There are pink aisles and blue aisles

If the New York Times notices

IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.

If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.

It’s what I keep saying (as do other people) – some things that just jump out at everyone if they’re in racial or ethnic terms, seem just normal in gender terms. Michael Shermer would never say, “it’s more of a white thing.” Lots of people who would never call anyone a “nigger” in anger think nothing of calling a woman a bitch or a cunt in anger. And yes – toys aren’t arranged by race, so why are they arranged by gender?

During my research into the role of gender in Sears catalog toy advertisements over the 20th century, I found that in 1975, very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.

But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.

It’s the Hot New Thing, policing gender. Not policing gender is so last century, so boring, so politically correct.

The ideas about gender roles embedded in toys and marketing reflect how little our beliefs have changed over time, even though they contradict modern reality: over 70 percent of mothers are in the labor force, and in most families domestic responsibilities are shared more equitably than ever before. In an era of increasingly diverse family structures, these ideas push us back toward a more unequal past.

That and all the “Real Housewives.”


  1. says

    I grew up in the 70s, playing with my Lego and Meccano and a microscope, and Star Wars action figures, and cap guns (I also had a skipping rope and dolls, and later Barbie). At that time, there were default toys, open to both sexes and girls’ toys that wouldn’t be considered appropriate for boys to play with. Kind of like boys *and* girls could wear pants, but boys couldn’t wear dresses. So I’m a bit dubious about the lack of gender policing in toy marketing of the time. It was better for girls then, but not necessarily for boys.

    Anyway, today, the situation is disgusting and pervasive. Girls get pinkified and infantalised. Boys get black&blued though also privileged to intellectual stimulation. It’s everywhere, even in ads for infants and tangentially related products such as batteries:

  2. Tracey says

    Like Ibis3, I grew up in the 1970s and played with both GI Joe and Barbie. I played kickball and rode my bike with the other neighborhood children–girls and boys. My son was born in the mid-1990s. A neighbor gave us a Fisher Price kitchen her kids had outgrown and when my son was a toddler, he would make dinner in his play kitchen (in the living room in sight of the kitchen) while we would make dinner in the real kitchen. Family members and friends *lost their minds* over a toddler boy pretending to cook. (Where do they think male chefs come from?)

  3. Krasnaya Koshka says

    I also grew up in the 70’s and my favorite toys were Hugo: The Man of a Thousand Faces and Legos. We usually
    played outside so basketballs and jump ropes and skates were the norm. I had an arsenal of Barbies from my grandmothers but I only played with those when my little brother begged.

    In my recollection it was more about creativity toys. I had a microscope I loved and a chemistry set along with a bunch of art supplies.

    My brother had an Evel Knievel motorcycle toy and I had a Derry Daredevil but he always wanted her (she was in pink) because he believed she was faster in our races. Okay. My brother never felt girl toys were off-limits. He loved playing “dad” to my Madame Alexander dolls, too. Usually with me but sometimes despite me. He didn’t feel shamed about it (and my father is a misogynist pig).

    Total anecdote.

    First comment though I read you constantly, Ophelia. I love your blog.

  4. Josh, Exasperated SpokesGay says

    I too grew up in the 70s and this story rang true to me. Yes, there was gendering in toys and clothes, but in my upbringing it was nothing like what it is today. Nowhere near it. I’m not talking about what toys my mom chose to bring into the house, I’m talking about the marketplace. Toy stores were not uniformly pink and blue. Legos were not “boy” toys, they were everyone toys! If you’d asked folks back then to imagine Legos had to be pink to be acceptable for girls they’d think you were daft. Why would that occur to anyone?

    There’s confirmation bias in my memories for sure. But even still, I remember commercials for Lincoln Logs, Slinkies, pick-up sticks, Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Head, Weebles, and lots of other such toys advertised to girls and boys.

    Oh yes, dolls were for girls* and boys who played with Barbies were shunned, given a “talking to” by their parents (I can remember the knots in my stomach over this) and sometimes sent for “counseling.” Kitchen play sets were “mostly for girls,” though not as extreme as today. Fisher Price toy houses and airports were considered pretty much unisex; I don’t remember anyone getting tetchy over boys who played with the Little People House.

