Sara Jones: Why are we still designing pink toys for girls?

As Christmas approaches, designers, manufacturers and retailers should stop reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes by giving glittery unicorns to girls and dinosaurs to boys, and opt for gender-neutral products instead.

Barbie Ultimate Kitchen by Mattel, courtesy of the Toy Retailers Association

With Christmas just days away, I am in the throes of last-minute Christmas shopping. Among the items that still need to be bought is a top for an eight-year-old, my youngest daughter. But I am struggling.

As I trawl through major UK department stores’ online offerings, all I see are sparkly horses, glittery unicorns, sequin cats, shiny angels, and pretty ballerinas. Yet none of these — nor anything sporting the ubiquitous “Princess” slogan or, to be honest, that’s pink — are her style or taste.

Not so long ago, John Lewis was introducing gender-neutral clothing and doing away with boys’ and girls’ labels. In the US, Target was launching gender-inclusive kids’ clothing and home goods. And Swedish company Toca Boca’s playful toys and apps designed with diversity and inclusivity in mind were grabbing headlines.

But things seem to have changed. In recent weeks, The Ultimate Kitchen Playset — a must-have Barbie accessory from Mattel in, yes, you’ve guessed it, bright pink — has become one of the bestsellers this Christmas, after being listed by a Toy Retailers Association panel as a “top 12 dream Christmas toy”.

Barbie Ultimate Kitchen by Mattel, courtesy of the Toy Retailers Association

And while John Lewis may no longer put gender labels on toys — which is a big tick for them — it is selling Barbie’s Ultimate Kitchen this Christmas, its website still lists “girls’ clothes” and “boys’ clothes”, and when it comes to offering up glittery unicorns for girls and dinosaurs for boys, it is one of the worst offenders.

Go into any children’s department at the moment and you will find boys’ tops featuring astronauts, space rockets, dinosaurs, sharks, robots, guitars, cars, slogans like “King of the World” and “Winner!” and a largely blue colour palette — all of which is very much more to my daughter’s taste.

So, what’s the problem, you may well be thinking? Just buy your girl a boy’s top. But counter-arguments such as these miss an important point.

John Lewis’ girls tops, courtesy of John Lewis website

Gendered products — from their basic design through to their packaging, graphics and branding — strengthens restrictive and outdated ideas.

And the biggest and most pernicious stereotype is that, while girls should aspire to be a sparkly, pretty princess whose only job is to be saved by Prince Charming, boys should dream of being action men and having adventures.

The heavy gendering of kids’ stuff sends out restrictive messages to impressionable young children. Children should be free to choose whatever interests them, not what fits in a box of what these stereotypes dictate. Yes, girls — and boys — can choose “girly” things if they want, but when they are affronted with so many pink and glittery items, there is very little choice.

By pushing the pink button, Mattel is exclusively targeting young girls and subliminally telling them that women should be doing the cooking – in my view, a sexist and out-of-date stereotype that toy manufacturers should be looking to disregard, rather than perpetuate.

True, this is the same company that previously released Barbie the vet, Barbie the scientist, Barbie the robotics engineer, and Barbie the builder. But making the kitchen pink has sent Barbie back in time to 1950s-style domestic servitude.

Clothing range by Tootsa MacGinty, courtesy of Tootsa MacGinty website

The trouble is that while there are some niche brands out there who are bravely trying to address the issue with more unisex options — brands like Tootsa MacGinty and Scamp & Dude — gender neutrality in product design, packaging and branding isn’t yet infiltrating the mainstream.

There is, I believe, a socio-political and socio-economic reason for this. Consider the rapid upsurge in nostalgia that followed the financial crash in 2008 — a clear and unapologetic harking back by ordinary people to simpler, more straightforward times. And since then, nostalgia in design, marketing and advertising has become an effective way to build reassurance in uncertain times — the equivalent of comfort food.

The rise of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” logo and its variations, for example, evoked the Blitz spirit by mythologising the good old days when everyone in Britain kept a stiff upper lip (despite the fact that most people were utterly miserable and life was pretty awful).

Has nostalgia caused a resurgence of outdated stereotypes? Photo courtesy of RyanJLane

The recent glut of popular period TV dramas such as Call The Midwife, Vanity Fair, Poldark, The Crown and Victoria and even the cosy, gingham-and-check world of The Great British Bake Off, recall a supposedly softer, gentler “golden era”.

Then there are our shops, filled with handcrafted this, bespoke that, and rustic the other. We’re buying vinyl records again and even cassettes are having a mini resurgence.

It’s now a decade since the crash, of course. But we have President Trump, Brexit and the political, economic and social sense of chaos that has come about as a direct result of both. Is it any wonder, then, that we’re choosing to wrap ourselves in a mirage of nostalgia to escape today’s reality?

Which is what I believe is happening with children’s products. In an attempt to reassure and engage, manufacturers and their marketers are harking back to a time that never really existed — a time when girls just wore pink and boys just wore blue.

Now let’s be clear, it’s not that I dislike pink. Nor do I think that we should neutralise colours of clothing and toys per se, because the more bland or neutral their colour (black, beiges and grey) the more it is, ironically, seen as male. But I do believe that there should be no “right” or “wrong” colours when it comes to gender, just as there should be no “right” or “wrong” interests or careers.

So I am still dreaming of a gender neutral-coloured Christmas. Maybe next year.

Sara Jones is partner and client services director at design studio Free the Birds, and a mother of two young daughters.

Do you feel graphics, packaging, products and clothing design should be more gender-neutral? Less us know in the comments below.

