Neutral Territory – The New Kids And Gender
Two years ago as my husband and I prepared to become parents we made the decision not to find out the sex of our baby despite many opportunities to know. We went ahead with baby prep regardless of who might show up in our arms, taking a gender neutral view. We fashioned a room, buying furniture and equipment, we bought clothing and toys for our little one to play with, everything a tiny one could need. Each of these choices presented us with the decision of how to portray this yet-to-be little person. Everything came in pinks for girls and blues for boys. We could also pre-determine via bodysuits (aka Onesie®) if this child was a princess, or a hunk, a diva, or a first round draft pick. The truth is we didn’t want ANY of these labels for our child.
A chorus of voices
It wasn’t just us, in talking with other frustrated parents about the limited and limiting ways that girls and boys were represented in the marketplace, we found allies and others whose concerns resonated with us. Stephanie, mother of two sons, 7 and 4, said “When it all comes down to it, there isn't much for gender neutral clothing at all.“ Karen, mother of a 8 year old son and 6 year old daughter, commented, “For both kids, especially when younger, I would steer more in the direction of neutral clothing, and nothing promoting "flirt" or "tough guy" or anything like that.” “Amazing how we start girls on the path to copious consumption before they're even born. I saw (bodysuits) with "Mommy's shopping buddy" on them,” observed Janna, mother of two daughters, 5 and 3. Angie, mother of a 5 year old son, agrees “I have always preferred gender neutral kids items. The gendered items marketed to parents and kids are often rooted in gender bias and stereotypes, which then continue to perpetuate for public consumption... It angers me these items are made and sold en masse, and reinforce sexist and false stereotypes from infancy through early childhood.” Ashlee, mother of a 20 month old daughter, says, “Boys should be encouraged to take care of dolls and girls should feel trucks and sports are available to them as well. Being a parent as well as a preschool teacher, I feel pretty strongly about fairness and equality among boys and girls."
Bigger than pink
And that is the larger gender neutral issue. A recent campaign by Inspiring the Future, a charity in the UK that brings volunteers from a wide range of careers into school and university settings, points to these concerns with their poignant ad showing elementary age students in a classroom being asked to draw “what a surgeon looks like” and showing the great disparity in equal gender representation.
Scott, father of a 12 year old son and 8 year old daughter, confirms that the core of the problem for him goes beyond what’s sold in stores, “Having gender neutral options serves a wider population of children with more variety. Solving climate change, curing cancer, colonizing Mars will take the greatest leaps of imagination our species has ever encountered. Starting our children out on equal footing guarantees the largest number of applicants will work on those tasks.”Janna takes it a step further “I don't think I'm being too dramatic when I say that how we handle gender neutrality in small children plays a role in the very adult systemic issues we have.”
Change in the aisles
Within the past few years these concerns have been echoed across the nation and are reaching the companies and corporations who design and market to kids and families and it looks like it’s more than just a trend. McDonalds and Hasbro were petitioned by children to change the way their marketing and products were sending gender messages to children. Both companies listened. McDonalds removed the gender labeling on its Happy Meal toys, and now simply offers a choice between two sets of equity based goodies. Hasbro's Easy Bake Oven was formerly only produced in a pink and purple version with girls featured on the box and in ads, but it started manufacturing a metallic gender neutral version with girls and boys featured on the packaging. More recently Target, under pressure from a June 2015 photo tweet, pulled the gender specific aisle signage in their toy section. “I support baby dolls, play kitchens, vacuums, etc. I also support toy trucks, play hardware, Matchbox cars and action figures, “ commented Janna. “What I don't support is these being sold in an aisle called "Girls' Toys" or "Boy toys" or advertised with images of only girls or only boys playing with them. These items are not inherently gendered, but we have made them so.”
Merie, mother to a 9-year-old daughter, said, “She’s choosing t-shirts from both the girls department and the boys department - she likes cute puppies, and also fierce sharks. Like, I suspect, many kids of both genders.” Target went a step further and pulled the gendered signage from their entertainment and bedding sections, which opened up opportunities for their new in-house Pillowfort line of gender neutral bedding and bedroom décor.
A fluid generation
This sea change is likely not just a trend set in motion by Gen Xers, it’s a strong part of the millennial and upcoming Gen Z value system. The idea that genders are not only equal, they’re a part of a spectrum that can be fluid and alter from day to day, is a new way of thinking for many and it’s causing colleges and universities to re-look at the way they set up dormitories and restrooms. Several of the families we surveyed have experienced this fluidity in their own young children. As millennials become parents they are often choosing to create not only gender neutral nurseries, but are also naming their children with more genderless names. In a few years kindergarten classes will have plenty of Rileys, Hunters, Peytons and Reeses. Beyond birth, research says that 50% of Millennials have purposefully purchased gender-neutral toys for their children, and with the huge cross-gender popularity of equities like Minions, Minecraft, Lego and Hunger Games, you can expect entertainment companies to seek the gains in the “for everyone” space as they create more and more any-kid friendly content. But can they deliver the goods?
