Gender & Toys: Why Blue Vs. Pink is Not What You Think

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Gender & Toys: Why Blue Vs. Pink is Not What You Think

by Shaina Salin

Editorial Coordinator

Over the past few decades, there has been much contention in our society about the perpetuation of gender stereotypes through the marketing and manufacturing of children’s toys.  Feminists have promoted gender neutrality in the name of sexual equality, disregarding (and even disdaining) the fact that femininity and masculinity are complementary energies that cannot be equated.  The idea of traditional gender roles—with man as the provider and woman as the primary guardian of the household and children—has become politically incorrect, and toy companies have been criticized for designing gender-specific products that suggest these stereotypes.  While it is true that all human beings should have equal rights and opportunities, it is narrow minded to think that all humans have the same goals and desires. Despite what some feminists may contest, gender roles are not entirely constructions of culture—femininity and masculinity are universal, inherent energies found in different proportions in all people, regardless of biological sex.  The issue is not gendered toys in and of themselves, nor is it the sex or gender of the children that play with them—the problem is our culture’s rejection of the fundamental differences between feminine and masculine energies, and our failure to appreciate the necessary balance of these dynamics.

Ancient Chinese literature has defined the concepts of feminine and masculine as opposite but interdependent forces known as yin and yang.  Yin represents the feminine and is characterized by passivity and receptiveness, while yang represents the masculine and is characterized by pursuit and aggression—together, they form a reciprocal network of energy whose strengths balance out what each would lack alone.  While biological sex does not necessarily determine one’s gender identity, in general men tend to have more masculine, yang characteristics while women tend to have more feminine, yin traits.  In terms of gender roles in society, it makes sense that males would have an inclination to earn the living for the family while females would lean towards providing a nurturing, secure home environment.

The division of labor between men and women has been a foundational part of the evolution of our species.  What defines men’s and women’s work has changed over time and varies from culture to culture, but the most prevalent setup has been the “hunter-gatherer model,” where men go off to hunt large game while women maintain the homestead, caring for the children and foraging for plants.  While this gender role system may trigger feminist angst about male power and female oppression, in truth anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherer societies have been the most equitable in terms of the status of women.  In their article Woman the Provider, a chapter from their book Testament to the Bushmen, ethnographers Laurens Van Der Post and Jane Taylor describe the crucial role that women play in the Kua Bushmen tribe.  Though foraging for roots may not be considered as glamorous as hunting wild game, the women of the tribe provide the most secure and abundant food source, making them crucial members of the tribe.  They are also celebrated for their femininity in ritual rites of passage like the menarche, or the first menstruation, which further demonstrates this culture’s appreciation of womanhood.

Gender roles have become tied to status as societies have become convoluted by politics and economics.  In the article Equality and Inequality: The Sexual Division of Labor and Gender Stratification, from Caroline Brettell and Carolyn Sargent’s book Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective, they note that “the absence of a sharp differentiation between public and private domains and the fact that there is no economic class structure and no well-defined male offices have been cited as explanations for the relative egalitarianism in foraging societies compared to more complex societies.”  In our own complex society, economics and politics have drawn a clear distinction between the domestic and public spheres.  Women have fought hard for the right to participate in public affairs with equal consideration and treatment—which by all means is deserved and has not yet been fully achieved.  In this process, however, the concept of the homemaker has been deemed degrading and oppressive, as women were once preordained to housewifery.  Today, many feminists look down upon women who choose to stay at home and care for their children while their husband makes the living, evoking images of gold diggers and sugar daddies.  On the flipside, so-called “Alpha wives,”—mothers who take on the aggressive provider role while their husbands stay at home with the children—find their families no more content (and perhaps even less so) than if it were the other way around.  In a 2010 Marie Claire article, self-proclaimed alpha wife Judith Newman describes a common tendency for stay-at-home-husbands to feel emasculated while their alpha wives feel overworked and guilt-ridden, coming home from a long day to a second shift of evening housework and limited time with the children before bed.  While this dynamic may very well work for some, in most cases it can lead to tension and dysfunction when a feminine woman and a masculine man live contrary to their energetic dispositions.  Newman cites an article from the National Economic Bureau of Research called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” that states: “The lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years by many objective measures, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.” 
As this study shows, the opportunity to be the breadwinner—an aggressive provider role—has not made women’s lives happier or more fulfilling from their own subjective, feminine standpoint.

