Monday, December 26, 2016

Should Toys Be Gender-Typed or Gender-Neutral?

Christmas is the most wonderful time of year, which holds especially true for toy manufacturers. In 2015, Christmas week alone accounted for 8 percent of all toy sales. Timing surely plays a role in marketing for the toy manufacturing industry, but it is hardly the only factor. In recent years, we have seen trends towards toys becoming more gender-neutral. The trend towards gender-neutral toys makes sense considering that we have seen the line between genders blurred. A woman's role in society is not based on societal constructs like it was in pre-modern times: women can vote, wear the pants in the family, and bring home the bacon. Fathers can stay home and take care of the children, or both parents can work. Same-sex marriage has also contributed in blurring the line between male and female, as have transgendered individuals. Society does not perceive the differences between male and female in bifurcated, "black and white" terms like we used to, and the toys that are sold in stores are no exception. Last year, Target, which is one of America's largest retailers, removed gender labels from the toy aisle in its store. The reason why this becomes a debate in the first place is because there are some who think that pushing for gender-neutral toys harms the psyche of our children because they find it to ignore the biological reality of what it means to be a boy or to be a girl.

Much of the debate gets into whether gender is strictly biological or whether we use societal constructs to attach certain attributes to what it means to be male or female, which is something I wondered about when examining the hypermasculinity in America a while back. On the one hand, there are some profound differences between men and women (e.g., del Giudice et al., 2012). The cliché of "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" exists for a reason. Men tend to be more virile, whereas women tend to be sentimental and sensitive. On the other hand, there are people who do not neatly fit within these norms. Also, there is reason to believe that boys and girls are more alike than they are different. According to the American Psychological Association, a 2005 study of 46 meta-analyses found that when it came to personality, cognitive ability, and leadership, there was no real difference between men and women. Historically speaking, toys were categorized and organized by type, not how they would use them. One can argue that in the early 1990s, gender-specific marketing reached an unprecedented high to get parents with children of both sexes to buy twice as many toys to make greater profit.

While 28 percent of Americans believe that toys should be gender-neutral, 40 percent of millennials favor gender-neutral toys. We'll probably see the trend towards gender-neutral toys. But let me ask the question differently: if a boy wants arts and crafts supplies and a girl wants a science kit, so what? There are a number of children that will fall under gender norms. After all, there is a reason that they are called norms. Nevertheless, there are enough children out there who don't fall under these norms. The government should neither ban the production of gender-specific toys nor ban gender-neutral toys, and parents should not limit themselves to purchasing one type of toy simply because of societal pressures. Limiting a toy because it does or does not fall within a certain gender category limits the potential of what children can grow up to be (e.g., Weisgram et al., 2014). Some research suggests that toys that do not have blatant gender typing are better for cognitive development.

What is great about free markets, or even liberalized markets, is that it recognizes that people, even children, are individuals with their own unique tastes and consumer preferences. You can have millions of boys play with toy cars and have millions of girls play with dolls while at the same time marketing to children who do not fit these norms. You can have the niche market in addition to the main market, thereby covering consumer preferences both for children who fall under gender norms and those who do not. Gender-neutral marketing is not an attempt to make males and females the same, but rather to account for different consumer preferences.

Since parents are responsible for their children, they have the greatest influence of what types of toys children play with. Parents or other children using pejorative terms like sissy or tomboy isn't going to do anyone any favors, least of all the children who defy gender norms. Parents should create a nurturing environment in which they can explore their identity and what they want in life, regardless of whether that entails playing with a gender-specific or gender-neutral toy. At the end of the day, toy choice should primarily be based on the child's interests, and not the child's gender. Since toys can have a major impact on childhood development, I hope that parents fully utilize the advantages of a free market and allow for their children to fully explore the world and develop to their fullest potential.

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