Some parents across the pond decided they have had enough of the gender-stereotyped toy marketing that is being pushed on their kids by retailers. They got organized, and less than a year ago, Let Toys Be Toys burst onto the scene. They have had tremendous success getting retailers to stop segregating toys aisles by boy or girl toys – which often results in all construction toys, science toys, even globes, in the boy aisle, and girls with few choies outside kitchen play sets, dolls and jewelry crafts.
Recently, they announced an agreement with the UK branch of toy retail giant Toys ‘R’ Us:
The retailer today confirmed that they would draw up a set of principles for in-store signage meaning that, in the long-term, explicit references to gender will be removed and images will show boys and girls enjoying the same toys… Managing Director Roger McLaughlan said, “We very much enjoyed meeting Let Toys Be Toys. We will work with the Let Toys Be Toys team to ensure we develop the best plan for our customers”.
I got in touch with the group to find out their story. Jo, who lives in London and is the mother of a 12 year old boy, said the group got started after a thread arose on the popular national parenting forum Mumsnet about the way children’s toys are segregated according to gender in most major toy stores. She said the group, parents of children from 6 months old to teenagers, are spread out geographically from the Northeast to the South Coast of England, and in Wales and Ireland.
She told me this story:
“A lot of parents joined the thread complaining about similar experiences, some told of where their children had been put off from buying something that they wanted but was in the “wrong” section and expressed irritation at the very gendered messages that children were receiving. This affected the jobs they thought they could or couldn’t do, the characteristics that they believed boys and girls had, etc…
“A bunch of us (about 10) got together and decided to do something about it. First we needed some evidence for our complaints so we did a survey of various major retailers around the UK and Ireland. I’ve attached the results of the survey which showed pretty much what we expected: that construction and science kits were more likely to be marketed to boys whilst domestic and beauty toys at girls. Given the low number of women in STEM and the low number of boys in the caring professions this is worrying to say the least. For more on why the campaign is so important go here.
“An initial problem was that the issue of gendered toys seemed too big to tackle so we decided on a “baby steps” approach and agreed to isolate one problem, ie. the in-store labelling of toys as either for boys or girls. The rest: the implicit gendering of toys (through colour coding / visual images) is something we’re concerned about of course but we wanted to tackle one thing at a time.
“Bearing this in mind, we decided on a name and set up Facebook and Twitter accounts. We began tweeting practically anyone we could think of to tell them about our new campaign and within hours we received a message from a sympathetic journalist from the Independent. The response from the public has been amazing. We still can’t believe how quickly everything has happened but that just goes to show the level of feeling in the UK on this issue. We have over 4000 followers on Twitter and nearly 7000 on Facebook. The social media aspect cannot be overstated. Our followers ARE the campaign and we love talking to them on Facebook and Twitter. Every now and again a picture is tweeted that showcases just how bad the situation and a flurry of tweets will be sent to the toy retailers in question. Sometimes the retailer responds favourably. Sometimes not!
“So far, we have been pleased with the “successes” we’ve had. Major retailers such as The Entertainer, Boots and Tescos have agreed to degender their displays and lots of smaller stores have asked our advice on how best to categorise the toys on their websites. We’re delighted that Toys R Us have agreed to revise their policy. We can only hope that Toys R Us in the US will follow suit.
“We’ve been inspired by campaigners in Sweden who successfully lobbied the Swedish Toys R Us as well as by bloggers (many are from North America) who are concerned about this subject. One particular organisation that we love is A Mighty Girl. They have started a US petition along the same lines. We sometimes get requests for advice on setting up similar organisations in countries like France, Canada and Australia, which we’re happy to give because the more people that stand up to the stereotyping of our children the better.
“The original group has mutated as more volunteers have come on board, bringing with them much-needed skills. We are all good at different things and have different amounts of time to dedicate to the campaign but that’s ok because there is always someone there. We work remotely. Some of us have met but soon we all intend to meet up soon for a birthday bash!
“Of course we have had our detractors – we’ve had many people disagreeing with us, people who either believe that we are worrying over a small thing or who believe that boys and girls are fundamentally different and DO like to play with different things. We are often accused of being too politically correct or trying to make boys and girls “the same” which couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve had some nerve-wracking experiences on radio because none of us are experienced speakers, just parents who are fed up of seeing our children pigeon-holed. In general though we’ve been lucky in that there are many people out there willing to write on the subject who are sympathetic to our cause.
All it takes is people who care to get involved. A lot of the ground work has been done by this amazing, committed passionate group of people. Let’s get a movement going here in the United States. Sign the petition, send the letters. Everything you need is on the Let Toys Be Toys site.