    * “My Buddy” and “Monchichi” were interesting exceptions. There were boys in the commercials, and the toys themselves weren’t made aggressively “masculine” or “tough” in their presentation. Can anyone think of a toy doll marketed uncontroversially to boys today? I can’t.

  5. Josh, Exasperated SpokesGay says

    The best toys of all for me, though, were my grandmother’s costume jewelry and any blanket I could fashion into a gown. I was always pretending to be a woman character on Little House on the Prairie (Nellie Oleson, natch), Jeannie from the television show, or some evil queen or witch with vast powers. *That* kind of play was definitely a no-no and it alarmed my mother no end. I got in trouble for it and had to hide it.

    The first gender-policing I remember was Halloween when I was four years old. I wanted *desperately* to be the Wicked Witch of the West. Really, really badly. My mother (she’s long-since reformed, don’t worry) was in agony over this, surely beginning to sense her son might be. . you know. Interestingly, it was my stepfather (whom I hated and who was a violent abuser) who stuck up for me. “For Christ’s sake, Bonnie, let him be a witch. It’s Halloween. . .what’s the big deal?”

    I didn’t get to be a witch. This Halloween my next-door neighbors delighted me. Little Willy next door, a charming three-year-old, came to the door dressed as the Wicked Witch with his mother, A, beaming. “Tell Josh what you are for Halloween, Willy,” she said. “I’m a WITCH Josh!” Teared right up, I did.

  6. poxyhowzes says

    @4 (Tracey)
    My start on becoming “male chef” happened in 8 weeks every year of a summer boys’ camp. There I was expected, as part of “camping out” (real camping, not just a tent in back yard) to be able to build a fire and its fireplace safely from materials at hand, and to use my fire to cook things to feed myself. How did I learn such things? From male counselors. Those selfsame male counselors who made sandwiches(!) on “cooks day off,” who encouraged us campers to brown, not blacken, our marshmallows and hotdogs and even toast speared on a stick over a (carcinogenic) open flame, and who occasionally “helped” us whip up such surprises as Jell-O mixed in water we boiled and then “jelled” in the brook we were camping near.

    When I went off to college, I was “somehow” able to plan a meal, shop for the ingredients, follow a cookbook recipe, and even deal with leftovers. I was nowhere near “chef” quality, nor am I now. But I can keep myself well and economically fed.

  7. Stacy says

    Little Willy next door, a charming three-year-old, came to the door dressed as the Wicked Witch with his mother, A, beaming. “Tell Josh what you are for Halloween, Willy,” she said. “I’m a WITCH Josh!” Teared right up, I did.

    Awww! This story gave me a happy.

    I was a little kid in the 60’s, and I don’t recall the gender policing being nearly so strict then as it is now, though the 70’s were better. Lots of toys were unisex and didn’t require “pink” versions to be marketed to girls. Boys as well as girls played with troll dolls. I loved Creepy Crawlers and playing with my dad’s electric race car track set.

  8. Josh, Exasperated SpokesGay says

    Tracey and poxeyhowzes—Jeezis. It really is getting worse! I just can’t understand it. In the early to mid 80s in public school we all had to take home ec (and it was still called “home economics,” not “life skills” or whatever). Boys and girls did the same things. We learned basic sewing and cooking, and budgeting for a household, etc. For my sewing project I made an amoeba with embroidered ooogly-oogy amoeba things on it.

    Most of it I knew because my mother had taught me how to cook, sew (basics like mending seams, buttons, simple curtains, patching knee holes), and lots of other things, starting at 7 or 8. I loved it and consequently became competent at household stuff much earlier than a lot of kids.

  9. says

    There’s a really excellent book on this topic by Peggy Orenstein called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein. I picked up a copy after noticing the unusual number of pink and Disney themed presents my niece was getting for Christmas and her birthday.

    The book does a far better job of unpacking things than I could do justice in a summary, but one detail that fascinated me was that the “Disney Princess” phenomenon really is much newer than (most of our) childhoods, having been conceived by a Disney marketing exec (and former Nike exec) conceived of the idea of packaging the existing princesses from different stories into one big jumble. They may have relaxed this restriction recently, but the princesses don’t actually live in the same story universe, so they are always portrayed as looking off in different directions and never at the same thing, or at each other.