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  • Emily Penny December 20, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    I spent years advising clients of alternatives to pink for girls and blue for boys design routes, until I was blue in the face, and usually failed. Clients said it was what the retail buyers specified, that it was commercial. But I was a little girl who unwaveringly adored pink and all things ‘girly’, and my niece now is the same. And I grew up to be a feminist, so despite feeling as passionately as Sara about this issue, that can be hard to reconcile. Perhaps the cruel part is that boys don’t feel they can indulge in the pink and glittery magic. And many young boys would love to. Designers definitely have a responsibility to try and shape a different future where everyone can pick and choose. I think every design and every image is political (with a small p) and designers need to be very aware of their impact in the world, use their influence with clients where possible, and avoid blindly follow trends.

    • Sara Jones January 2, 2019 at 4:02 pm

      But isn’t that the point? The retailers could take the brave position where they are the ones to challenge convention. I completely agree, being able to pick and choose would be the ideal. From my own experience my kids playdates inevitably involve nail polish (mine) being applied to willing male friends wanting to see what a bit of sparkle will look like as much as role playing being movie directors, actors and adventurers. Freedom to explore, flex gender roles and not be typecast as male or female are the brilliant parts of learning and developing their self awareness and not being limited or constrained by what is expected of their gender.

  • ebz December 21, 2018 at 10:22 am

    Very true article, makes the point succinctly – it should be about individual human choice and not convincing one gender they are a lesser ‘group’. As an adult I do a lot of sport and find a lot of women who wouldn’t normally have done sport but are doing so, in increasing fitness aware times, constantly put themselves down and talk about more sporty women as though they are a different species, so much have they had drummed into them, that their gender defines them and they are lesser.

    The problem is this stereotype means women are constantly judged if they appear to like or do anything unusual, for years I’ve had funny comments, been called a ‘tom boy’ for things such as riding bikes, fixing bikes, doing diy or in my career as a designer. Its annoying because people often make the assumption you can’t know as much as the man sitting next to you.

    I often wonder how many more doors would have been open in life without this stereotyping.

    • Sara Jones January 2, 2019 at 4:10 pm

      I completely agree, there’s always been the misconception that if you’re not the expected gender for that particular activity you couldn’t possibly be as good / know as much. However, the exciting part is to bring a new perspective and get your views and experience across and share knowledge to avoid being put neatly in a classification box.

  • John December 22, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    Hi Sarah, I think that there should be more choice and as a women you do have a choice, but what I cannot agree with is the enforcement of gender neutral on everybody. I for one would not bring my son up wearing bright pink and playing with a barbie doll. Call me sexist, but that is the kind of father I am… Does that make me a bad father?

    I would appreciate there being more toys aimed at boys, not less.If girls want to indulge so be it, they have that right.

    Let parents choose what toys clothes they buy there children, not enforced on them by designers.

    • Sara Jones January 2, 2019 at 4:19 pm

      It isn’t a case of enforcing gender neutral on everyone, there should be the choice but not to the extent where it re-inforces engrained stereotypes, using the Barbie kitchen as an example, that can be limiting to both boys and girls.

  • Henry C. Walker January 2, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Really? Are you serious?
    Science has found out, that girls tend to choose pink toys and toys with big eyes and „cute faces“. Boys grab sticks n stones and toy cars.
    So have my kids and every child I know. Parents will agree. Its in childrens DNA. These children survived evolution. Pink stands for skin, warmth and vulnerability.
    Most girls -at any age- can’t resist 😉
    So, go ahead and design beige toys for girls.

    I am a modern thinking father and designer and keep questoning, but its a natural phenomena. My daughter hasn‘t become a girlish-cooking-kitchen-sissy. She‘s smarter than her older brother 😉 and has become a selfconfidet focused young woman.

    • Sara Jones January 2, 2019 at 4:30 pm

      I don’t think anyone wants beige toys for girls (or boys for that matter) – where would the fun in that be! My daughters and their friends actively choose not to wear anything pink because of the girly connotations of the colour. The point I am making is that toys do not have to be pink or blue but by ensuring choice with colours in replace of or in addition to pink or blue you can avoid falling into gender stereotypes of old.

      • Henry C. Walker January 4, 2019 at 8:31 am

        Hi Sara, thanks for your reply.
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts and whishes to this subject.
        I know what you are talking about.
        As a designer and father I simply cant agree about the „wrong“ and „right“ colours for kids.
        The wrongs and rights are only in our heads and we should encourage our children to feel free to chose and leave old stereotypes behind.
        It worked on my kids … I think 🙂
        Hope you found an adoreable „right“ for your girls and had the most wonderfull time of the year. Cheer!

  • bendcox January 2, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Why don’t you just let people vote with their money and buy “boys” toys for girls and vice versa?

  • Shraddha Tiwari January 5, 2019 at 10:40 pm

    I totally agree with the last line. ‘Do you feel graphics, packaging, products and clothing design should be more gender-neutral?’
    I am 23 years old and this question has haunted me since I was 4 years old. I have always wondered who decided these colours for girls or boys? This is what leads to bullies and a lot of other things in future. If a girl likes blue more than pink then oh, shes more like a tom-boy and if a boy likes pink more than blue then he’s more girlish. This is so unappropriating. I, as a design student, would love to work on this topic and understand the entire stereotype.

  • Donovan R January 7, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    Why don’t you just buy your kid Legos then?

  • Kate Gladstone March 11, 2019 at 7:41 am

    Anyone who thinks that women and girls are “tomboys” if they can fix cars, or even want to fix them, should take that up with Queen Elizabeth, who was a car mechanic in the British Army during World War II (and who, reportedly, enjoyed it and was very good at it).

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