Meridian Star

December 19, 2012

Pink or blue or neither: The case for gender-neutral toys

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Does the color of a toy matter to children? It apparently matters to parents, who often choose toys for their children based on the color of the toy. Most parents would never consider painting a boy's room pink or purple, nor would they choose blue for a girl's room.

    Color does matter when it comes to picking out toys and decorative themes for children, according to a group of Mississippi State University-Meridian students who have been studying how  parents pick toys based on their child's gender and the appearance of the toys.

    While looking at the broader issue, students in Dr. Vickie Gier's social psychology class have also focused on a popular toy for girls that is manufactured in pink and purple, the iconic Easy-Bake Oven by Hasbro.

    Beth Ann Brewer, Dena Weems, and Danesia Simmons were involved in the study.

    Hasbro announced this week it will soon reveal a gender-neutral Easy-Bake Oven after meeting with McKenna Pope, 13, of Garfield, N.J., who started an online petition for the change.

    "We did a project on gender and how it relates to children and toys. We talked about stereotypes," Brewer said.

    In a presentation, they asked their classmates questions like 'Would they let their sons play with a pink Easy-Bake Oven or a baby doll? Would they let their daughters play with trucks or army men?

    The answers were surprising and revealing. They learned that, even in this age of men changing diapers, feeding babies and cooking more, fathers especially do not want their sons playing with baby dolls.

    "One toy in particular we were talking about was an Easy-Bake Oven that a lot of boys really like to play with," Brewer said, "but they are all pink or purple. It's not just a problem with the oven itself, it's the way it's advertised. They don't show boys playing with it in advertisements and a lot of famous chefs are guys."

    The students have launched a Facebook page: We Want A Gender Neutral Easy Bake Oven. Weems has a 21-year-old son, a 19-year-old daughter, and a 13-year-old daughter.

    "He and his sister were close in age. He would have loved to have had an Easy-Bake Oven. We couldn't buy him an Easy-Bake Oven, they were pink," Weems said. "My daughter had one and he enjoyed playing with it with her. They loved it. They both enjoyed it."

    Weems said her daughter also played with many of her brother's toys as well.

    "Research shows that girls with older brothers have better spatial abilities," Brewer said. "One theory is it's because of the toys that they are exposed to. If they have an older brother they are exposed to more masculine type toys. The theory is that toys really do have a huge impact on children and their development."

    Brewer, who is also a nanny, said she has gotten into a little trouble with some parents who did not approve of her allowing their little boys to play with dolls.

    "It's obvious that a lot of people have problems with it and it's something that needs to be addressed," Brewer said.

    On the other hand, moms and dads are OK with their daughters playing with traditionally male toys, such as army men and cars and trucks.

    "In our class there seemed to be a lot more hesitation in letting boys play with girls' toys or toys that were pink or purple, but not as much for girls playing with boys' things," Weems said. "They were fine with little girls playing with boys' trucks and cowboy things, but you ask them if the boy can play with a baby doll and they were very clear that they did not want that."

    Simmons said it goes further than that.

    "I think it constitutes a problem as well when it comes to development because boys may want to bake something but because this toy isn't centered around being masculine, the boy may think that boys don't bake, that only girls bake," Simmons said. "It can hold boys or girls back from doing what they really want to do."

    When they were asked why they believe there is this reluctance on the part of many parents to allow their sons to play with girls' toys, the students were silent at first. Their teacher prodded them and then they answered.

    "I think they're afraid their child will be gay," Brewer said. "But there's no research to show that ... I think that fathers, especially with their sons are more afraid of their sons growing up to be gay than their daughters," Brewer said.

    Her classmates agreed. They hope to explore the issue more in their experimental psychology class next semester.

    Simmons has two daughters, ages three and one.

    "I started out as a parent who thought, I have daughters. I need pink and purple. But being in psychology, I am more open to not just constricting my girls to girl things," Simmons said. "My 3-year-old loves the movie, 'Cars,' and she has the cars, 'Mator and McQueen.' She loves that stuff. I don't try to draw a line between what's for girls and what's for boys. If she wants to play with cars and trucks, that's OK by us."

    Gier said she believes her students' research is necessary because men in today's American society are expected to help with childcare by changing diapers and feeding their children.

    "We expect fathers to help and do all of those things but we're not training them like we do with little girls, having a baby doll and doing all the nurturing things," Gier said. "We don't push that so much with boys and I do think a lot of people do not wish it with their sons because they are homophobic, whether they want to admit it or not."

    And as her students' research showed, parents are more open to allowing their daughters to play with toys that are designed primarily for boys

    "For females to act more masculine is a more positive thing in this world," Gier said. "In business, research has shown, that the more masculine attributes that females have, the higher they end up going in business."

    Toy makers are missing a big marketing opportunity by not  offering more gender non-specific toys for children, Gier said.

    "Why just market the girls if you can market the boys too?" Gier said. "It doesn't make sense."

    Simmons said she believes the topic is important because times are changing.

    "We as males and females need to realize that we're not so much different. We can do a lot of the same things," Simmons said.

    Brewer said she hopes this research will get the attention of toy companies to market the toys in more neutral ways.

    Weems said real change could happen if toy manufacturers could be more open to gender neutral toys.

    "I think that if we do want to see real change in the future we have to start from the cradle and change attitudes. That''s the only way an adult will have a truly non-gender stereotype. That's the goal," Weems said. "In this world where there is so much judgment and there's so much hurt and hate, wouldn't it be nice to have one less thing on that plate — that there would be no hate for gays and lesbians. If we raised our children in a more gender neutral world where that's not such a big deal ... maybe we could have a world like that one day."