California Mandates Gender Neutral Toy Departments. Here’s What I Think.


This bill would require a retail department store that is physically located in California that has a total of 500 or more employees … to maintain a gender neutral section or area, to be labeled at the discretion of the retailer…. Beginning on January 1, 2024, the bill would make a retail department store that fails to comply with these provisions liable for a civil penalty not to exceed $250 for a first violation or $500 for a subsequent violation, as provided.

Assembly bill 1084, Passed October 9, 2021

No matter how you feel about state mandates on private-sector decision-making or questions of gender, a bill mandating gender-neutral toy department is now the law of the land in the state of California. That is important to all of us because the California economy is so big that if it were a country it would be the world’s fifth biggest. As a result, toy makes and retailers will have to follow California’s lead.

Therefore, unless the Supreme Court overturns it, the new law will have a significant impact on the toy industry, no matter what the state. The law will affect not just signage but how and where merchandise is displayed on the shelf. It will force designers to think about which colors to use and copywriters to carefully consider their word choices.

The toy industry is unusual in that, through merchandising, departmentalizing, and packaging, we effectively tell 50% of the child population that they should not play with a particular kind of toy; that certain toys are off-limits for boys and the same for girls. How much business does our industry lose every day by creating gender enclaves on the toy aisle?

This law is a challenge and an opportunity for the toy industry. The challenge is that no one has, at least to my knowledge, defined what a genuinely gender-neutral toy department looks like. In fact, though we are conscious of what is not gender-neutral, I am not sure we have a concept of what is. So, before we create gender blind toy departments, we need to figure out what they will look like.

The opportunity is that in figuring out answers to these questions, we will be contemplating how we consciously and, more importantly, unconsciously market and merchandise through gender.

If done correctly, a toy department designed for girls and boys to free range wherever they wish is a toy department that will sell more merchandise. And that is a good thing.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

5 thoughts

  1. I’ll grant them their intentions are good. However, this law is destined to fail, if challenged, because it’s vague. What is “gender neutral.” How is that defined? What are the criteria for determining that? How are they applied consistently, and how CAN they be?

    Right now, many toy departments are organized by category–dolls, vehicles, arts & crafts.Isn’t that by it’s nature “gender neutral?” What the law asks retailers to do is determine consumer perceptions and organize to that. The challenge is that those perceptions evolve and reflect the current culture.

    Case in point: it’s a long time since 1913 when the first Erector® Set book began with “Hey, Boys!”

    The onus will likely be on manufacturers for how they promote toys. For instance, showing pictures of both boys and girls on packages. Many companies are already doing that. Or, perhaps have no lifestyle pictures on a package?

    Does this mean you can’t have a pink version of a toy and a blue version? By what metric, other than cultural bias, do we associate a color with gender? It’s a slippery slope, and I think it’s close to impossible to codify. If you can’t codify it, you can’t enforce it. (As Feste says in “Twelfth Night,” “If this simple syllogism will serve, so. If not, what remedy?”

    The issue of gender is an adult one that is far beyond the cognitive abilities of much of the target audience. Their ideas of gender are formed more by their home or cultural environments than by a toy package or a toy department. What we have seen in the culture is a willingness to give boys a Barbie doll and girls a Tonka truck without judgment. That’s not a retail evolution; that’s a consumer evolution.

    Every toy company I have spoken to is both aware of and attentive to gender issues–because these are important to many of their consumers. On the other hand, neither they nor retailers can have any influence over the preferences of an individual child.

    1. I agree with Christopher. I can’t imagine how this is going to be enforced, and what exactly is a “section or area”? An aisle? One shelf? Can a retailer provide a single endcap and be compliant, or do they need to have 1/3 of their toy section be gender neutral? Such mandates require some sort of policing, so who is going to do that? Is there a retail compliance force that will be dispatched only to enforce “gender neutrality” for toys? Will this lead to other “gender neutral” mandates, such as children’s (or adult) clothing? Personal care products? As Christopher said, toy companies are well aware of gender issues, and most provide lots of options for kids. No longer do we se signs that say “Girls Toys” or “Boys Toys”. Kids will pick the playthings that they like, regardless of gender labeling. Nowadays, parents are much more open to providing their own children with toys that might not fit their gender. Mandating could LIMIT choices rather than expand them, as toy companies scramble to create more “gender neutral” toys, neglecting traditional toys out of fear of fines or penalties.

  2. I totally support the idea behind this. For too long the industry has engaged in social engineering with regards to what toys are for boys and what toys are for girls.

    The wording of the bill, however, seems less than ideal. First it only applies to retail department stores. The bill doesn’t define such. Lots of toys are sold in other types of stores, why exempt them? Second it uses the vague term “reasonable selection”. Reasonable to whom? Obviously the local district attorney or the state attorney general since they can bring actions.

  3. It makes it much harder for gift-givers who may already feel lost in a toy store. Imagine a 78-year-old widowed grandfather who wants to buy his 9-year-old granddaughter a birthday gift. Other than hearing she grew out of dolls (he learned that lesson last Christmas!) and has no idea what to buy her. His late wife took care of gift-giving. She is a typically “girly” girl and categorizing some toys by sex would give him a little (literal) direction in the store and less anxiety disappointing her. Shopping for toys for children shouldn’t be made harder for gift-givers… especially those still preferring (and still willing!) to walk into a toy store in the first place.

    1. I think this is great! Contrary to a previous comment which states that gendered aisles make it “easier” for gift givers, instead I feel it pigeonholes recipients into getting “girl gifts” or “boy gifts.” Parents, grandparents, and other adults are the ones with the purchasing power, and for far too long these adults have pushed children into what they deem as gender appropriate playthings with little to no concern as to what children really feel drawn to playing with. I hope that this change will open the minds of parents and adults. As for being confused as to what to purchase, many children’s parents have multiple online wishlists to help guide gift givers — or better yet, ask the child what toy they really want and show them their opinion matters.

Leave a Reply