How gendering toys is on the rise again and why this is bad for the built environment

Christmas time is upon us, and the shops are heaving with people out to get presents for the kids. If you don’t have any of your own, and you don’t see your nearest kid relatives often enough to get a good idea what they would like, don’t panic. The shops have a handy way for you to prevent a terrible faux pas – there are separate areas for boys’ and girls’ toys. The easy way to tell is that the girls’ toy area is mostly pink. Disaster averted!


It would have been much more difficult a few decades back. My own days as a nipper were during the mid-70’s to mid-80’s (making me part of good old cynical Gen X). I can honestly say I have no memory of my sister, or any of the girls at school having any pink toys. In fact I remember there would be merciless mocking for any girl who was seen wearing pink. It was considered ‘drippy’ and ‘babyish’. It seems that kids back then were less interested in Princesses, and more interested in filling their pockets with interesting snails (they made a great noise if they got into the washing machine). There were pink and pastel blue toys, but only really for the pre-school age group. So how did we get from there to here? How new is this idea, and is there anything that can/should be done about it?


Interestingly, the idea that pink is a feminine colour, and blue a masculine one, only stems from the early 20th Century. In fact, an editorial from an American society magazine from 1918 states:


“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”


It seems the whole matter was cleared up in America. Two rival shops sold kids clothes in opposite colours and the winner was decided on sales. Before this time boys and girls were largely dressed identically, including the same hairstyles (look on google – it’s hilarious). So we have the origin, for clothes at least.


The whole idea seems to have been a slow burner toy-wise. It only appears to be in the last ten or fifteen years that the division has become ubiquitous. Recently there has been a small (and misguided) attempt at a fight-back. Toys that encourage building your own things (Lego, Chemistry sets, electronics kits etc.) have been brought out in a special ‘girl edition’ pink variety. Why? Who would do that? Surely small plastic linking blocks should be the colour of the thing you make out of them, or even better a complete mix of all the colours from a Lego set, just because they fit? There has even recently been released a set of toys from a company called ‘Goldiblox’, to encourage girls into engineering and science. Guess what colours dominate…you guessed it – pinks and pastels!


The problem here isn’t that you need to make special pink toys to get girls interested in Construction and engineering – from my experience they’re interested anyway. It’s more a problem of adults being marketed to in such a way that they see it as somehow wrong for girls to play with toys that aren’t pink and can be encouraged to buy things twice.. Think about it. Have you ever met a kid who wasn’t at their happiest covered in unidentifiable filth and doing something downright fiendish with their toys? Kids will naturally play with anything they’re given, and usually not in the way that was intended (how often is the box something comes in given more attention than the gift inside?). Children are curious about the world around them. Hence all the poking of things with sticks, the licking of interesting paint, and the seeing how many of the things in the kitchen can be mixed up in a bowl before they get caught. There could be an argument that says kids don’t need to be encouraged into science and engineering; all they need is for grown-ups not to get in the way.


This week’s blog was written by Matt, Training Manager at Constructing Equality Ltd and former teacher.

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