GREEN, Ohio — Maybe you noticed that some Target stores have signs in the toy department for “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets.” Perhaps, like Abi Bechtel, you questioned the need for the distinction. The Ohio mother tweeted a picture of the signs in a Green, Ohio, store with the caption, “Don’t do this, Target.” She found that many people agreed marketing toys by gender is “regressive and harmful.” The picture was retweeted more than 2,000 times and prompted dozens of supportive responses.
But toymakers and distributors like Target say consumer demand is the reason for the labeling, reviving the old chicken and egg argument about who’s to blame for gendered toys — toymakers or consumers.
Stores organize products and market them based on consumer feedback, said toy trends specialist Adrienne Appell.
“They’re categorized in a way that’s easier for the general population to find,” said Appell, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, a trade group that represents toymakers.
Appell pointed to the success of building sets geared toward girls — like GoldieBlox, Roominate and Lego Friends — as signs that the approach could make girls more likely to play with toys they previously hadn’t shown interest in.
Target provided a similar rationale for the signs. In a recent test, when gender references were removed from the stores’ toy aisles, research showed that “guests preferred having a variety of indicators that can help inform and guide their shopping trip,” spokeswoman Molly Snyder said.
“We know families are tight on time and looking for inspiration. Therefore, we continually explore how to organize our stores and website in ways that will be convenient, appealing and helpful to our guests,” Snyder said in an email. “Additionally, on Target.com, when guests shop for toys, they most often begin their search by sorting toys by brand, age and gender.”
Bechtel’s not buying it. Using the signs “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets” sends a message that girls are a sub-market, she said.
“It stood out to me as a good example of the way our culture tends to view boys and men as the default, normal option and girls and women as the specialized exception,” she said.
“I hope that Target and other retailers will pay attention to this conversation and consider removing gender from the way they market their toys. I think that the overwhelming response to my tweet is a good indication that there are a lot of consumers who would welcome that change.”
Psychologists agree that putting “boy” and “girl” labels on toys sends the message that something is intended for one group and not the other.
“Toymakers say that the research shows girls want to play with gendered toys. But that’s because that’s all girls know,” said Carrie Goldman, author of “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.”
“It’s about framing. If you frame their world in a certain way and then ask them what they like, they tell you what they know,” she said. “They’re drawing on research from kids who have been inundated with the message from start. They don’t have a good control group.”
What would help? Toys with no labels indicating they’re geared for one gender or another, she said. That, and toys that give girls and boys equal play in the marketing materials and in the sets.
She pointed to the short-lived success of Lego’s set featuring female scientists, which sold out within days.
Lego has not announced plans to produce more of them.