Equity in equities
DC Comics & Mattel just released its DC SuperHero Girls dolls/action figures to both excitement and dismay. While the figures represent untapped characters and a powerful area for play, the separation from the boys' figure style and line have disappointed many parents and fans. The dolls combine dress-up styling fun via the long hair and changeable clothing of a Barbie-style doll, while relying on a semi-athletic, poseable body design and weaponry to bring the action.
Families and kids are watching: Cora (9), said, “both girls and boys like Legos, Star Wars, and Minecraft but stores seem to think only boys like (them).” She goes on to point out that these properties often “have a “regular” version and a “girls” version,” which she notes, “makes it seem like girls aren’t “regular” people.” Stephanie commented, “The only underwear that he (her 4 year-old) likes to wear is the Frozen underwear in the boys section that has only Olaf on them. I really wish the boy underwear had Elsa and Anna on it. He's not interested in any other character that the boys section has to offer. He also doesn't want to wear just the white or plain colored underwear because it's not fun enough.” Janna concurs, “The kids in daycare love Frozen... ALL the kids do. There are very few Frozen clothing items for boys, and they all have Olaf on them. "Here kid, you get to be the lovable goofball." What if my boy wants to be the hero of that story?”
The immense and unexpected cross-gender popularity of Frozen, and the growing call for more female superheroes (Disney owns Marvel too) may be what prompted Disney stores to remove its gendered signage around costumes in anticipation of the 2015 Halloween season. In fact, several families with little boys we talked to have dressed up as Elsa or Anna for Halloween or otherwise, complete with wigs of luscious long braids. Halloween is seen as a unique time to experiment and play pretend for everyone - but it can still be a difficult road to navigate. Janna stated, “I think boys really have it harder in that respect. My daughters were a Stormtrooper and Green Lantern for Halloween. Nobody batted an eye. It's okay for a girl to pretend to be a boy.” The messaging around gender is still “It's most definitely NOT okay for a boy to pretend to be a girl.” Angie, whose 4 year-old son dressed up as Elsa for Halloween, confirms that idea, “I got multiple comments at a preschool Halloween party from parents who were surprised that a boy would want to be dressed as Elsa and that I would "let" him do that. One of his own classmates, a girl, walked up to him and said "boys don't be Elsa." Stephanie agrees “I have heard through other friends that some people are questioning my parenting and asking why I let my child wear a dress for Halloween or why I allow him to go to Target with his dress on over his "boy" clothes. Or, the proverbial..."What does her husband think?" Some celebs are embracing the gender neutral movement, at least costume wise, as demonstrated when singer Adele just brought her young son to Disneyland wearing an Anna dress.
As far as properties that parents applauded, Lego, Playmobil, Sesame Street, Dr. Seuss, Paw Patrol, Minecraft and Star Wars (despite a huge serious misstep in leaving out Rey, the central character (female), from the new movie’s toy and apparel) stood out as being friendly to both genders. Collaboration between male and female characters is central to the storytelling behind these equities. Scott points out, "This allows for all the characters to play important roles in the stories and resolving conflicts." It also allows for pretend play to include both gender roles equally.
An app-etite for neutrality
App designers are in on the secret too, Toca Boca, a leading kids’ game maker even publishes their own articles on gender neutrality, a core value in their company’s mission and they believe it was key to their success. “It was a very intentional design decision: we don’t make toys for boys, we don’t make toys for girls, we make toys for kids.” The explosion and ceaseless interest in Minecraft is another example of an app/game/property that’s appealing to both boys and girls. Parents like the open nature of the building element in the game (comparisons to Lego abound) and kids enjoy exploring their specific interests and learning from and sharing thousands of YouTube vids and tutorials. Whether they are defeating enemies or making houses and caring for pets, Minecraft is an easy way into basic coding and thus a STEM or STEAM powerhouse when it comes to getting kids, especially more girls, interested in programming, tech and science.
More to come
As retailers, properties and brands widen their scopes and align themselves with a lifestyle, over gender roles, we can expect the same from more and more companies. While there will always be a desire for tutus or trucks from many parents, the gender neutral tide is rising and encroaching territory far beyond the toy aisle. Up and coming generations will help with their naturally open minded values. It’s not simply anti-pink for girls or anti-rough-and-tumble for boys, it’s about offering choices beyond pink and “more than tough." It comes from a well-meaning desire for balance and equity. The idea carries a sense of optimism about the future through the breaking down of old stereotypes, tired gender roles and limited pigeonholes, and the widening lens of possibilities for anyone.
In short: With the increasing popularity of gender neutral properties and open-mindedness being a key value in the next generation, can brands find different places to play with packaging, or work with equities to attract and open up a whole new audience?-----* in this post “gender” refers to gender identity and “sex” refers to biological determination, and the use of “son” & “daughter” represents their biological sex.