Professor Maria Tam was browsing recently in a Lego shop in Sha Tin, Hong Kong, when a salesperson approached and asked whether she was looking to buy something for a boy or a girl. “I was going ‘well it doesn't really matter’ but she kept telling me: ‘If it’s for a boy, maybe consider these toy cars or this space set.’ Or ‘here we have this line of products for little girls’, and there are these toy animals with very cute big eyes, or toy dolls that go into a house.”
Unfortunately, the salesperson had picked the wrong customer for this particular pitch. Tam, as well as being the mother of two boys, is an associate professor at the Gender Research Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she has been researching and teaching about the effects of gendered perspectives and products on childrens’ development for many years. She believes that children are not born ‘gendered’ but adopt stereotypical characteristics of each gender from a very early age, which can damage their sense of identity as well as contribute to social problems.
She’s not alone in worrying about products being too targeted towards one gender or another: according to a YouGov survey of over 10,000 APAC parents in 2017, 45% believe children’s toys are too gendered.
In Hong Kong, Tam says, there is “a very serious gender divide” in terms of how childrens’ toys and products are understood, created and marketed. “I think we’re very conservative generally in Hong Kong, believing that there is basically a dichotomy of gender, that is believing that there is only males and females. We’re choosing to oppose the reality of cultural and gender diversity.”
The latest Toys "R" Us Hong Kong catalogue is a good example of this. A pink section at the top of the page is where products aimed at girls can be found, with girls modelling the outfits, while below in the blue section are the boys’ products, modelled by little boys.
While some major brands have made efforts to make their marketing materials and store layouts gender-neutral—Ikea does not divide any of its children’s products into ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, for example, and the popular collectibles brand Shopkins, which has a largely female fan base, has made efforts to include boys in its marketing videos—others, including Disney or the Australian toy site Online Toys, still sort products by gender on their websites, with the supposed defining characteristics of each readily apparent.
“Gender-targeted marketing of children's products is very common and obvious,” agrees Dr Ivy Wong, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong, who focuses on gender development in childhood. “The gender-targeted marketing is achieved by many means—physically segregating boys' and girls' merchandise by putting them in different aisles; using explicit gender labels ('Kinder for girls'; 'Kinder for boys'); using different colours; using boy models in ads of boy-typical toys and clothing and girl models in ads of girl-typical toys and clothing. Most of the research has been conducted in the West, but similar gendered messages in marketing and media are quite consistent in Asian, developed societies.”
Gender stereotyping is so evident in advertising, too, that it is rarely remarked on: Lego’s famous ‘Build The Future’ campaign by Ogilvy Bangkok, for example, which won three silver Lions at Cannes 2017, depicts little boys building outfits from Lego that are supposed to represent what they might want to become, the options being traditionally male roles including a fireman and an astronaut.
From the brands’ perspective, the main incentive behind gendering products and marketing is, understandably, the resulting sales. It’s a safe bet that more targeted products will fly off the shelves. When Lego introduced its Friends line in 2012, aimed at girls, with pink and purple colours and extra elements such as the “Butterfly Beauty Shop”, campaigners labelled it “sexist”, and 50,000 people signed a petition calling on the brand to change the marketing. But for Lego, the line was a major success, responsible for boosting profits 35% in six months.
But despite gendered toys’ value to brands’ bank accounts, Professor Tam argues that they play into social processes that can be very damaging to children. When they’re consistently offered choices that only encourage certain behaviours—active, fighting-based games for boys, for example, or toys and games that focus on domesticity and caring activities for girls—children begin to limit themselves to those particular behaviours. “They begin to limit their own interests and talents and whether their particular interests should be developed,” says Tam. “It is interesting because in products up until age of 1 year old, you don’t see the gender divide so clearly. But as children are beginning to grow up, you see the gender differences increasing. So by the time children are 2 or 3 years old, their gender ideology has almost been moulded by people around them."
Electronic games also follow this kind of ideology, according to Tam, who says she throws away any toys given to her sons that promote violence, such as toy knives or guns, and worries about their online gaming. “By the time boys are playing online games, these games tend to reflect the macho development that society begins to carve out for boys, so a lot of fighting, a lot of killing people, aliens, and all sorts of animals in order to create achievement," she says. "It’s like when you want to achieve, you need to be killing other people that come in your way, and I think that’s the way we understand what males and male adults are supposed to be doing in society: you need to be achieving, you need to be successful and you need to come out as someone outstanding and how do you do it? By suppressing other people along the way. Boys are learning a lot of that and they don’t mind doing it with violence.”
Although it’s still nascent in Asia, a backlash movement against the gendering of toys and toy ads is fairly well-established in some countries. One is the ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ project in the UK, which grew from a thread on the parenting forum Mumsnet and, by a letter writing and social media campaign, has succeeded in pushing 15 brands including Tesco and Toys R Us to commit to positive changes.
In Asia-Pacific, one group trying to achieve a similar impact is Play Unlimited, set up by Julie Huberman and Thea Hughes in Australia in 2013. “We were very frustrated with the way we saw toys being divided into “boy” toys and “girl” toys. This didn’t seem to make sense to us, and we felt strongly that kids should be able to play with any toys that they want to,” says Huberman. “We didn’t see anyone speaking up about this in Australia, so we decided we needed to do it and formed Play Unlimited.”
Huberman says that some marketing practices around toys have improved in recent years, with retailers making efforts to arrange Christmas catalogues, for example, by categories other than gender and showing gender-neutral pictures, such as girls playing with cars. “There is still work to be done—still a bit of colour coding (pink for “girl” things, blue for “boy” things) and not many boys shown playing with dolls, etc—but definite progress.”
Huberman estimates that, from what she’s seen, other Asian countries tend to be more traditional than Australia and therefore may be further behind in recognising that more toys should be gender-neutral. Overall, however, she does see more brands taking note both in Australia and overseas. “In general, I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on among companies that are aware of this issue and trying to change things, but mostly at the higher end in terms of price. At the cheaper, more mass-market end, it’s still pretty bad.”
There are other signs that brands are taking notice and trying to broaden the messages children receive about gender through their toys. Mattel, which reported a 15% quarter-on-quarter sales decline last year and falling Barbie sales, recently released a new Facebook campaign for Barbie in India called ‘You Can Be Anything’, meant to inspire young girls to dream beyond limitations. In just over three weeks it has had almost a million hits.
It has also been suggested that as video games start to surpass more traditional toys in popularity among both boys and girls—sales of electronic and video games in Hong Kong, for example, increased by 25% in 2017—they will open up new opportunities to develop more nuanced characterisations.
So as brands start to gear up their ad campaigns for the Christmas toy shopping bonanza, Maria Tam would bid them remember one mantra: “Gender diversity is here, you can’t just ignore it."