Written by Sam Wonfor


Toying With Us

With the Christmas shopping frenzy about to go into overdrive, Sam Wonfor asks what, if anything, is behind our kids’ choice of toys.

Fred and Georgie.

So, it’s Black Friday folks, the day when the Christmas shopping effort cranks up a notch or 10 and parents whose children insist all they want from Santa is “to dance forever” begin to panic, while quietly researching a safe Red Bull dosage for the under fives.

Traditionally an American thing related to Thanksgiving being out of the way, in recent years the concept of a revved-up shopping day to kick off the season of fiscal cheer and goodwill to all balance sheets has been seized upon by international online and high street retailers, such as Amazon, Apple and Asda (shops with other starting letters are also available). And countries across the world seem to have fallen for it.

Thankfully (I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but I still know how to be grateful) and, perhaps surprisingly, the trend has come complete with its original name. Such has been the trend for using gender to streamline and subdivide the shopping process I wouldn’t have been surprised if ‘Black Friday’ had emerged as a marketing campaign of two halves: Pink Wednesday and Blue Monday, the latter coming complete with a nailed-on soundtrack obviously.

I’m a mother of two, commonly categorised under the ‘one of each’ heading, with a seven-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter.
This year, Fred has sidestepped his signature ‘surprise me’ gambit and is asking Santa for a green cycling helmet, a magic set and anything to do with the Minecraft computer game. (I am hoping against hope that at some point between now and the last available shopping day, someone can explain this phenomenon to me.)

Georgie, on the other hand is telling anyone who will listen about her list for Father Christmas: The Octopod, Shellington, a bicycle, a teddy bear and a doll.

Of course, it will actually be her mute doppelgänger who gets in front of the big fella next week. So, she will probably end up with a fluffy toy, like she has for the past two years. She nearly got away with a make your own car kit in 2013, until the helpful elf ran out of the grotto with a replacement after Santa realised his “mistake”. But, back to her list.

The Octopod is the HQ of the Octonauts, a team of underwater adventurers who can be found on CBeebies most days and who are to be filed squarely in the top drawer; Shellington is the one character she is missing from her Octonauts bath set. The bicycle request has been prompted by Fred’s recently successful two-wheel training programme and she’s asking for a doll and a teddy because that’s what the checkout lady at Morrisons told her she should ask for, in October.

(It should be pointed out here that after a summer trip to EuroDisney, Georgie is a full paid-up member of the Frozen devotee massive, while Fred remains in love with his Monsters University slippers, just in case you were under the impression my kids weren’t plugged into the zeitgeist.)

All in all, a pretty balanced Santa lists, I thought. Maybe that’s because they rarely get to go to toy shops – I have three jobs, OK?

As parents of toy-age children will have undoubtedly noticed over the past 20 years, toy shops, toy departments and toy aisles up and down the country have increasingly been embracing a marketing mistruth dictating that all toys, like French nouns, must have a gender and can only appeal to either boys or girls.

Whether the retailers used actual signs, segregation, colour-coding or packaging to distinguish between the sexes, most of them were all doing it, and doing it more or less unchecked until relatively recently.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign started in 2012 on the back of a forum post on Mumsnet by an angry mum who had simply had enough of being told science kits and Lego weren’t something she should be buying for her little girl. They have targeted retailers directly, but constructively, asking them to categorise and display toys by theme rather than gender (aka using logic). They’re not about banning anything, they just want kids to have a level playing field, where they can feel comfortable playing whatever they fancy.

Founding member, Tricia Lowther says: “If you look at the history of toy marketing, back in the 70s and 80s toys seemed to be aimed at children more, rather than at girls or boys.

“In the 90s, something happened. I think Disney Princesses had a lot to do with it. There was a pink explosion and all of a sudden you started seeing everything being pink for girls. Although the pushchairs and prams in the 70s catalogues may have been aimed at girls, by the 90s, they were pretty much all pink.”

The campaign has already brought about significant changes in approaches to selling toys – the number of stores using Boys and Girls signage has reduced by 60% – as well as attracting boatloads of media and public attention.

Argos catalogue pages from the 1970s, left, and today.

