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The Toys They Are A-Changin'

Bratislav Milenkovic

Illustration by Bratislav Milenkovic

As society’s views on gender evolve, the business of play tries to keep up.


Jeff Freeland Nelson seems remarkably calm given the month (November) and his vocation (toy maker). He walks through his 10,000-square-foot warehouse in St. Paul, Minnesota, past a makeshift office space and a glassed-in area where water-jet cutters hiss away, carving Y-, O- and X-shaped pieces from recycled wood pulp. The pieces form building kits called Yoxo. Link them together and you might get a robot or a flying horse or a dragon. Nelson launched Yoxo in 2012, and it’s become a hit, winning a number of industry awards for its focus on sustainability and creativity. Select Target and Barnes & Noble stores carry the kits, as do independent toy boutiques around the country.

Despite his success, Nelson is constantly thinking about how to better engage Yoxo’s audience, which is 60 percent boys and 40 percent girls, according to customer feedback. To that end, in early 2015 he debuted a robot kit named “Tera” with a pink and purple color scheme and a photo of a little girl on the packaging. “Tera’s an experiment,” he says. “In the beginning, one of the key attributes of Yoxo was gender neutrality. And then last year, we said, ‘How do we get more girls into construction toys?’ ” Though it’s clear who Tera is being marketed to, who she’s for depends on the kid—a fact her maker is quick to convey. “We don’t put gender labels on our toys,” says Nelson. “It comes down to what the individual child is interested in. If you have a boy who loves pink, get them pink—think about that first.”

Nelson isn’t alone in considering the complex relationship between toys, gender and marketing. As gender roles become less rigid and gender identities more fluid, toy makers and sellers are responding in a variety of ways. Today’s playthings can be decidedly gender neutral—think Seedling’s activity kits or the action figures based on the Nickelodeon cartoon PAW Patrol. Others, such as Tera, seek to feminize historically “masculine” toys. This spring, Mattel will release a line of girl superhero figures based on DC Comics characters. The toy manufacturer reportedly worked with academics and bloggers to make the dolls appear fierce and heroic rather than girly and appearance-obsessed. Lego takes a similar approach with its popular Friends line of girl figurines and themed sets ranging from a vet clinic to an airport to a recording studio. And then there’s GoldieBlox, the Kickstarted outfit whose building kits aim to inspire new generations of female engineers.

“Society has made huge strides in thinking about gender,” says Elaine Blakemore, a developmental psychologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. In the toy industry, she says, it’s the parents pushing for change. “Marketers do what they think will be more lucrative for them, so of course they listen to their buyers.”

Target proved it was listening last summer when it removed “Boy” and “Girl” labels from its toy aisles—a direct response to consumers who feel retailers should organize toys by theme or function rather than the old-school XX/XY binary. “We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our guests,” says Target spokesperson Molly Snyder of the change. Toys“R”Us made a similar switch years ago, and digital retailers such as Amazon have started to ditch gender-based labels from their search filters.

Not surprisingly, for every gender-based tweak made by the $20 billion U.S. toy industry, there are roughly 20 billion different opinions. When Target announced its move, thousands took to the comments board on its corporate site. There was applause (“I support Target 100 percent,” wrote one customer. “We’re not talking about taking away gender. We are talking about reducing gender inequality”). There was rage (“I am not the only one fed up with political correctness,” commented another person). And there were some who thought that Target didn’t go far enough, stating that toys and toy aisles remain heavily gender-specific.

No matter your views, says Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst Stephanie Wissink, there is empirical evidence about gender and play. “Neutral toys fare well in preschool, but they’re a tougher sell in the age where boys and girls are developing differently,” says Wissink. “When you get into true emotional development, there is a difference. That doesn’t mean girls aren’t physical and loud and little boys aren’t quiet and tender, but from a product standpoint [companies] develop with those historic frameworks based on science.”

Psychologist Blakemore acknowledges biology’s influence on toy preferences, but she says additional forces are at play, including advertising, TV, movies and the preferences of adults and other children. “If you want to raise your children in a completely gender-neutral way, you’d have to do so at the top of a mountain,” she says. Which isn’t to imply that gender-neutral toys are without merit. On the contrary, Blakemore’s own research has found that the optimal toys for cognitive and physical development are moderately gendered or gender neutral—things such as musical instruments, Legos, Play-Doh and bicycles.

Wissink predicts that toy companies will continue to be more thoughtful and sensitive about gender, thanks in large part to millennials having kids. “They want to understand a brand’s premise, not just price and quality,” says Wissink of the demographic du jour. “They’re asking thoughtful questions. With Barbie, for example, they’re saying, ‘What is this doll teaching my child about what’s important physically?’ Brands that listen, and cocreate with consumers, will be the ones that outperform.”

Back at Yoxo headquarters, Nelson shows his cards—if only for a moment. “I’m kind of always stressed,” he says. On top of the holiday production surge, Target just called and asked if he could fast-track the shipment of a new Yoxo line before Christmas. Nelson leads us to a table covered in prototypes for the line, a series of robots and dinosaurs. He grabs a blue dinosaur named Crush. “Crush is a blue dinosaur, it’s tough, but she is a she,” says Nelson. “And she kicks a**. That’s interesting, right? What does that say to a boy who gets this present that’s fierce and blue but that’s a girl?” At least, the dinosaur was a she in November. But now, as it turns out, Yoxo reconsidered and she is an it—and so goes the industry.

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