Monday, December 16, 2013

Against sexist conditioning: "Let Toys Be Toys"

Guest Blogpost by Tessa Trabue, Let Toys Be Toys Campaigner

"A Long History...

Among the texts denounced and attitudes demolished by Mary Wollstonecraft (“Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity”, ch.5 of VRW*), is this from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quoted on p.178 of the Penguin Classic edition: “Boys love sports of noise and activity; to beat the drum, to whip the top, and to drag about their little carts: girls, on the other hand, are fonder of things of show and ornament, such as mirrors, trinkets, and dolls: the doll is the peculiar amusement of the females; from whence we see their taste plainly adapted to their destination...” (Emile, 1762).

Mary, by contrast, contended that “a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp.” She was clear about the tendency of Rousseau’s ideas: “To render [the person of a young woman] weak, and what some may call beautiful, the understanding is neglected, and girls forced to sit still, play with dolls, and listen to foolish conversations; - the effect of habit is insisted upon as an undoubted indication of nature.” (p.179 in same).

 * Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, edited with an Introduction by Miriam Brody, Penguin Classics (1985) 1992."

It is over 250 years since Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote those words, over 220 since Mary Wollstonecraft’s riposte, and yet sadly, when we look at the way that toys are currently being marketed to children, it is apparent that many of these gender stereotypes are just as persistent today in the UK.

British women have fought for and made many gains over the last two centuries, including the right to vote, access to equal education, and in the workplace, the freedom to apply for all kinds of jobs (although the pay gap remains an ongoing issue). However, when we see the way that many toys are being manufactured and sold to children throughout the UK today, one might be forgiven for thinking that we were living in much more restrictive times. Toys that develop creative, caring, and indeed home-making skills, such as dolls, buggies, irons, play houses and kitchens, are often manufactured in pink and described as being for girls, whereas action, construction, vehicles and science toys (and sometimes even traditional games and puzzles) are marketed to boys. (Sometimes shops only have a sign for 'girls' toys; the inference we could take from this is that everything else is for boys).

This trend towards separate, gendered toys is very worrying. Don't boys grow up to become dads, teachers, nurses, chefs and hairdressers?   Don't girls become scientists, architects, pilots, and drivers? Children learn through play; how will they be able to access unlimited creative play, the fun role playing that might also help inform their future career choices, when so many types of toys are being cut off from them purely because of their gender?

Fortunately, there is a campaign that is addressing these very issues. Let Toys Be Toys is a social media campaign that formed a year ago off a Mumsnet discussion thread, made up of frustrated parents who were tired of seeing their children being sold these restrictive stereotypes, and decided to do something about it. The group uses a combination of tactics to contact UK and Irish retailers and ask them to remove ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ signs from their toy displays, including Facebook posts, tweets, meeting with the retailers themselves and old-fashioned letter writing.

The campaign has had huge success over the last year in getting 12 major retailers to agree to take down the gendered toy signs in their toy departments and let children decide for themselves what they would like to play with.
One of the group's first successes was Boots.  In April 2013, a shopper tweeted a picture of an in-store display showing a 'Boys' sign over their display of toys from the Science Museum. The picture was retweeted many times, causing outrage, and was picked up by the campaign, who contacted both Boots and the Science Museum. Eventually Boots replied and was very apologetic in their response, stating that they had "...always been proud of supporting women in science and in particular in their careers in pharmacy... It was never our intention to stereotype certain toys. It's clear we have got this signage wrong, and we're taking immediate steps to remove it from store." 

In the following month, members of the campaign met with senior management from the Entertainer toy store. This retailer had been criticised for having some of the most blatant gender segregating signage, with their stores being divided in half with huge pink ‘Girls’ and blue ‘Boys’ signs (often accompanied with a photograph of girl or a boy on the sign), and in some outlets this gender divide was further emphasised on the floor, with pink/blue carpet reinforcing the separation. The campaign received many pictures from supporters highlighting the ridiculousness of dividing the toys by gender; for example, in some Entertainer stores, all games, puzzles, science toys, costumes (including princess dresses), musical instruments and bath toys were under large ‘Boys’ signs, while all Teletubbies toys, arts and crafts items including crayons and modelling clay, and soft toys were under ‘Girls’ signs. (Some examples of the old signage can be see in the photos here). The senior management was very receptive to the campaigners’ and supporters' feedback. They agreed to get rid of the gendered signs, and are introducing new signs in their stores, with categories such as ‘Arts and Crafts’, ‘Construction Toys’, ‘Games and Puzzles’, and ‘Imagine and Play’, sometimes accompanied with photos depicting a boy and girl together.

Let Toy Be Toys’ successes have continued throughout the rest of 2013, with other major retailers such Toys R Us, and most recently, Debenhams, agreeing to phase out the gendered signs from their stores and replace with signs based on age or theme. The campaign also won the Progressive Preschool Marketing Award 2013 for their impact on sexism in the toy industry.

In addition to publicising and calling for change in problematic stores, Let Toys Be Toys also wants to promote shops and online retailers who are selling toys, books and sports equipment in a gender inclusive way. The campaign launched its ‘Toymark’ scheme in October, which awards retailers displaying good practice and labelling items by age or theme with the Toymark badge, and promotes these retailers on the Let Toys Be Toys website and on social media. So far, only a handful of retailers have achieved Toymark status and received this award, including Letterbox Library for their fantastic selection of inclusive books for children (see here for their news for the upcoming The Little Rebels Children's Book Award for Radical Fiction).

So what is next for the campaign?  The group has received feedback from retailers that, even when they take down the gendered signs and arrange toys by type, they will still appear to have displayed their toys in a gendered way, and that the problem is down to manufacturers packaging. In other words, a retailer can stock toys by ‘theme’, and place all of the dolls together, and all of the vehicles together; but if those toys are packaged respectively in wholly pink and blue packaging, it will look like a gendered display. Let Toys Be Toys plans to start approaching manufacturers to discuss the possibility of using wide range of different colours for toys packaging, so as not to put off children who have internalised that 'pink is for girls, blue is for boys.'

The campaign relies on help from its large numbers of supporters, and there are many ways to get involved. You can become a 'mystery shopper' by taking pictures of sexist toys displays and tweeting them both to the @LetToysBeToys and the retailer's twitter addresses. This often brings rapid results (using the #NotBuyingIt hashtag often produces a quick response as well). Similarly, posting pictures of displays or toys to the Let Toys Be Toys Facebook page ( is a good way both to publicise the issue and generate more in-depth conversation about it. For those who wish to remain anonymous or do not use social media, you can email pictures or general concerns to the campaigners at

Let Toys Be Toys receives no funding apart from donations from our supporters,  and is run by volunteers in their spare time. Contributions are gratefully received - no amount too small!  If you would like to help by giving a small donation, say the price of a cup of coffee, please see our Donate page for more details:

Finally, if you are interested in getting involved as a volunteer, please email us at

Campaigners against gender stereotyping in childhood:
Tessa with street-art portrait of Mary W., N E London 2013


  1. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign is launching a new petition for World Book Day, asking publishers to stop labelling activity books or story collections as for boys or for girls:
    See press release here:

  2. A new article by Tessa about the campaign can be found at: