January 6, 2020

Could removing gender cues in marketing change what toys kids want?

Christia Brown // WTF GENDER

While still small, the number of teens who don’t define themselves with a male/female gender role is growing. This is both a result and a driver of an expanding conversation around the fluidity of gender itself. Christia Brown, Ph.D., who authored “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue,” studies this as part of her role as an author, researcher and professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky. When she thinks What the Future, she is considering the role of media and retail in shaping gender norms.

WTF: How has the landscape around children and gender changed in the last generation or so?

Dr. Christia Brown: There have been two trends that I’ve seen within the past 15 years. One is an increase in gendered color-coding of toys. There are pink and blue versions of toys that used to just have one kind of neutral coloring. In direct contrast, you see more of an emphasis in parents recognizing the gender creativity of their kids. There’s more attention to the fact that kids can be trans. Language like “gender fluid” and “gender nonconforming” are now much more part of the public dialog than you saw even 10 years ago. There’s more attention to pronoun use.

WTF: As a parent, if your child is not necessarily conforming to all the gender norms, how do you know if they haven’t learned or aren’t comfortable with expressing that they feel that they are a different gender versus that they simply don’t conform?

Brown: Most evidence would suggest that the rates at which kids are actually transgender are pretty small. But there are a lot of kids who show nonstereotypical gender expression. There is a lot of individual variability in what people gravitate toward. For example, many, many 3- and 4-year-old boys want to paint their nails. That’s extremely common because it’s fun, right? It’s up to parents to really be attuned to what their kid is feeling and to talk to them about it.

WTF: Have kids changed or have the adults’ reaction to kids changed?

Brown: It’s a chicken-and-egg question in that parents begin the process of gender socializing their kids from birth. By the time kids are old enough to express their own gender identity and show their own preferences, traits and abilities, they’ve already had three or four years of being socialized along one pathway. I don’t know that 3-year-olds have changed in the past 15 years. I would suggest kids are expressing themselves, and sometimes it’s more accepted by parents than in other times.

WTF: In the survey we see a sizable minority want to buy nongendered toys for their children. If all the holiday toy catalogs are any indication, they have a hard road ahead of them. How can brands help?

Brown: Brands don’t need to change the toys but simply put boys and girls playing with both of the toys in their catalogs. We know that kids assume if they’re not seeing their gender playing with [a toy], that it’s not for their gender. Toys themselves aren’t gendered. It’s how they’re marketed. You have the marketing industry teaching kids what types of skills they need to be learning based on their gender. I think that’s giving [the toy companies] way too much power.

WTF: Brands like Celine Dion’s Celinununu children’s clothing line are going all gender-neutral, and broader brands like Target are trying to remove gendered labels in some of the ways they sell things. Is there a risk of a backlash from people who don’t see gender as a spectrum?

Brown: It’s all about how this is framed. Every kid is a unique individual. We want to make sure that we’re providing toys and clothes for all. This is really about letting them play with whatever speaks to them, then it becomes not this big political statement about gender identity.

WTF: Some would argue that you need the big political statement in order to make sure that everyone is included in that conversation and then move on.

Brown: Both are important. Let’s try to make sure that we’re being accepting of all of our kids. But even if you don’t buy into that, or if that feels threatening, or if maybe you don’t even relate or connect with that, then just focus on wanting your kid to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted.

Christia Brown
Director, Center for Equality and Social Justice
University of Kentucky
She, her, hers

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Raising gendered children

Please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statements. To the degree possible, I try or tried to purchase or encourage…

Male (Agree net) Female (Agree net)

Toys meant for boys for my son(s) Toys meant for boys for my son(s) 64% 56%

Clothing meant for boys for my son(s) Clothing meant for boys for my son(s) 77% 80%

Books meant for boys for my son(s) Books meant for boys for my son(s) 60% 51%

Games meant for boys for my son(s) Games meant for boys for my son(s) 68% 51%

TV shows meant for boys for my son(s) TV shows meant for boys for my son(s) 67% 39%


(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 23 and 24, 2019 among 165 U.S. parents of boys in their households and 161 U.S. parents of girls in their households.)

Male (Agree net) Female (Agree net)

Toys meant for girls for my daughter(s) Toys meant for girls for my daughter(s) 68% 55%

Clothing meant for girls for my daughter(s) Clothing meant for girls for my daughter(s) 75% 74%

Books meant for girls for my daughter(s) Books meant for girls for my daughter(s) 72% 44%

Games meant for girls for my daughter(s) Games meant for girls for my daughter(s) 62% 38%

TV shows meant for girls for my daughter(s) TV shows meant for girls for my daughter(s) 53% 41%


(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 23 and 24, 2019 among 165 U.S. parents of boys in their households and 161 U.S. parents of girls in their households.)

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, Director of the Center for Equality and Social Justice, University of Kentucky



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