Princess dresses for boys? Toy industry enters gender-neutral debate

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |
Christian Examiner

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Boys and girls naturally gravitate to gender-specific toys, despite what supporters of the gender-neutral movement claim, says a Focus on the Family expert who has written extensively on the issue.

The Christian Examiner asked Glenn T. Stanton, director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family, to react to a feature story in The New York Times that mostly sided with the gender-neutral toy movement.

The newspaper recounted how Target, Disney Store and have swept away gender-specific toy sections.

Stanton has written a series of books on the gender issue, including "Secure Daughters, Confident Sons."

"Boys and girls are indeed different, and they play with the toys they find themselves interested in," Stanton, who also serves as a research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family in Ottawa, told CE. "The parents of the 60s and 70s tried to raise kids with gender-neutral values, but they found that their girls snuggled their firetrucks and actually 'put them to bed.' The boys used their mops and vacuum cleaners as swords and guns. These parents learned there is a natural boy and girl nature."

Under the headline "Sweeping Away Gender-Specific Toys and Labels," The Times story told about a 3-year-old girl in Wisconsin who wants to dress as Captain America for Halloween and a 3-year-old boy from Virginia who wants to don an Elsa costume and dress as the character from the movie "Frozen."

Those children may be the exception to the rule, but the toy industry is still making big changes.

"The gender barriers are breaking down, and both manufacturers and retailers are not labeling toys like they used to," Jim Silver, the editor in chief of the toy review website TTPM, told The Times. "The industry's learned that you shouldn't be labeling for a specific gender. There are so many girls who want to be Iron Man and Captain America, and boys who want to play with Easy-Bake."

Target said in August that it would no longer label its toy aisles specifically for boys and girls, and Disney Store stopped labeling its Halloween costumes for specific genders. Disney Stores also now use generic tags on things like lunchboxes and backpacks, said The Times, which noted that and Toys "R" Us no longer divide their toys into boys and girls sections.

"The shift is part of a wider movement in retail to blur gender lines, as society moves beyond stereotypes, and celebrities as varied as Caitlyn Jenner and Jaden Smith put a spotlight on an array of gender identities," the story read.

Although changes at Target and elsewhere have been criticized by Christian and conservative parents, other changes mentioned in The Times story likely would get cheers. For example, LEGO made changes to its "Friends" line – designed to appeal to girls – following a petition from a group calling itself the SPARK Movement. Among the group's goals: "end the sexualization of girls" within the toy industry. LEGO responded by "adding play sets that included an inventor's studio and veterinarian's office," the newspaper said. Manufacturers also are adding girl superheroes toys, based on two new franchises: DC Super Hero Girls and CBS' "Supergirl."

Even many Christian and conservative parents likely will buy toys related to female superheroes. Still, those same parents firmly believe there are natural differences between boys and girls – a notion that even Mattel's research has affirmed.

Tania Missad, Mattel's director of global consumer insights, told The Times that when boys and girls play with superhero action figures, they play very differently.

"For boys it's very much about telling a story of the good guy killing the villain," Missad said. "There's a winner and a loser. Girls wanted the action and the battle, but would tell us: 'Why does the good girl have to kill the villain? Can't they be friends in the end?'"

That shouldn't surprise Christian parents, Stanton said.

"Christian parents must know and remember that the real sex difference is a deep part of our theology and creation," he said. "God created the creatures that would show forth His image in the world are intentionally gender distinct: male and female. Parents must know that nature and human nature will take care of this silly theory. It is proven wrong by experience."