Playing The Gender Game – How Gender Roles in Toys impact Toys & Games

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are few more divisive topics in our industry than that of gender's place in the
toy aisle. Advocates for the removal of gender categorization and gender based
marketing believe vehemently that these structures are destructive to
burgeoning identity. Others, often equally educated and informed, argue that
gender is a cornerstone of identity. One vantage is idealistic, hopeful, but
perhaps unrealistic. The other is too quick in dismissing the value of change
in favor of "today's reality." 
The truth, I think, lies somewhere in between these vantage points,
somewhere between the progress that can be made and the conservation of
traditionalized social constructs. For the sake of debate, I will be writing
from a singular, intriguing, perplexing, and sometimes enraging vantage point:
that of the stalwart who would defend gender as a primary categorizer and
marketing positioner in our toy industry. These views, unless stated, are not
to be taken as my own feelings, but rather an unbiased look at what valid
points are to be had from this side of the gender debate.

those attendees of World Congress of Play, the galling time constraints (our
own fault for not monitoring time) on mine and Anna van Slee's debate are here
removed. I hope Anna will find time to capture her research as well, supporting
the alternative and perhaps more progressive vantage point in this debate.

reduce this debate to singular (though often appealing and persuasive)
anecdotal examples of gender role change relating to children, such as Toys R
Us' steps in the UK to eliminate some gender biased marketing efforts, or
efforts to sell clothing with gender-neutral marketing, should not be included
in this setting. There are always anecdotal examples available on both sides of
an argument. If not, the argument would not exist. For every expert quoted
opinion that prospects are brighter for normally gender-identifying kids, there
is a compelling alternative like Dylan, whose heart-wrenching attempting to
conform to accepted gender types and his family's embrace of his choices is documented
in his mother Cheryl Kilodavis' picture book My Princess Boy. These are all emotional yet anecdotal examples
that tug at our heart strings but lack scientific significance. Abandon easy
oversimplification of the debate and analyse the facts, not the rhetoric.

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briefly summarize a well-reasoned pro-gender roles in toys position: Gender
roles are almost entirely constructed by society but do serve a vital role in
childhood identity development. This position, while not inherently flawed,
seems to often drift into segragated, conservative, sometimes even bigoted
rhetoric. And while this debate is one of rhetorics, all such flawed sentiments
are carefully culled from the below points and have no place in a factual
debate. Also, please acknowledge that the contents of this editorial are
simplified based on many western culture gender trends and do not necessarily
take into account unique ethnic or group reactions to typical gender roles.

I wish to define certain core terms associated with the discussion of gender
roles. These distinctions are key to understanding the gender roles debate,
regardless of position.

  • Nature and nurture, sometimes overwrought
    distinctions defined simply as native or innate and emperical or behavioral.
  • Similarly, sex pertains to the specialized
    varieties of sexual reproductive capability, and gender is the designation of sex-based social constructs.
  • Real implies the
    realm of innate, truthful, actual existence and societal constructs are concepts or practices of specific groups
    that are often held as "true."
  • Truth is the
    fidelity to actual fact and rhetorics
    are persuasions represented as fact or truth.

support of the gender role proponent position, acknowledge that unlike sex,
gender is a largely socially constructed phenomenon. Gender itself is a
relatively new term, popularized in the later third of the last century,
according to David Haig's seminal work, The
Inexorable Rise of Gender and Decline of Sex
. The distinction of gender as
"socially constructed" does not imply a negative or positive motive.
Contingent variables are involved rather than inherent or congruous qualities.
The broadly accepted works included in Kohlberg's Cognitive Development Theory expound that a child's recognition of
his or her gender becomes an important identifier and stabilizer once he or she
is able to recognize genders of those around them. Thus, defiance or deviation
of gender choices often result in emotional stress and developmental
difficulties in social youths. Structure remains a key to healthy social
development, and gender identification and stabilization are an ingredient in
that structure.