Criticism of gender-specific toys and the companies that produce them can be readily found in recent opinion editorials.  In her 2012 New York Times article “Guys and Dolls No More?” anthropologist Elizabeth Sweet likens gender-stereotyped toys to racial discrimination, claiming “every day, people encounter toy stores that are rigidly segregated—not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.”  While the pink vs. blue duality is a cultural construction of gender distinction, and while our society has an admittedly abhorrent obsession with physical appearance, “domesticity” is an inherently feminine (yin) trait, just as “action and aggression” are inherently masculine (yang).  In the recent Rolling Stone article “About a Girl: Coy Mathis’ Fight to Change Gender,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely profiles seven-year-old Coy Mathis in her self-willed transition from male to female—a process which began for Coy at age one and a half.  In the article, Erdely describes how Coy would reject anything relatively masculine, insisting on wearing pink and giving her action-figure Christmas presents straight to her brother.  Regarding Coy’s parents’ reaction to her behavior, Elderly writes “Jeremy agreed with his wife that Coy’s fascination with all things sparkly, ruffly and pink was the harmless play of a toddler whose mind was yet untouched by the social constructs of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’”  Yet as Coy demonstrates, masculine and feminine are not social constructs, but are inherent energies that shape personal identity.

Children will gravitate naturally to certain toys—as Sweet cites in her article: “In a study on parental toy purchases led by the psychologist Donna Fischer-Thompson, researchers who interviewed parents leaving a toy store found that many bought gender-typed toys because their kids had asked for them…”  What exactly is wrong with that?  Why would a parent buy their child a toy they didn’t want?  The important thing is to allow children to experiment and express themselves without shame, and girls especially should not be put down for wanting to explore their femininity.  Regardless of biological sex or gender identity, however, the best toys for children are the ones that stimulate their unique imaginations and inspire their individuality.


  1. Nick
    NickDecember 20,13

    Nice subject to tackle. Seems we’ve been struggling to sort this one out for about the last 3 or 4 million years. In my lifetime, I have seen a significant change in the roles of men and women in the US and the social attitudes toward those roles. Traditionally, little Johnnie was expected to embrace a toy fire truck while Sally was expected to cherish her Barbie. Now, I believe, we have arrived at an enlightened social evolution where Sally is admired when she chooses the fire truck and when Johnnie chooses the Barbie doll, well, he’s probably gay. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) There is, on one hand, the social pressure to conform to the roles defined by the particular society in which one finds oneself and on the other, the actual physical, emotional and intellectual differences between genders which to some degree drive the social mold and to some other degree seek to break it.

    Margret Mead gave fuel to the feminist movement in the sixties with her research into certain tribes in New Guinea where women did the practical work and men just kind of preened themselves in order to hook up with the most productive women. After reading your article, I began wondering if there are other historical examples where women are the hunters and men the gathers. So far, I haven’t found any. Are the stories of Amazon worrier women based in any kind of fact? In her sci-fi novel “The Ruins of Isis” Marion Bradley describes an entire planet where women rule and men are kept as slaves to do the work and to procreate from time to time at these collective mating festivals. (No, not at all like Burning Man.) Any clue to the true nature of gender roles here? Personally, I always favored Xena as my No. 1 female superhero. If she doesn’t exactly exist in history, I believe she exemplifies some realistic, if not socially suppressed, feminine qualities. Come to think of it, I’d much rather have my daughter playing with a Xena doll that a Barbie any day. (Not sure I could say the same about my son.)

    In the context of modern society, I find it kind of a confused mess. As a practical matter we just have to do what works, I guess. For example, take my wife (no, seriously). One of the most accomplished and intelligent people I know, my wife is an outrageously beautiful (curiously, I feel the need to point that out) neuroscientist with two specialized teaching credentials. Yet, from the moment we were married, without question, discussion or debate, she immediately took charge of all things homemaking, including care and feeding of my three, no so loyal cats, who instantly adopted her as chief feline nurturer and began giving me looks like “Oh, you’re still here?” Okay, well, I’m the male in this situation. I don’t have to nurture a pack of mangy cats. I have my superior physical strength and all that testosterone to define who I am right? (Don’t mess with me on the freeway.) Except, the other day I came home to find a massive and amazingly well engineered stone bench weighing at least 500 pounds which my wife had constructed by hand in the garden. A task I don’t think I would have attempted. The cats were still ignoring me and intently eyeing a number of birds enjoying some delicious seeds she had put in the birdfeeder which she had also constructed. I won’t say I exactly felt like I was on the planet Isis but, kind of. Except that whatever kind of feminism this is, I like it.

    I love your thought provoking articles, Shana. Keep ‘em coming.

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