Let Toys Be Toys’ next targets are the toy manufacturers themselves, the ones responsible for packaging and marketing the toys with relentless calculation and precision – I can’t help thinking if Hasbro had been leading on the recent Rosetta mission the probe would have landed flawlessly and would currently be catching some rays.

I do wonder if at any point the campaign will tackle Mums and Dads, though, as ultimately it’s our responsibility to make sure the Freds and Georgies of the pint-sized world are fully aware and confident they can be whatever they want. (As long as they don’t want to get into any incarnation of car racing; have no part of motorbikes; don’t want to join the armed forces; never fancy a crack at extreme sports, or lion-taming, or boxing. I could go on for longer than any of us have to spare).

As parents of toy-age children will have undoubtedly noticed over the past 20 years, toy shops, toy departments and toy aisles up and down the country have increasingly been embracing a marketing mistruth dictating that all toys, like French nouns, must have a gender and can only appeal to either boys or girls.

The way I learned I could do whatever I wanted was by seeing my mum and dad doing it. No amount of pink Hoovers in an Argos catalogue could have swayed me.

And I have a feeling our determined twosome – who both have vacuum cleaners – will be the same. Georgie has, of course, inherited loads of Fred’s toys, which has helped balance out three years’ worth of predominantly pink birthday and Christmas presents.

Her wardrobe has followed a similar pattern. Every Frozen T-shirt has a Star Wars counterpart. Every pair of Peppa Pig tights has a pair of Fireman Sam socks to compete with.

None of which is to say either of them have sidestepped every stereotype. Fred is becoming increasingly averse to “girls stuff” (and girls in general) and Georgie asked me to stop calling her ‘my buddy girl’ this week. Apparently “only boys are buddies and I am a princess”. For clarity, there is no question of royal blood in her lineage.

I’ve called her my buddy girl since I first saw her little chops on that scan screen. So what has made her suddenly hear this as something that should only be said to boys?

I know they’re both going to have to deal with metaphorical labels in their lives whether I like it or not, but I do think the Let Toys Be Toys campaigners are on the money – they don’t need to see labels plastered around their favourite toy shops.

All that said, if you’re looking for a candidate for the Mrs Hypocrite 2014 contest, look no further. I reckon on at least nine occasions this year (calculated by counting up the been there, done that, invitations which still pepper our fridge), I have bought birthday presents for children I don’t know very well using the age/gender filter on more than one shopping website. And while I know this is only perpetuating the problem, I also know Fred wouldn’t want to rock up to one of his boy mates’ parties with a Barbie and Ken set, just because his mother wanted to make a point. In addition, some of those presents were procured with less than five minutes ‘til party time. I would have taken any shortcut available.

From my own experiences and having talked to friends who have kids of similar age, I know none of us are perfect when it comes to perpetuating the girls vs boys bollocks which gets bandied around. But I also know we’re all doing our best, we’re all up to our necks and we would all appreciate it if every trip to a toy shop didn’t have to result in a post show discussion, which wouldn’t be out of place at an equal opportunities seminar.

The Let Toys Be Toys Campaign started in November 2012.“There were lots of parents talking about how sick they were of walking into toys shops and seeing a big blue shelf of science toys for boys and a big pink shelf of pink dolls and fairy wings for girls,” says founding member, Tricia Lowther, who has a seven-year-old daughter and lives in Durham.


“It just seemed so regressive, with children getting these messages about what was for them and what wasn’t for them. Our approach is just let children play with whatever they want. We’re not about banning anything.

“We want shops to organise by theme – just to do things logically, rather than by gender.”

Let Toys Be Toys has developed resources for primary schools and spawned the Let Books Be Books sister (or brother) campaign, which is asking publishers to take the boys and girls labels off books and allow children to feel happy and comfortable picking up the books which interest them.

In the run-up to Christmas, the campaign is promoting retailers which have been awarded the LTBT Toy for marketing in an inclusive way.

“One of the common criticisms of the campaign is that it’s not important, but I think it’s so important,” says Tricia. “Play shapes so much. It’s the most important thing for children when they are forming their beliefs and values… and they’re learning that boys and girls are really different, when they’re not really different at all.”


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Written by Sam Wonfor

Journalist and mother-of-two who gets lightbulb invention moments while breastfeeding. Well, she had one. Loves dogs and the thought of exercise. Currently receiving treatment for a deep addiction to Malteaster [email protected]