Suzanne Tobias

Boys and girls should play with toys that interest them

Target announced recently that it no longer will separate toys, bedding, home decor or entertainment products into sections based on gender.

No more “girls’ building sets” signs pointing customers to the pink K’nex. No more pink or glittery backdrops denoting princess dolls. Care Bears will cavort freely with superheroes, and Barbies with action figures.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that hyper-genderized versions of toys no longer exist.

But the retailer’s decision that “in some departments … suggesting products by gender is unnecessary” has sparked conversation and advanced a cause that deserves advancing.

Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them.

This could be the feminist “Free To Be You and Me” album from my childhood talking, but I’ve always thought it was ridiculous to have “girly” versions of basic toys, such as puzzles or building blocks, or to discourage boys from playing with dolls or kitchen sets.

Nevertheless, I more than once have fallen victim to gender marketing.

Around the time my daughter, Hannah, turned 1, she got a Little Tikes cruising toy. One version of the toy, I noticed, was bright blue, red and yellow and labeled “Push-and-Ride Racer.” Another version, designed exactly the same but colored pink, blue and white, was the “Push-and-Ride Doll Walker.”

She got the doll walker. Hannah quickly propped a white stuffed-animal bunny into the seat and pushed that thing around the house, outside, up and down the driveway and sidewalk. We called it Bunny Bike.

A few years later, when our son was ready for a toy to ride and push around, my husband and I shamelessly retrieved Bunny Bike from the basement, introduced it to Jack, and off he went, stuffed bunny and all. We briefly wondered whether we should replace the toy with its more masculine version, but we didn’t, thank goodness. Jack never cared, and neither did we.

A few years after that, when Hannah was ready for a bike with training wheels, we bought a bright pink one with white wheels and tassels on the handlebars.

What were we thinking? Not about hand-me-down possibilities, obviously, because while Hannah loved the bike, her brother soundly rejected it as “too girly.” When he was ready to ride, we drove to the store and opted for one in blue, silver and black and labeled “Major Damage.”

Unwittingly, if not unknowingly, we had played right into the toy industry’s hands. By producing and marketing different versions of the same product, companies that make toys or countless other things – soap, razors, shampoo, school supplies, you name it – dramatically increase potential sales.

Back in 2011, a YouTube video of a little girl named Riley went viral, likely because she said what so many of us were thinking:

“Why do all the girls have to buy princesses?” Riley says, standing in a toy store aisle stacked with pink-packaged baby dolls and princess clothes. “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses!

“The companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy, right?”

She’s wise, this one.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.