According to Didonato and
Berenbaum’s research for The Benefits and
Drawbacks of Gender Typing
, gender typing has its facets, specifically in
instances in which gender typing is incongruous, rather than congruous.
Congruent gender type characteristics relate directly to the individual’s
biological sex. Incongruent gender type characteristics hold different
dimensions apart from the biological. In the toy industry, we possess a
cocktail of congruous and incongruous gender type characteristics, such as pink
and blue (incongruous), spacial-temporal toys at alternate stages of development
(sometimes congruent), and active or aggressive toys (testosterone is at least
modestly linked to aggression). Didonato and Berenbaum document studies in
which androgynous individuals did find some value from flexibility in
gender-specific situations, attitudes, and sex roles. Rigidities remove this
valuable flexibility, but more often than not these structures help a
developing child avoid undue pressures from social groups during the molding of

does that mean deviance from social structured norms should be frowned upon? Of
course not! Gender role criteria are not the bricks of barriers. Gender roles,
like all social constructs, are not static and indeed evolve with societal
changes. Defiance of gender norms, as in instances of intersex identification,
is not wrong or aberrant, except as vilified by society, according to Dr.
Carter Bruce's Cognitive Aspects of
Sex-Role Development
. Much discourse results from societal failure to
evolve gender role constructs.

the finding of patterns including gender types, is a base human process,
according to Alexander Bird and Emma Tobin's Natural Kinds for Stanford University. Conceptual clustering, and
specifically the clustering of like gendered individuals, is innately done by
all humans. The mere ability to cluster is significant to childhood social
development (see Project Cosmology
and other recent efforts).

opponents of the continued use of gender roles to market toys, myself to a
degree included in that number, seek to establish gender roles as solely
constructed by society and thus the product of nurture and not nature. Largely,
they would be correct, but there is reason to believe nature and nurture are
not so easily separated. Some gender role criteria does indeed seem to be based
on scientifically observed and documented biological behaviors (hormones like
testosterone and estrogen). Note 2002 and 2009 studies, reported on by the
Huffington Post, documenting play preferences in male and female monkeys. Male
monkeys tended to chose boys toys like action figures and trucks while female
monkeys picked dolls and dress up products. It is important to understand that
it is the particular play patterns that appealed and not the products
themselves (there is no evidence to suggest color or frilly lace played a
choice factor). Here, scientists believe nature and nurture are blurred;
scientists theorized that behaviors and patterns are biologically entwined,
passed from generation to generation. For instance, male monkeys share the
biologically entwined male hunter role that calls for more aggressive or action
oriented play patterns.

the above factors, maybe we are too quick to abandon gender uniquenesses. The
American "Melting Pot" has robbed our culture of many unique aspects,
including ethnic and religious structures. Some of the differences between boys
and girls are beautiful ones. We recognize the beauty of cultural differences
between Chicago and the Philippines, Buddhists and Jewish, but gender types
might be equally relevant to conserve.

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How do gender roles figure into play?

"Play is a metaphoric sphere
that can conjoin what is otherwise apart and divide what is otherwise together.
In a malleable way these pretended identities [are used] to creative a feeling
of belonging." – Brian Sutton-Smith, The
Ambiguity of Play

Sutton-Smith's assessment is
idealistic and perhaps unrealistic but is to an extent evident all around us in
the cooperative and competitive world we live in. Identity rhetoric can be
positive or negative for society and individual. Play is likely the pivotal and
bellwether conjoiner or divider in the social lives of children.

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What is the impact of gender roles in toys on society?

The supposition opponents of
gender role use in toys prescribe is that gender roles are harmful to kids,
families, and society in general. Admittedly, sometimes, that may be true,
particularly in rarer instances of deviation from society's accepted gender role
characteristics. But there are specific reasons why we as a society created
gender roles and maintain or evolve them. A failure to accept a child's choice
to deviate from an established societal norm is a reaction to be concerned
about. We must be prepared for the very natural, but statistically rarer,
defiance against gender norms. This is just how rhetoric or social construct
changes, no need for alarm.

Anthropological evidence of early
tribe behavior shows cooperative play over competitive, behavioral evidence of
an omnipresent drive for survival and the necessity of cooperation to prolong

What has been found in various
studies since the 1997 publication of The
Ambiguity of Play
, each gender does have unique patterns pertaining to
play, patterns that exist despite our desire to understand nature versus
nurture origins. Patterns that exist despite our efforts to label gender roles
as arbitrary. Gerard Jones’ fantastic book Killing
makes mention of various studies and these documented patterns:

Female play – During early socialization, female play is largely
the play of exclusion. It is important to a girl that she not be excluded by
the larger group and this base urge compels young girls. Girls' early social
play is largely competitive and pertaining to exclusion and inclusion.

