Lego boy toys have all the fun, pointed out an exasperated seven-year-old in a letter to the company this week. Isn't it time manufacturers acted on children's growing displeasure at gender-stereotyped toys?
This week, a seven-year-old girl called Charlotte Benjamin wrote a heartfelt, straight-to-the-point letter to Lego asking it to rectify the fact that there are "more Lego boy people and barely any Lego girls". She also pointed out that "all the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs, but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people … even swam with sharks". She also swiftly and succinctly expressed her displeasure at the illogical and old-fashioned use of pink and blue marketing to separate Lego into boys' and girls' sections. In brief, she nailed it.
In a week when toy companies were called into Westminster to justify their marketing decisions, and ministers suggested that the pinkification of girls' toys could be playing a part in preventing them from achieving their full potential, we could do a lot worse than start listening to the smart, savvy voices of children such as Charlotte.
She is not the first child to point out the painfully obvious to the toy giants – in 2012, a six-year-old girl took Hasbro firmly to task in a letter highlighting the fact that when you play Guess Who?, the small ratio of female to male characters means that if you choose to play as a woman you are much more likely to lose. It's a sad day when a child of six feels the need to write to a toy company to point out: "It is not only boys who are important, girls are important too." And she was smart about it, taking care to emphasise the impact she could have on the company's bottom line: "I am cross about that and if you don't fix it soon, my mum could throw Guess Who? out."
This is by no means an issue that affects only girls – for every girl yearning for a chemistry set, dinosaur excavation kit or fire truck in the forbidden boys' section, there's a baffled boy being told off for wanting to play with a doll, or even (heaven forbid) pick up something in a shade other than blue. When 13-year-old McKenna Pope realised her cookery-loving four-year-old brother would feel unable to play with an Easy Bake Oven because it was so aggressively marketed to girls, she started a Change.org petition that amassed more than 40,000 signatures, asking makers Hasbro to explain why they "made going against the societal norm that girls are the ones in the kitchen even more difficult". As she neatly pointed out, the pastel colours and gendered advertising sent a clear and unhelpful message to kids: "Women cook, men work."
Nobody can forget the viral video of four-year-old Riley Maida exasperatedly pointing out that "girls want superheroes and boys want superheroes" back in 2011, in which she skewered painfully transparent toy marketing tactics: "The companies that make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff." But fast forward two years and it's pretty sad that in her latest video about the relative invisibility of the female characters in the Avengers merchandise ("it's like Black Widow doesn't even exist"), Riley, now six, shows more than a hint of exasperation at having to repeat herself all over again. "They think that boys wouldn't want to play with a girl action figure and girls wouldn't want to play with boy action figures." Her tone basically demands: "Seriously, haven't they sorted this stuff out yet?" Or, as she puts it: "I mean, duh."
The funny thing is that these kids exhibit far more sensible, down-to-earth attitudes than many of the adults wringing their hands over the issue. In one particularly hysterical Express column, James Delingpole even compared the removal of gendered toy signs to a "sinister and Brave-New-World-ish … attempt at social engineering". He expressed his deep concern that to remove gendered toy signs would be "to deny boys and girls the kind of toys they most want", but rather missed the point that the scheme would double, not reduce, the amount of choice available to every child. No one is suggesting forcing any child to play with a specific toy, rather this is about giving every child the choice to play with anything they like, instead of dictating their interests from birth based on stereotypical gendered assumptions.
It is hardly unreasonable to suggest that marking science, engineering and building toys "for boys" might be having some impact on girls' ideas about whether those fields are open to them. So in a country where only one in 10 engineers and one in five architects is female, isn't it worth trying out non-gendered marketing to see if it might have a positive impact? Who would it hurt? Hamleys has hardly foundered since removing its pink and blue signage in 2011; in fact, just a year later it announced a 70% rise in profits. And as for those who suggest that these interests are biologically "hardwired" (I can think of many thousands of brilliant female scientists who would have a thing or two to teach them), let's wait until a couple of generations of children have grown up in a world free of such intense messaging before we start gleefully seizing on their resultant behaviour as "proof".
As Riley points out, it's really not rocket science. "I think it's silly and all of my friends think that. Every kid in my school thinks that." Isn't it about time toy companies caught up?
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image: © Dan Ox