Rant on the gender bias of toys/toy marketing

*This video has been making the geek blog rounds lately, and in addition to seeing it, I also recently saw the below Lego ad from 1981; I finally snapped and had to rant.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The toy aisles are the last bastion of 1950s American marketing misogyny. Toys are separated by 'gender' and as often color coded to match the archaic worldview of what colors (and tasks) defined each gender in 1952. Girls toys are pink vacuums and ovens and dolls, boys toys are blue trucks and guns and spaceships. Girls get Barbie. Boys get Batman.

If a boy does want an Easy Bake Oven or a toy kitchen set because he's seen his mom or dad in the kitchen (because he LIVES IN 2011!!!) he's likely to end up with a pink one. Now that's fine save for the fact that society has so ingrained the color pink into the minds of people as a girl color, that little boy is likely to meet opposition and maybe even scorn when his friends discover he has a pink item, let alone a pink kitchen item (the kitchen also being hammered into society's consciousness as a place for girls alone.)

If a girl does want a female superhero action figure representing a character she saw on Batman: The Brave and the Bold while watching it with her mom or dad...well she can forget about it. Mattel specifically stated that the Brave and the Bold toyline was 'boy oriented' and that they would therefore not be releasing any female characters in that toyline.

Wait, what if a boy wants Catwoman or Batgirl? Too bad son. Man up. Go shoot a gun and/or punch someone.

Recently, Lego announced a new girl oriented building set line and claim they spent millions in research to find out what girls really want/why girls aren't buying Legos. They could have given me ten f-ing dollars and I would have told them it's BECAUSE ALL YOU MAKE ARE STAR WARS SETS MARKETED DIRECTLY TO BOYS!

But no one asked me.

In effect, their millions of dollars of research led them to change the mini-figure to look more 'Polly Pocket' like and then they added a lot of pinks, purple and pastel colors to new sets aimed at girls. Now on the surface this is fine and dandy; new types of Lego figures are nice and new colors are nice. But why does it have to be done in such a partisan fashion? Why couldn't they have just released sets with new colors and new builds and new mini-figure designs and marketed them towards boys and girls alike?

Ironically, Lego has also just begun releasing DC Universe Lego sets, and at least four of these sets include prominent female superheroes: Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman. In fact, I bought a Catwoman set for my daughter for Christmas. This Catwoman set is not a Batman set with Catwoman in it, mind you. It is a Catwoman set with a Batman in it. Think about that. I don't know of any other Lego set to have been thusly designed. There has never been a Princess Leia set with Han in it. There has never been a Lady Racecar Driver set with Male Mechanic in it. There isn't a Hermione set with Harry in it. Yet there is a Catwoman set with Batman as supporting character.

That's kind of a big deal.

I also received the set that includes Wonder Woman, which my daughter immmediately took control of and built Lex Luthor's Mech-Suit, with little help from me.


But wait, how can that be? Okay, Lex has some purple on that suit...maybe that's what attracted her. But Catwoman is driving a motorcycle, not pushing a carriage. How could she possibly be attracted to that set? And what about boys? How can they possibly stomach a set with a girl Lego mini-figure in it, let alone four different sets?!? Lego stands to lose millions!

Thank God they have the new pink doll sets to make up the loss!

There's no denying that most Lego sets are marketed directly and implicitly at boys (Star Wars sets being the most obvious, with rare appearances from Leia and an occasional female Jedi being thrown in for token value,) even the city sets and castle sets and others that could be non-gender-biased are extremely male-centric. Yet Lego appears to be making their DC Superhero AT LEAST relatively diverse, and they also seem fully capable of balancing out their mini-figure blind bag selections, giving boys and girls options in both genders that they all find appealing by adding in many female and male characters relevant to many different genres (the forthcoming female Viking and past releases of both Male and Female Skateboarders spring immediately to mind.)

Of all the major toy companies out there today, Lego seems a little schizophrenic. They get so close to the answer then spin off on a tangent.

I have to say one thing however, at least they are trying; that's far more than I can say for any other major toy manufacturer or major toy retailer today.

Which makes the below ad from 1981 all the more ironic.

So what's my point? My point is that a lot of people let marketing do the thinking for them. I see it all the time when I am in a toy store and parents are walking around like stupified zombies, pulling things off shelves as if they don't know their own damn kid. You mean to tell me you spend all day with that kid and you have no idea what they like/dislike or what toys they already own? Do you not look in your own stupid hand when you are picking something up off the living room floor to avoid stepping on it and go 'oh, better not buy this one for Christmas, he/she already HAS it.'

Probably not, as it seems most people these days pretty much ignore their own kids.

My point is also this: I believe Lego spent millions in research only to take the final word of these same stupified parents as to what their daughters liked/disliked. And I think that Lego's newest girl-oriented venture will fail not because it's a bad toy or because the idea is necessarily bad, but because of poor/improper/sexist marketing.

Reinforcing separatism in the toy aisles as we roll into 2012 is the wrong move. The right move would have been inclusion.

The misogynistic retail outlets are also to be blamed for the upcoming failure of the line; they will undoubtedly place the sets where buyers of interest won't/can't find them. Because the retailers won't know what to do with these sets. They won't see how it could possibly fit into their blue/pink aisle layouts. So they will stick them some odd place that doesn't allow for proper exposure. And the line will flop.

And that's too bad. Because if it were properly marketed to both boys and girls, (or just...gasp...children!) it could maybe have had a chance. Because, let's face it, Lego makes good toys. After that, it's all about the marketing. And in America, the television show Mad Men isn't just a nostalgic look at the archaic behavior of the men of marketing in a decade long ago; when it comes to marketing toys, it's a window to the now.

End rant.

This commercial cements my case.


  1. This video and rant gave me pause and something to think about. And am not really sure if i can truly express my thoughts about it here Bubba. I might have to address it over on the Ark.

  2. I'd love to read your thoughts on the matter, jboy!

  3. I was going to post my thoughts on the Ark but am having a hard time expressing them in type. So am going to say i agree with 100% on what you have said and i do feel there are some toys that cross genders and are for both boys and girls. And to be honest Lego is one of those lines i have always felt was for both no matter the theme. So i really don't understand Lego's need to produce a "Girl's" line. Will it fail? I think it will.

  4. Great write-up. I hadn't even thought about the new DC sets being more girl-centric, that's awesome.

    I have some nieces who are hardcore LEGO, Star Wars, and Harry Potter fans, and they love playing with regular LEGO. I got them some of the blind-packaged minifigures for xmas and even though they didn't get any of the female characters, they still loved them.

  5. This is my shout-out for equality in toyland. If you have a moment, check out my fundraiser for 'Pink & Blue'. Share liberally if you like, and/or toss a coin in the jar. http://kck.st/tjisvO

  6. I'm sick of noticing that the toy industry is one of the most sexist industries nowadays. I hate pink color as a "girl identifier".
    What's the difference between a CORP action figure and a Polly Pocket doll? There's no difference indeed!
    Both toys can be eaten by my JP/Chap Mei dinosaurs :)