Tessa Trabue joined the Let Toys Be Toys campaign in 2013 after she became frustrated by the proliferation of gendered products, packaging and promotions for toys and children’s books that restricted her young son’s choices. Let Toys Be Toys grew out of a Mumsnet discussion thread in late 2012; within weeks a group had been formed that began researching and surveying retailers to assess the extent of the problem. Today the group has a strong media profile and has convinced 14 major UK retailers and 10 book publishers to drop the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ signage from the toy aisles and book covers, and has also developed a Toymark good practice award.
“…They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a powerful image that gets shared a lot can really get the conversation started on an issue. For example, an image we shared on International Men’s Day regarding boys wearing pink has had over 96,000 views on Facebook…”
Getting involved with Let Toys Be Toys
Let Toys Be Toys is a volunteer parent-led campaign that formed at the end of 2012 to ask retailers to take down the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ signs in the toy aisles, and let children have the freedom to choose toys and books that interest them. Children learn about the world through play, as well as developing new skills, and we feel the signs limit kids’ imaginations by directing one gender to choices based on stereotypes, while at the same time telling the other gender that some things are off limits for them.
I got involved with the campaign shortly after it started, when I saw the effect that the signs and blue / pink colour coding was already having on my then 4 year old, who was just beginning to read.
Progress but there’s still so much more to be done
We’re very pleased to report that since the campaign began, 14 major UK toy retailers, including Toys R Us, The Entertainer, M&S, Debenhams and Tesco have agreed to take down the gendered signs, and let toys be toys.
On World Book Day in 2014, we launched our Let Books Be Books campaign, and now 10 major UK publishers have agreed to drop the gendered labels on books, including Penguin Random House, Usborne, Scholastic and Buster Books.
Research into gender stereotyping
Our first survey back in 2012 reported 50% of stores using boy / girl signs in the toy aisles. The results of our latest 2016 survey report virtually no gendered signs in-store, and that the overwhelming majority of these stores have stopped using gender navigation as a menu option on their websites as well, which is a massive improvement.
However, our surveys of toy catalogues and TV ads show that a lot more work needs to be done in these areas to challenge gender stereotypes. For example, our 2015 TV ad research didn’t find any boys featured playing with dolls, and this year’s catalogue research is showing twice as many girls depicted playing with household toys than boys.
The pink / blue divide
A lot needs to be improved in terms of product packaging as well, especially around challenging the pink / blue divide, which is often read as code for girls / boys. The majority of dolls and their equipment such as buggies come in pink packaging or with pink clothing and other accessories. Although we believe that colours are for everyone, unfortunately as pink is heavily marketed as a girls’ colour, this means that many of these caring toys will be read as off limits for boys.
We are seeing similar shifts for arts and crafts toys, with much of the packaging being pink and featuring pictures of girls. It is important that we not only challenge the signposting, but also ensure that the toy packaging and advertisements are as inclusive as possible, by using a variety of colours and featuring both girls and boys in the pictures.
A picture is worth a thousand words
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a powerful image that gets shared a lot can really get the conversation started on an issue. For example, an image we shared on International Men’s Day regarding boys wearing pink has had over 96,000 views on Facebook, and our recent Buzz / mermaid image has been shared widely on Twitter.
In the last 18 months we’ve seen some great ads and videos that positively challenge what we’re used to seeing, such as this Smyth’s If I Were a Toy Xmas commercial:
We also loved French Supermarket Systeme U’s 2015 Christmas ad which showed children in action challenging stereotypes happily playing with a wide variety of toys.
New toys that disrupt stereotypes
In the last few years some great new toys have arrived on the shelves to disrupt the usual stereotypes.
After doing much research into the market, Arklu launched Lottie in 2012, which are age-appropriate dolls that disrupt the ‘pink aisle’ by filling a gap in the market for dolls that depart from the usual themes of fashion and beauty. The range includes Lottie in a variety of fun, active and educational themes – Robot Girl, Fossil Hunter, Kawaii Karate and Stargazer – as well as a boy doll called Finn – and after recently partnering with Penguin Random House the duo’s first two books will be published in May 2017.
— Orange Pop (@Orange_Pop) December 7, 2016
I am Elemental is a set of female superhero action figures, created by two parents. Their mission in making the dolls is to develop play experiences that allow children “to envision themselves as strong, powerful and connected beings at the center of a story of their own making”, and they have been quite successful, winning the Toy of the Year Finalist Rookie award for 2017.
My Family Builders is an educational toy consisting of wooden blocks representing people. It allows children to build friends and family groups in thousands of possible combinations, in order to reflect the endless different family permutations in terms of racial and gender diversity.
We’ve also been contacted by the team behind Boy Story, two parents who were concerned about the lack of boy dolls on the market, and have sought to fill this gap by creating a range of boy dolls to be enjoyed by girls and boys alike from around three to eight years old.
Finding retailers and products who support the campaign
At the end of our first year, we launched our Toymark award scheme, as a way of recommending and promoting retailers who are marketing their toys and books inclusively to all children. To date, we have awarded 50 toy and bookshops throughout the UK. Shoppers can find our directory of Toymark recommended retailers here. We have also put together a range of gift guides to help shoppers looking for toys on a various themes, such as arts or crafts or books for young children. All of our current gift guides can be found here.
Coming up for Let Toys Be Toys in 2017
On the back of our toy ad and catalogue research results, in 2017 we are planning to look at toy manufacturers, and encourage them to use more inclusive, colourful packaging which is welcoming to all children.
We will continue our work to persuade the remaining publishers to drop the gendered labels, along with growing our Toymark award scheme and helping spread the word about the great shops out there promoting fun toys and books to all.