Male Play – Many of the earliest and most dominant social play
times for boys are sports. Contrary to popular thought, many theorists
recognize sports are largely cooperative rather than competitive play. Boys
must work with other players to perform group tasks. In young children,
competitive aspects are largely a concern for parents and adults, out of mind
for the children who are playing the sport.

Sex Play – In discussing play, industry leaders frequently forget about
two of the most important play types for humankind – sports and sex. Gender
roles in play are not just factors for children. Sexual play forms and identity
rhetoric encompass traditional sexual roles and even positions. Are
“missionary” or “doggy style” sexual positions inherently submissive on the
part of a female? Only as an aspect of the social constructs around us. This
element is mentioned merely as a probable impact of gender in play on larger
society and ways that childhood identity issues might cause problems in adult

It’s important to recognize that
these distinctions are vital parts of childhood development and adult identity.
Gender is among the many structures imposed upon children during development
and continues to prove valuable.

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How do gender roles affect toy makers and sellers?

Marketing is defined as the
process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers. The
concept of "customer" is a pivotal factor in clustering for
marketing. The underlying essence of customer communication pertains to
positioning. Positioning requires sellers to define their desired and actual
customers in apartness from other groups and customers. That's segmentation or
cognitive clustering and gender is a major and powerful criteria.

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO – as
reported by Reuters and numerous others, Mike Jeffries jarringly announced the
company's policy seeking to exclude overweight customers. Jeffries noted that
his company has no interest in plus size customers and sees this group as apart
from his primary customer base of fit and attractive young people. While he
said it in an explosive and inappropriate way, every marketer positions in a
similar fashion. Like social play, marketing is a game of exclusion and

Gender remains a vital and viable
marketing positioner. Perhaps, given advancement of society and the strong
outcry against gender stereotypes, gender can no longer be the only positioner,
nor the most vital positioner in our toolbox. As an industry, we try to show kids
our target customer as an in-action photo on packaging, excitedly playing
commercials, clumped with similar children in print or digital ads, etc. This
practice has largely dismissed minority customers and further accerbated
plublic outcry for diminished gender roles in toys, but new digital
technologies allow us to position more nimbly and allow every child to imagine
themselves as the target. Quick-learning backend systems implementing
user-centric attributes, user-specific augmented reality packaging, and
buffet-style choose-it-yourself ad campaigns allow a maintenance of gender
roles while actually blurring those boundaries. Removing gender roles from the
toy aisle is akin to removing the customer or the user. If we don't position,
how will be get customers to buy our products?

It should here be noted that
digital-first users are already abandoning many incongruous gender type
criteria. Take a quick look through Apple's iOS App Store and you will
certainly find games designed and marketed to individual genders, but you will
not find overall store categorization by "boy" and "girl"
like you would at brick and mortar retail outlets. In digital gaming, gender is
present as a clustering, but it is not the primary conjoiner or divider.

Despite my personal stance largely
as an opponent to overuse of gender roles in toys, I am not willing to concede
gender as a viable marketing positioner. Consider Marbles The Brain Store, a
small chain of brain game stores that is rapidly expanding (Global Toy News
readers will recognize Marbles as my favorite toy store). Marbles currently
struggles to firm up an audience due to, in part, inauthentic brand
positioning. Marbles' talented staff believe the store chain's primary audience
is adults seeking brain health, but casual customer surveys and store
observation reveals the company's true position as a high quality, educational
game store, one exciting for and aimed at children. I would argue that Marbles
would be in a better position if it recognized its audience and embraced its
market position.

In other instances or venues,
gender roles do become less effective positioners. Black communities in the US
tend to define gender roles differently than Caucasians do, and allow for more
crossover between male and female play roles. Other ethnicities and religious
groups have their own differing reliances on gender roles. Again, I call for
more nimble positioning for differing social groups regarding gender. Modern
digital marketing efforts make this possible in new and exciting ways.

Egaligenderian and the experience economy

Bringing this brief exploration of
gender role proponent vantage point to a close, I wish to reintroduce the
already existent process of evolution for social constructs in the context of
user-centric experience economy.

