Gender-Free Toys

Do you remember Barbie? She appeared with designer clothes in toy stores and children’s lives in 1959. Handsome Ken showed up in 1961. To me, it seemed like everyone’s little sister had a Barbie and I was jealous that I had missed out.

By the mid 1970s, these popular dolls had become the subject of parental angst. Should little girls be encouraged to look like skinny Barbie? And how about boys? Could they play with Ken, or what that cast doubts on their masculinity? Even before anorexia made headlines with the death of Karen Carpenter, parents worried that these beautiful and oh-so-thin creatures would be hard on preteen egos.


When GI Joe appeared in stores in 1964, the Vietnam War was already in progress, and concerns about gender became complicated by anti-war sentiment. Was it OK for boys to play with GI Joe dolls? Was it OK for any child to play with war toys? Wouldn’t playing with tanks and guns and superhero dolls encourage aggression and violence?

Jumping into the fray, Charlotte Zolotow published William’s Doll in 1972 about a boy who wants a doll. His father gives him a basketball and a train set, but William continues to ask for a doll. Eventually, Grandma fulfills her grandson’s wish, explaining to Dad that William will use it to practice being a good father (Yay, Granny!).

Meanwhile, parents were buying Lincoln Logs® and Erector® sets for their daughters, hoping to encourage them to be architects and engineers. We know now that children who play with a wide variety of toys develop a wider range of physical, cognitive, and social skills, along with also developing dispositions for scientific inquiry, artistic expression, or even rock climbing.


According to psychologists, sex-role development begins as early as two years of age, when both boys and girls use more same-gender words (girl, boy, doll, truck) than other-gendered words. So parents are right to be concerned. The toys their children play with as toddlers and preschoolers may well influence their future view of themselves as men and women. But have we made progress since the 70s at increasing non-traditional views of men and women? It’s not clear we have.

A couple of years ago, there was a Facebook post about a new line of Lego® toys called Lego Friends. Girls like story lines with their building sets, and Lego was attempting to incorporate story into their new offerings. But parents trying to offer their girls entrée to a male-dominated play world were disappointed when they discovered the kits came in pink and purple boxes, peopled only with girls, and the building components themselves were pastel,. (My daughter and her partner have given a lot of thought to this issue. You can read about their approach to integrating pink Legos into my granddaughter’s life here).


Color is a gender marker. The meanings of different colors have changed over the centuries, but ask any three-year-old to select balloons for a birthday party and she won’t hesitate: pink, purple, lemon and lime green if the birthday child is a girl; red, blue, black, and bright yellow green for a boy.

Sociologists Auster and Mansbach analyzed the images of toys on the official Disney Store website to determine if gender marketing on the internet was similar to or different from that found in previous studies. Their results were discouraging. The color palette of toys distinctly reflected gender stereotypes (that is, pastel colored toys were marketed for girls only while bold colored toys were directed at boys), and the types of toys directed to boys and girls reflected traditional gender roles (dolls, jewelry, kitchen sets vs action figures, small vehicles, building materials and weapons).

After all these years, our children are still being corralled by the advertising industry into little pink and blue boxes. (An unexpected finding was that girls will cross gender lines more easily than boys, and if they have opportunities to play with the more masculine-directed toys, they will do so. We need to encourage boys to do the same.)


We know that children’s views about gender and potential careers are being formed as early as preschool, and four-year-olds may have already discounted some jobs as inappropriate for their gender. Boys and girls whose play experiences are limited to traditional gender roles may not learn to see outside those roles when they grow up.

It wouldn’t be hard, if they had the will, for online or brick & mortar retailers to do away with gender-specific labeling and allow families to select toys based on their children’s actual interests and talents. Perhaps we should demand it.

Marlene Bumgarner is writer, speaker and consultant specializing in family dynamics, grandparenting, and multigenerational issues. She lives on the Central Coast of California with her Border Collie Kismet, and spends two afternoons a week with her 4 year old granddaughter. Visit her online.

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Peggy O'Mara

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Editor and Publisher of Longtime natural living advocate, award winning writer, and independent thinker.

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