's a noble effort to say, you know, I have a product here that I believe in that I think is good for kids, what can I do to make it more attractive to more of those kids?

GREENE: Sean McGowan is a senior analyst at Needham and Company. Thanks so much for speaking to us.

MCGOWAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.