First introduced in the 1998 book
of the same name by Joseph Pine II and James A. Gilmore, experience economy
explores the next economy to follow agrarian (commodities), industrial (goods)
and service economies. In this model, companies begin to charge for
"experience" and the transformations that such experiences offer.
Obviously, we are already firmly imbedded in the economy of experience, and the
toy industry should take particular note. Here and now, brick and mortar retailers
struggle to distinguish the value added for customers most interested in
immediacy of need and ease of acquisition. How can a traditional toy or game
product, in all it's pre-packaged, unplayable stasis, and static quality appeal
to customers in this experiential model? Obviously, though begrudged by
industry traditionalists for reasons unfashionable (really, we sell Nerf
blasters by way of photos on a rectangular box?), the answer is to reach
customers experientially and to do so on their own terms, in the ways they
prefer, the venues they prefer, and with the products they prefer.

As part of this transition, brand
position is rapidly becoming subservient to user position. In the past, users
came to brands, traveling to malls or department stores to see what their
favorite brands had to offer, or viewing a television commercial that cannot be
escaped without missing a few seconds of their favorite Seinfeld episode.
Today, brands come to users, integrating into users' lives via social media,
concurrently engaged with on smartphones and tablets, and purchasable at any
time with ease and efficiency on Amazon. The age of TV Guide scheduled
22-minute Masters of the universe or Transformers episodes driving toy sales
gives way to user-centric formats like Netflix subscriptions, short form
content on Vine or YouTube, and periodic engagement games like the previously
mentioned Simpsons Tapped Out.

As "me" further
outweighs "brand", it is not unreasonable to expect certain
clustering criteria, including gender, to be important tags to catch targeted
user attention. But we can use modern technology to do this much more nimbly
than previous generations of manufacturers and marketers.

Imagine hyper-targeted ads taking
advantage of gathered user-specific information. Imagine if our ads tailored
completely to the audience reached, removing brand position and embracing user
position. While gender still plays an important role in these advertisements,
each individual user is able to imagine him or herself as the core customer.
Gender role assignment is thus entirely placed in the hands of users. Augmented
reality and other digital enhancements can also bring this thinking to brick
and mortar retail.

Along this line of thinking,
modify gender roles to user-determined (or “me” determined) gender roles,
separating the toy section and incorporating toy product categories into
separate in-store locations. Imagine girls toys stocked alongside girls
clothing and girls sporting goods. Imagine boys toys sectioned with boys
clothing and boys sporting goods. Toys outside of gender categories could be
found in applicable store sections, or better still, duplicated in both
sections to appeal to both gendered customers. Likewise, toys-only retailers
like Toys R Us should discuss the experimentation  of boutique-sized stores specializing exclusively in boys or
girls toys. Here’s the catch, many of similar or identical products could be
distributed via either store type. An Easy Bake Oven is saleable in both
venues, allowing customers to feel that the product is specifically targeted to
them. These tests store formats will determine viability of gender role
positioning in our modern world.

Essentially, user-centric
positioning dissolves artificial barriers between consumers and gender typed toys,
but retains the overall construct of gender as a potential clusterer. Play
patterns like construction, action, and vehicle play can be positioned to both
gender groups, as can nurturing and dress up. While split-gender stores might
provide a bit of valuable positioning, imagine the possibilities of an online
or brick and mortar retailer that merely allows every user to engage with their
store and chose based on quality and totally congruent criteria. This could be
achieved utilizing Google Glass or other wearable tech, augmenting displayed
products visually.

Or, better still, what if we
removed the packaging and let toy quality speak for itself? Nothing could be a
better marketing positioner than high quality playability. Remove the pink or
blue packaging and let a kid play with a toy before he or she determines if it
is for them.

In his roles as Digital Strategy Director of Consumer & Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital, Co-Founder at toy invention studio Otherdoor Entertainment, and ChiTAG committee member, Brian Torney is an innovator in the play industries, kids entertainment, and product/brand initiatives. Refusing to grow up, Brian has been contributing to the play industries since the age of 15, when he worked at a Chicagoland Toys R Us store. Brian spearheads ground-breaking creative and interactive projects for industry-leading entertainment and toy companies including Cartoon Network, Fox, Nickelodeon, Step2, The Marketing Store, McDonald’s, THQ and Hasbro. He specializes in cross-platform brand storytelling. Brian also practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control… These are not the droids you’re looking for.


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