    The only area I would disagree with the NY Times is making the assumption that kids’ toys aren’t also problematic from a racial perspective. I am fortunate to not have any kids of my own, but when I visited my family on holidays, I get to experience the pop culture of what my mom and sister put on the iPad to entertain them. I knew that Dora spoke English and Spanish, but to discover that Disney would create a conspicuously cheerful Hispanic handyman character named “Handy Manny” seemed just a little bit “Song of the South” for my taste. It’s not overt, but it just seems a little off, especially when I learned just now that they never say in the show exactly which city Handy Manny and his anthropomorphic tool buddies live.

  10. mildlymagnificent says

    Well, I grew up in the 50s, in a 2 girl family. We had lots of dolls though I was never much interested in them. Most dolls then were strictly baby dolls to play with or dressed up adult dolls to collect and admire. Everything else was pretty well ‘for children’. Teasets looked fairly girly, but that was as much because “good” china was always floral and they were imitating that. Play size kitchens and tools were very plain, very much an imitation of the full size grown-up versions.

    Other than that, toys were fairly universal – meccano (metal, not much plastic around then), jigsaws, board games and card games as well as books. Boys tended to get more of those balsa wood model kits than girls did. Bikes, rollerskates, kites had no real pink and blue stuff. (Though I had a bit of a thing about never getting anything pink in the way of clothes and such because we always got the same presents being so close in age. My younger sister got the pink, I got blue or red or another colour alternative.)

    You need to bear in mind that there was much more of a distinction between child and grown-up and never the twain shall meet, rather than between male and female which was taken for granted rather than talked about (unless a girl was too much of a tomboy). Babies were dressed mainly in white rather than in any colour at all. There were many more significant moments for recognising moving from one status to another – going to kindy, going to school, moving to the ‘big kids’ school at grade 3. Then the big moment of high school entry. That was when many of us were allowed to abandon childish hair ribbons and other markers of being little girls. That was partly because high school uniforms always had hats and fitting a tied up hair ribbon underneath was a bit of a problem. Boys got to abandon short pants and wear trousers! Makeup and lipstick were strictly for dressups only. The idea that primary age kids might actually wear makeup for anything other than a stage performance was unheard of.

  11. says

    I imagine some of it may be due to the change of laws/regulations in the early ’80s that led to the ability to make cartoons and TV shows based on toy lines, like G.I. Joe and He-Man and Transformers (or like Rainbow Brite and Jem and My Little Pony).

    My parents were pretty accommodating, really. He-Man was a long-time favorite of mine, but my bulky action figures sometimes rode My Little Ponies, and I had a fairly complete set of Rainbow Brite’s sprites. Despite loving the show, I only ever had two She-Ra toys, and I (think I) remember when asking for them that I was really beginning to internalize the boy/girl toy divide. It might also be worth noting, though, that while She-Ra’s toys were packaged in pinks and purples and all came with rooted hair and brushes and combs, her cartoon was explicitly action-oriented, and the vast majority of the antagonists in the show were drawn from the related He-Man toyline. Might that have contributed to the crossover appeal that drew me in and made me excited whenever I went to my girl-counsins’ house because they had like a complete set of She-Ra toys?

    Being something of a geek (shocking, I know), I continued buying toys well into adolescence, and noted (both through casual observation and through reading interviews with people in the industry) that somewhere along the line, it became action figure industry common sense that boys didn’t want to play with girl characters. The result was that even integral female characters typically didn’t get action figures until well into the life of the toy line, if ever. And yet, at least in some notable cases (the Batman Animated Harley Quinn figure comes to mind) those toys not only sold well, but became fairly scarce fairly quickly.

    The last point I would note is this: it’s not blue and pink aisles. It’s pink-and-purple aisles and everything-but-pink aisles. Boys’ toys are packaged in a variety of colors–blues, reds, greens, oranges, camouflage patterns, lots of blacks–but never pinks (and only occasionally purples). Girls’ aisles are a shocking pink assault on the eyes. It seems to me that a “girls’ toy” that bucked the trend and picked some other color would really stand out from the very limited palette of the feminine toy aisle, but whether that would hurt or help is something for the marketers to figure out.

  12. Martha says

    I make it a point to buy baby gifts in yellow or green. You wouldn’t believe the number of times friends have said to me, “thank you SO MUCH for not getting something pink!”

    Josh, I love your story. You got Wicked 30 years ahead of its time! I <3 Elphaba….

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